On the Subversiveness of the Act of Reading in The White Lotus

Reading, in general, feels like an “anomalous” act. Particularly if it’s tangible literature. For “screen methods” have made it easy for “regulars” and vacationers alike to download as many books (a truly odious phrase) as they want to without worrying about the extra bulk it might cause in their suitcase or carry-on. Thus, the subversiveness of “analog” reading is taken to a new level within the context of Mike White’s The White Lotus (true, that’s a mouthful of “white”). That the act is so noticeable at all is a testament to how we haven’t really seen books wielded with such importance on a TV show since, say, Rory Gilmore did so in Gilmore Girls. The long gap in using reading as a “character trait” is an undeniable sign of the times, and perhaps how reading is, now more than ever, the prerogative of the rich (and yes, Rory did technically fall under that category thanks to her grandparents), while the rest of the plebes are content with the cud-chewing options provided by their screens.

Two of the main characters in the narrative, Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), are the primary reading “offenders” in this tale of undercutting class warfare. Mainly because they both want to project a certain image to those around them about how they see themselves. And while Paula might think she’s the put-upon POC who has to deal with these white folk, the truth is, she came along for the free ride when she could have chosen to stay behind and adhere to her “principles.” As for Olivia, she must cling desperately to the idea that she is not the same as her yuppie, capitalist parents—especially her CFO mother, Nicole (Connie Britton). It’s additionally “disruptive” that Olivia and Paula are reading not only because it’s so anathema in the present, but because it is, in fact, considered a luxury to do so for most. The mark of those who have time to “be learned” and pay for that learnedness. Which tends to amount to, essentially, lounging around and reading. Even though that task isn’t so easy if you’re choosing the right material—unlike another hotel guest, Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), who unironically reads Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a 2005 bestseller in the genre of “pop psychology.” Mike White, the curator of these characters’ reading choices, stated of Shane’s “literary” choice, “Blink just felt like such a normie book. 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.” And no, Shane definitely isn’t. Just another vexing trait about the rich: they’re either outright dumb or completely pseudointellectual. Because you don’t have to be smart to be rich (contrary to the American dream myth), just born into the right circumstance.

As for the first book we see Olivia reading, The Portable Nietzsche (a title that somehow seems like an oxymoron), it’s all too on-brand for her glib aphorisms usually directed at her high-strung, obsessive compulsive mother. Paula instead opts for Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This is poignant for Paula as, in Freud’s view, all dreams are interpretable as some kind of “wish fulfillment.” This applies to Paula on two levels: 1) she, like every other non-white person, would like what Nicole calls “a better seat at the table of tyranny.” Whether she admits that desired wish or not, her subconscious can. And 2) the irony that Paula rarely ends up sleeping, constantly meeting up for clandestine trysts with a hotel staffer named Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), is also not lost on the viewer later on. Like Fiona Apple, it would seem Paula doesn’t sleep to dream, but rather, pretends to sleep so Olivia won’t perform her usual gambit and try to steal the guy Paula is interested in. 

In the second episode, “New Day,” Rachel’s (Alexandra Daddario) selection of the first book, My Brilliant Friend, in Elena Ferrante’s four-book series (called “the Neapolitan novels”) is telling not only with regard to her own chronology being in the first “book” of her marriage to Shane, but also the relation it bears to Paula and Olivia, both in obvious competition with one another the same way Elena and Lila are. Not just for proving their respective intelligence and wokeness (especially for Olivia), but also in terms of competing for the same boy. Well, usually. Because, this time around, Paula has decided to keep her dalliance with Kai under wraps, hence sneaking out every night under the assumption that Olivia isn’t going to be quickly on to her. 

Per an interview in the Wall Street Journal, “White says his idea to have [Olivia and Paula] 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.” Who knew Franco’s pretensions would turn out to be so inspiring (you know, to someone other than Lana Del Rey)?

As for a subsequent reading choice of Paula’s, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, White would like to believe it “might inform Paula’s Robin Hood mentality” later on when she tells Kai how he can “pick up some extra cash” to fight against the government that stole the very land he’s now forced to work on for a nominal wage. At the same time Paula is reading this, Olivia has moved on to Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. That Paglia argues in favor of the veracity of sexual stereotypes and the inherent biological difference between the sexes is not exactly something one would imagine Olivia to be in favor considering her daily application of wokeness. Yet the dichotomy of her actually being a very normal white girl who will probably go the same route as Shane’s new reluctant trophy wife, Rachel, makes this text fit in with her “vibe” slightly better. At the same time, the ideas that Paglia has about a mother damning her son to eternal “sexual anxiety” seems applicable to how Olivia views the dynamic between her mother and brother, Quinn (Fred Hechinger). Conveniently, the core of Paglia’s main “thesis” mimics that of Nietzsche, Olivia’s previous “beach read,” in the matter of presenting the notion that the warring identities in society consist of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. 

At another moment in the trip, we’re given a brief glimpse into Paula’s pillaged-by-Armond (Murray Bartlett) bag, which reveals a copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, another feminist study that borrows from the tradition of someone previously being read in the series: Sigmund Freud. Or at least the part about Oedipal myth. Jacques Lacan is also referred to in the text, “the most controversial psychoanalyst since Freud” whose book, Écrits, Olivia will be reading later as they wait at the airport for the plane to depart (yes, even rich people have to wait for that too—when they don’t just fly private). Next to her is Paula, seemingly resigned to being “friends” again after their major fallout—at least until they get back to school and she can more deftly ignore her. To twist the knife in Olivia and the rest of the Mossbachers’ backs, she chooses Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism as her plane accompaniment. After all, she had already previously told Olivia’s father, Mark (Steve Zahn), she was planning to do her thesis on “colonialism.” A broad topic indeed. In contrast to the entirely limited and myopic viewpoints the reading material of each person’s trip reflected. 

Like the tailored algorithms of the things we see on the internet, our reading choices also speak to what we want to be reassured of anyway. For Shane, it’s that he’s “aware” of his privilege and open to “acknowledging” the plights of others; for Rachel, it’s that she’s “literate” enough to exist in Shane’s supposedly chichi world where erudition is bought, not actually had; for Olivia, all her books are designed to categorically set her apart as Not That Kind of White Girl, completed by bringing Paula along for the journey; for Paula, each choice is a pointed dig at her white oppressors who seem utterly blind not only to her passive aggressive behavior, but to their privilege as well. So yes, as it turns out, The White Lotus ends up proving you really can judge a book by its cover…or a reader by their book of the moment. 

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