The Books of ‘The White Lotus’: a Sharp Satire of What Rich People Read

The art of the braggy beach book: Malcolm Gladwell, Nietzsche and others become pitch-perfect props on the HBO show.

By guest author Mathew Jacobs from the Wall Street Journal Magazine,

In HBO’s dark comedy The White Lotus, one character doesn’t survive a Hawaiian resort vacation. But while the whodunit unfolds, you might be gripped by something slightly less sinister: what everyone is reading by the pool.

In the show’s third episode, wealthy real estate bro Shane Patton, played by Jake Lacy, lounges poolside with a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He doesn’t actually crack the spine, more interested in two attractive college students—actors Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady, who are reading heady books by Camille Paglia and Frantz Fanon. His incredulous new wife (Alexandra Daddario) watches as Shane wades over to the young women to flirt. Too distracted to settle into her copy of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she heads to the bar for some much-deserved alone time.

The on-the-nose book selections are a deliberate running gag in The White Lotus, says show creator and writer-director Mike White. A well-read Wesleyan grad himself, White wanted his characters’ choice of beach read to say something about who they are—or how they want to be seen. 

Blink just felt like such a normie book,” White says. “It seems like he’s stoking his curiosity, but it hasn’t gone very deep. [Gladwell] is the kind of writer that makes you feel smart while you’re reading it whether you are or aren’t.”

A weekly roundup of fashion, entertainment, design, food, travel, art, architecture and more.

Gladwell, the hugely popular New Yorker writer who has published seven bestselling books, has also drawn criticism for the way he popularizes social science. (A representative for Gladwell declined to comment.)

Lacy says he imagines that Shane had grabbed Blink at JFK airport on his way out of town, seeing it as a “tool” that might someday make him seem impressive at dinner parties. 

“This is a guy who just doesn’t have it in him to plumb any emotional depths or significance of his own behaviour,” Lacy says of his Cornell-hat-wearing character. “He is thinking without thinking a lot of the time.”

Then there’s the intellectualism of snarky sophomores Olivia (Sweeney) and Paula (O’Grady). White says his idea to have them read (or at least skim) multiple heady texts during their weeklong trip came indirectly from James Franco, a cast member in Freaks and Geeks, one of White’s first writing jobs. White remembers Franco, college-aged at the time, would show up to the set carrying various tomes—Charles Baudelaire one day, Albert Camus the next. 

White imagined that Olivia and Paula had sought out, in addition to Freud and Nietzsche, quotable theorists like Paglia, Judith Butler and Fanon, whose anticolonialist analysis The Wretched of the Earth he felt might inform Paula’s Robin Hood mentality. White says he wanted to make sure that these two mean girls were intimidating for more than just their beauty.

Rachel, Shane’s new bride, and her Ferrante are more of a commentary on her character’s arc than on the author she’s chosen. And yet it makes total sense that she would read My Brilliant Friend, the first installment in Ferrante’s delicate four-part coming-of-age series chronicling the lives of two Italian friends. Rachel’s working-class background leaves her suddenly questioning Shane’s relentless sense of entitlement. 

“What would someone who’s starting to wonder whether they are married to the right person be reading that would force them to gestate on whether they are in the right type of relationship?” White says. “I love Elena Ferrante’s books, but they are a little trendy. Rachel is not someone who’s going to be reading some obscure book. It made me feel like she’s a smart reader, but she’s also trendy—and maybe a little behind the trend.”