📚 What to Read Next (No. 217): The Power of Language
Happy Friday, readers!
Next week, our family is vacationing in Utah for Spring Break. We’re heading to Capitol Reef National Park; if you have any family-friendly recommendations for hikes or must-see/must-do/must-eats, let me know!
Naturally, I’ve been planning my vacation reading for weeks, knowing full well that I’ll have way less reading time than I think. Regardless, the quality of vacation reading, in a new place and without the stresses of work in the background, is guaranteed to be superb. The carefree nature of vacation reading is what makes it special, not the quantity.
This week, though, I get to share one of my favorite reads so far this year, as well as one that underwhelmed. These titles share a common theme on the power of language, which is something I’ve been interested in for nearly as long as I can remember. I suppose it’s only natural for someone who studied both journalism and religion in college.
Let’s jump in.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
“Creating special language to influence people's behavior and beliefs is so effective in part simply because speech is the first thing we're willing to change about ourselves. and also the last thing we let go.”
If you’ve been reading a while, you know quite well that I’m a sucker for anything in the sub-genre of cults. Memoirs, histories, true crime—I’m here for all of it. Montell’s 2021 book, Cultish, is something totally unique in the space: a smart, light-hearted, often funny dissection of the language cults use to draw people in—and keep them.
Montell, a linguist, perfectly rides the line between eye-opening insight and hilarious commentary on not only infamous cults like Scientology, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and Heaven’s Gate, but also modern pop culture “cults” like SoulCycle, MLMs, and Instagram influencers.
When it comes down to it, Montell convincingly argues, language is what gives cults such power over followers’ beliefs and actions. And what’s the first step to doing so? “Creating an us-versus-them dichotomy.” There is no more powerful tool in the cult leader’s toolbox than separating followers from everyone else.
It happens in politics (obviously), but also more subtly in subcultures like diet fads, fitness classes, online affinity groups of all kinds, and so much more. Distinguishing “cult” from “not-a-cult” isn’t necessarily as easy as it seems.
You’ll never look at Instagram influencers, Barre classes, or even your sports fandom the same way again.
Overall: Cultish is an incredibly fun and insightful book. Highly recommended.
Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown
I’ve always enjoyed Brene Brown well enough, but never been a mega-fan. Her work hasn’t been personally life-changing. I’m well aware of the power of her books, though. So I had high hopes for Atlas of the Heart, particularly because of the captivating premise of furthering our language around emotions (rather than just calling everything trauma or anxiety).
While the content itself is good, I haven’t found the book to be all that readable—which is why I haven’t finished it. yet. The format is more of a textbook/dictionary of definitions and descriptions of various emotions. There’s isn’t much of a narrative to keep the pages turning.
And even the style is a touch jarring—Brown goes from research-heavy, formal descriptions to very casually written anecdotes from her own life. It’s a fine tactic, it just doesn’t work for me in this particular instance.
I certainly appreciate the descriptions of our dozens of emotions—being aware of the sometimes subtle differences between those emotions, and being able to name things more accurately, is a helpful, perhaps critical, life skill.
Ultimately, though, the lack of narrative structure makes it a book I’ll pick up here and there when I have a handful of spare minutes rather than something I’ll go through cover-to-cover in a few sittings.
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