Reading lists and red flag books

A red flag over the front covers of six books (from left to right): The Millionaire Next Door, Atlas Shrugged, Zero to One, Can't Hurt Me, Think and Grow Rich, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

If you invite me round your house and you have a bookshelf, I’m going to have a nose. Wherever there’s books, I want to know what’s there—even if I know I’ll never read anything of what’s on the shelf.

Perhaps that’s why I also love a good online reading list. Whether it’s a blog post or a Twitter thread or even a video, I’ll stop and read/listen.

So when I stumbled upon Brian Feroldi’s thread of 20 books that should be read again and again (back in early July), I stopped my mindless Twitter-binge and had a scroll. My reaction was much the same as everyone else: a feeling of despair at the soullessness of such a list.

Apparently, these are the books that are not only worth reading once, but again and again:

  1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  2. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  3. As A Man Thinketh by James Allen
  4. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  5. Beyond Wealth by Alexander Green
  6. Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
  7. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jacko Willink & Leif Babin
  8. From Zero to One by Peter Thiel
  9. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  10. How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christiansen
  11. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  12. The Art of Execution by Lee Freeman-Shor
  13. The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley
  14. The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy
  15. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
  16. The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
  17. The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
  18. The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel
  19. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  20. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Of course, the recommendations make sense coming from a man whose whole brand is “financial wellness.” What do you expect from someone whose entire online identity is centred on the same subject he’s written thousands of articles about: money, investment advice and “self-improvement.”[1] His newsletter, Long-Term Mindset, is just a series of infographics mostly relaying stock advice. Think Instagram but really really boring.

But why such a negative reaction? I’ll hold my hands up and say I haven’t read a single book on the list—although Bryson and Kahneman do sit on my shelf. Most people who responded have probably not read any of the books either.

So are we all just judging books by their covers? Maybe, although I think there’s a lot more to it.

For example, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is often referred to as the book that pioneered the self-help genre—although Carnegie described it as an “action-book.” And with it comes quite a reputation, and it’s not what I’d call a good one. But more importantly, self-help as a genre has a great deal of baggage to it. It’s an industry where the few well-meaning authors aren’t always easy to discern from the large number of grifters who just want your money.

Also on the list is Peter Thiel, a billionaire who donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.[2] Since 1987, when he co-founded the conservative and libertarian publication The Stanford Review, he’s pushed back against “political correctness.” This led him to co-author The Diversity Myth in 1995, where he claimed that multiculturalism in Higher Education was diluting academic rigour and that those who “[complained] about oppression are generally not the ones to have experienced it firsthand [sic].” He had to apologise for a different comment in the book in 2016, where he accused the “rape crisis movement” as being “as much about vilifying men as about raising ‘awareness’”. He now has his own political-action committee, called Free Forever, which advocates for stricter border control and isolationist foreign policy, among other things. And I’m hoping I really don’t have to emphasise the problem with all that or explain why dogs bark when he speaks.

If I felt inclined—and if I thought it was worth my time—I could go into every author and book on the list, but it’s not necessary for the point I’m aiming to reach. To help pivot into that point, I refer to this quote from Molly Templeton’s post on the Tor website about “Playing Favorites With Favorites” (emphasis mine):

When one person asks another person their favorite book, the answer is more than just the title of a book. If the answer is a famous book, a classic, one that the asker knows something about, then they’ve learned something about the person who loves it—or they think they have. Books have feelings, senses, atmospheres that hover around them even when we aren’t intimately familiar with the contents.

[…]

“Favorite” becomes shorthand for “Who are you when you’re reading?” That shorthand shakes hands with a person’s presumptions about a classic book and becomes a Thing. This kind of person loves The Road. This kind of person loves Middlemarch. This kind of person says The Power Broker, no matter what.

But even if a book’s not a classic, a title or author or genre paints a picture of the reader—whether it’s accurate to the person or not. I’ve not read Ayn Rand, for example, but I know enough about her and her work to understand why her name trended on Twitter in connection to a viral post asking about everyone’s red flag books.

We can infer a lot about a person if they include names like Dale Carnegie and Peter Thiel within the same list of book recommendations. Even if we don’t know all the books on the list, if we know a select few and their reputation, then we can make inferences about the content of the other books too.

Feroldi’s list of books, regardless of whether some of those individual texts have any merit to them, together come across as one giant red flag.

There’s debate, of course, as to what constitutes a red flag book, just as there’s plenty of discussion on whether we should be judging people’s book preferences at all. The reason why someone likes a book is where the red flag is, after all.[3] A book could be admired for its prose or characters or influence on literature/culture, even if its message is contemptible.

But I do think it’s important to be conscious of the books we read, just as we should be conscious of all other forms of media we consume. Our worldview is influenced by the perspectives we engage with.

One of the responses to Feroldi’s thread came from a school librarian, who had this to say:

THE greatest gift we can give our children and students, is that of reading for pleasure. It improves vocabulary, the imagination, your way of thinking, mood enhancement, stress and anxiety relief and more. None of your books would do that.

Books have the power to make our worlds feel infinitely bigger. Many of us do not have the privilege of travelling very far, but with books we can travel to distant lands both real and imagined. We can meet people we’d never have the chance to in our real lives, and we can learn things we’d never previously thought to consider.

In my, admittedly limited, subjective point-of-view, business and self-help do little to expand the mind or fuel the imagination. Whilst there are undoubtedly exceptions, and there are far too many books in both genres to truly generalise, the titles I’ve come across look very similar in design and uniform in perspective. They’re catered to the LinkedIn influencer crowd, self-styled gurus and wannabe entrepreneurs who still buy into the myths of meritocracy and think they love capitalism.

It also did not escape people’s notice that Feroldi’s list consisted of books written exclusively by (mostly white) men. Whilst the addition of some girlboss manuals would not have saved Feroldi from a good Twitter dunking, it does further highlight the limited perspective the list offers.

In his article for NPR titled “Your Bookshelf May Be Part Of The Problem”, Juan Vidal wrote that “Books, when people come to them early enough or at the right time, have the power to be transformative.” He also added that “Reading broadly and with intention is how we counter dehumanization and demand visibility”. He also connected this with the very important phrase “decolonize your bookshelf”:

In essence, it is about actively resisting and casting aside the colonialist ideas of narrative, storytelling and literature that have pervaded the American psyche for so long.

Our conscious decisions about what we read has the power to expand our perspective and change us if we are willing. Some of us would benefit from diversifying the books we read, and likewise the books we recommend.

None of this is to dictate that you should read X or shouldn’t be reading Y. I’m not suggesting you should never read a business or self-help book, and I know I undoubtedly will from time-to-time (potentially even by choice). Many of my generalisations could be wrong. Perhaps my own perspective could evolve.

But I believe that if your bookshelf looks like Feroldi’s, or is similarly limited, then your world must be very small indeed.

As readers, which I assume you must also be if you’ve read this far, then I think it’s important we always ask how we can make our worlds larger.


[1] I put self-improvement in quotation marks because I presume in this context it’s capitalist speak for either: a) how to enrich yourself at the expense of others, or b) how to be a more efficient cog in the money-churning machine, owned by our wealth-hoarding overlords.

[2] He’s also previously donated to several other Republican senators, including Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

[3] I realise this is neither a unique nor particularly interesting observation. But if columnists can be paid well for their banal thoughts, why should I feel self-conscious about giving them for free?