nonfiction book review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
After loving Amanda Montell's first book, Wordslut, I knew I had to pick up her latest title, Cultish, as an audiobook. With an intriguing cover to add to the intrigue, this book blends together Montell's strengths using expertise from her podcast Sounds Like a Cult in subject matter while approaching it from a linguistic angle, which falls in line with Montell's first book and her degree from NYU. It's a fresh angle to examine the well trodden cult topic from, and it allows Montell to broaden the definition of what a cult is or might be beyond the murderous, classically dangerous, on a farm somewhere cults that are the common fodder of the media trend around cults.
Instead, she spends the first section of the book giving an overview of a few classic cults (think Jonestown), keen to point out commonalities, many linguistic, that tied these leaders together. That way, as she discusses things like MLMs, online influencer leaders, Donald Trump, and "cult" fitness brands, there's a clear litmus test for what constitutes a potentially dangerous cult that falls in line with the traditional ones. She discusses linguistic qualifiers like an intense leaning on euphemisms and in using speech meant to shut down critical thought or questioning. Many of these more mainstream "cultish" groups use some of these tools either in a less intense way or only use one type of cultish language, which reduces their powers.
The book is interesting and makes good points around the double edged sword of labeling organizations as cults and heaping on stigma. She makes a point that some things that are labeled cults appear to be less materially dangerous than socially acceptable groups like fraternities. There are interesting factoids sprinkled throughout the book, and there's a good mix of interviews from academics and experts as well as actual subjects close to the cults and cult-adjacent organizations. These personal interviews does the important work of humanizing the members.
What I struggle with here is questioning what the book is really providing to readers. There's not a ton to learn here if you have even a cursory knowledge of cults (and given how trendy true crime was for a while, most people do) and an awareness of cultish workout studios. She makes good points, but they're not exactly unique or surprising.
Additionally, it was a bit difficult to figure out where the book was aiming. As it jumped from cults to MLMs to workout studios, it was hard to decipher what the smooth through-lines were, and it just felt like each section lacked the necessary cohesion to satisfactorily progress from the previous topic. It was enjoyable on a sentence to sentence level but struggled to come together to make a satisfying argument or provide big picture insights.
The concept is a great idea. Expanding the idea of what fits within the conversations of cults by using the term "cultish" and approaching all of these organizations as a linguist is an incredible idea. Unfortunately, the book doesn't lean hard enough into the fascinating linguistic angle, and it floats in and out of the narrative of the book. Fully committing to that language element might have allowed these disparate topics to stitch it into the clear statement she was clearly struggling to make.
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