In HBO’s dark comedy, “The White Lotus,” there is a character who does not survive a vacation in Hawaii. But as the murder mystery unfolds, one can enjoy something much less gloomy: what books each character in the series reads.
In the third episode of the series, the wealthy real estate agent Shane Patton, played by Jake Lacey, lies by the pool with a copy of the book “At First Sight: The Second Fraction in Which We Make Decisions” by Malcolm Gladwell. He does not really read the book, But more interested in two female students who attract him – actresses Sydney Sweeney and Brittany Agridey, who read serious books by Camille Palia and Franz Fanon. The Genius “by Elsa Perante, and goes to the bar to retire.
These exact choices in the books are a joke he wanted throughout the series, says creator and writer Mike White. As a scholar and a book man himself, White wanted the characters’ choices for vacation books to say something about who they are – or how they want to look in front of others.
“‘At First Sight’ just felt like such a routine book,” White says. “It’s like he encourages his curiosity but not too deeply. Gladwell is the kind of writer who makes the reader feel smart, whether he’s smart or not.“
The author, a popular writer for The New Yorker magazine who published seven bestsellers, was criticized for the way he popularized the social sciences (a Gladwell representative declined to comment).
Lacey says he imagines Shane bought a copy of “At First Sight” at JFK Airport on his way to vacation, and sees the book as a “tool” that might one day turn him into someone who knows how to impress at friends’ dinners.
“This is a guy who just doesn’t have the ability to get to any emotional depth or meaning of his own behavior,” Lacey says of the character he plays. “He thinks without really thinking all the time.”
Then there is the intellectualism of the uplifted female students Olivia (Sweeney) and Paula (Ogrady). White says the idea that they would read (or at least flip through) all sorts of serious books on a week.long trip came indirectly from James Franco, who starred in “Thrown and Yoram,” one of the first series White wrote. White recalled that Franco, who was then a college student, would come to the set each time with some other masterpiece under his arm – one day Charles Baudelaire and another day Albert Camus.
White says he imagined that Olivia and Paula were looking for, apart from Freud and Nietzsche, theorists who could be impressed by their quotes like Palia, Judith Butler and Fanon, whose anti.colonial book “Cursed on Earth” might explain the mentality reminiscent of Paula’s Robin Hood. He wanted to make sure these two bad girls looked threatening, White said, not just because of their beauty.
“They’re the kind of young women I’ve met who have mastery of all the newest jargon and are able to reduce everything to a cultural stereotype in a funny and cutting way – and then you add an intellectual approach to that, too,” White says. “For me, this is the most threatening type of girl.”
Nietzsche by the pool
Nietzsche in particular serves as a symbol of celebrity in popular culture, including appearances by Kevin Klein in “A Fish Named Wanda,” by Robert De Niro in “Peak of Fear,” by Paul Dayno in “Little Miss Sunshine” and by William Jackson Harper in “The Good Place.” –
Director Amy Curling made Josh’s character in the movie “Clueless,” played by the young Paul Rudd – another snob who prides himself on his education – read “Nietzsche’s Elementary Reporters” as he lay by his father’s upscale pool in Beverly Hills. Josh is much more sincere than Olivia and Paula, who use their social righteousness as such.
“It’s a bit like a roadmap for serious college students trying to learn how to be a better person,” Curling told the Huffington Post last year. “Whether Nietzsche provides it or not is hard to say, but that part of his writings seems like something a young person might cling to to play with from time to time.”
Rachel, Shane’s new bride, and Elsa Perante’s book say more about the path her character takes than about the writer she chose. And it still makes perfect sense that she would read “The Genius Society,” the first book in a four.volume series by Perante about the adolescence and friendship of two Italian societies. Rachel’s working.class background suddenly leaves her wondering about Shane’s restless sense of “deservingness.“
“What would a character start reading wondering if she married the right person as a book that would make her think about the question of whether she is in the relationship she should be in?” White asked. “I like Elsa Perante’s books, but they’re a bit fashionable. Rachel is not going to read any esoteric book. It made me think she’s reading intelligently, but also close to fashions – and maybe a little lagging behind them.“