A Podcast About the Airport Best Sellers We Can’t Escape

Like many Millennials who have spent far too much time online, my friends and I are plenty familiar with the five love languages. By the time my friend Alexis sent our group chat a podcast digging into the book that the theory—which purports to explain what people desire from their romantic partners—is based on, I was fairly certain that I’d already heard everything I needed to know. I’d seen the memes and read the articles. The day before, I’d even taken the Atlantic quiz inspired by the proliferation of similar personality tests. But despite being able to name all five languages—words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, gifts, and acts of service—I couldn’t recall having ever encountered its source material, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. The love-language lore had transcended its origin point, making it feel like “something that started appearing in framed posters in Airbnbs starting in, like, 2015,” as Michael Hobbes, an If Books Could Kill co-host, notes in a recent episode.

On If Books Could Kill, Hobbes and his co-host, the lawyer Peter Shamshiri, revisit best sellers whose airy truisms and occasionally questionable logic have shaped the American cultural landscape over the past several decades. In episodes that last about an hour, Hobbes and Shamshiri take turns diving into one specific book in their glossy pantheon of choice: “the airport bestsellers that captured our hearts and ruined our minds.” By contextualizing each of the texts, Hobbes and Shamshiri elucidate the myths that these books fueled in their heyday—and what made people want to believe them.

If Books Could Kill captures the distinct strangeness of only vaguely remembering a book that was once everywhere. Perhaps you recall the colors of its cover design, or the fact that its author was on an episode of daytime television you watched while home sick. So it’s especially satisfying to hear Hobbes and Shamshiri present their painstakingly detailed dispatches from the morass of late-20th-century best-sellers lists. For every raised eyebrow at a Hudson News bookstand, it seems, Hobbes and Shamshiri have spent hours reading the original texts, researching the authors, tracing the broader cultural ascent of their ideas, consulting academic articles on the subjects, and, finally, torturing each other with anachronistic details. Among the best If Books Could Kill episodes are those like the 5 Love Languages dissection, which focuses on the cottage industry of pop-psychology relationship-advice books, and those that home in on pseudoscience prosperity manuals such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Books like these claim to make readers’ lives better by sharing information that’s usually hidden from us normies. If readers can simply understand how rich people think or crack the code to lasting romance, these books suggest, they can be happy too.

On its face, The 5 Love Languages is arguably the least objectionable text the duo have covered: The idea that people in romantic pairings should consider the ways their partner wants to be shown love is hard to argue with, even if the widespread misapplication of love-language theory has been, as Shamshiri notes, a “classic American cultural thing of taking something and repackaging it in its shallowest and most selfish iteration.” The book was written by the Southern Baptist pastor Gary Chapman and has sold more than 15 million copies since it was first published in 1992. But if you’ve encountered any of Chapman’s writing, odds are it’s from the updated edition published in 2015, which Hobbes calls “the misogyny-minus version.”  

For the episode on the book, Shamshiri went back to the original ’90s text, which contains, among other debunked gender stereotypes, an assertion in the “Physical Touch” chapter that men want sex all the time, whereas women need emotional connection for intimacy to be satisfying. (Nowhere in Chapman’s books is any attention paid to the romantic dynamics of queer couples—at one point, Shamshiri jokes that such relationships are “like the female orgasm, not discussed or implied.”) In one chapter, a woman tells Chapman that her husband verbally berates her and refuses counseling. Chapman, in the 1992 version, suggests that the husband’s love language is physical touch and counsels the wife to start initiating sex frequently and more aggressively. When she balks because sex with him makes her feel used and unloved, he advises her to draw upon Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in order to gather strength. In the anecdote that appears in later editions, Shamshiri mentions, Chapman simply suggests that the wife be more physically affectionate in general. Although the sexual mandate is less explicit there, the idea that sex is a sacrifice that women must endure in heterosexual marriage persists.

[Read: The summer reading guide]

By pointing out such patterns across multiple editions of the same series, Hobbes and Shamshiri also address a larger pattern within publishing, especially among the Christian publishing houses that tend to produce these runaway relationship-advice hits. For Chapman’s book, the 2015 “mass-market retool,” as Shamshiri puts it, made The 5 Love Languages “less expressly sexist, less reactionary overall, less overtly religious.” He notes that removing a reference to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as an example of an act of service certainly does lend the new edition a veneer of modernity. But Shamshiri and Hobbes’s attention to these cosmetic differences also highlights the tremendous latitude that best-selling authors are given when they recycle old text with new or euphemistic language.  

Another example is John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide for Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships, which was published in the same year as The 5 Love Languages. Listening to Hobbes and Shamshiri’s episode about the book, I had flashbacks to seeing it everywhere as a child—airport bookstores, sure, but also on my mother’s nightstand, even at a hair salon. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus may have introduced a new fantastical framework into discussions of gender dynamics within heterosexual relationships, but the book’s success was fueled more by its perceived ability to “explain” men’s “alien” behavior to women than by any real, piercing psychological insight. In order for a book like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus or any of its spin-offs to dominate best-sellers lists across decades, the readers, reviewers, and people who consume its lessons by proxy all need to believe, on some basic level, that biological sex is a defining variable in human communication.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus does address essentialist views of men’s communication patterns, but many of Gray’s conclusions in these chapters are framed as advice to women. For women who have internalized the idea that it’s their job to maintain their romantic relationship—to entice their husband to be nicer to them—Gray’s book offers a potential road map. The If Books Could Kill episode trots out plenty of eye-roll-worthy excerpts, but, crucially, Hobbes and Shamshiri also dig into research that more richly charts why and how communication patterns develop across populations. (Men and women are socialized on the same planet, it turns out.)

Hobbes and Shamshiri aren’t new to podcasting, and If Books Could Kill benefits from the inquisitiveness and skepticism that drive their prior productions. In 2018, Hobbes and his fellow journalist Sarah Marshall created You’re Wrong About, which gained a massive following for its wry, deeply researched explorations of major historical events and cultural phenomena that remain widely misremembered. (Hobbes co-hosted until late 2021, and Marshall still leads the series.) On Maintenance Phase, which launched in October 2020, Hobbes and the author Aubrey Gordon interrogate wellness-industry myths and the specter of fatphobia in American culture. Shamshiri’s first foray into podcasting, the acerbic Supreme Court–analysis series 5-4, ballooned in popularity after the Dobbs ruling last year.

Like the pair’s earlier series, If Books Could Kill doesn’t traffic in cynicism for cynicism’s sake. A great takedown is delicious in its own right, but that’s not quite the show’s aim. Some of its strongest moments are when Hobbes and Shamshiri reflect on how profoundly one book, one author, or one franchise has influenced public opinion. When talking about Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!, the duo trace how the book’s author, Robert Kiyosaki, rose to extreme popularity after appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. Put more plainly: Benefiting from a billionaire’s resources is what jump-started his career writing about how regular people can access wealth. Taking shots at Kiyosaki and Gray would be easy, but the podcast leaves listeners with something deeper than the satisfaction of dunking on their work. (That’s what Twitter is for.)

If Books Could Kill resists the impulse to be satisfied with reaching into libraries past just to point and laugh (though, to be fair, there is a lot of laughter on the show). Books such as Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Secret are instructive because of what they reveal about American financial anxieties in the late 20th century and early aughts, when Reagan-era welfare-state fearmongering crept into pop culture across mediums. That so many readers have been willing to take some of these books at face value isn’t merely an indictment of the authors. But at least the next time you walk past one of these titles in the airport, you can be confident that you’re not missing much.