If Books Could Kill: Sharp takedowns of dumb takes

Podcast review: Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri go to town each week on what they call airport books

If smart, intellectually engaged, left-leaning American men indulging in deliciously catty takedowns of popular and problematic “big ideas” books is your thing, then If Books Could Kill (IBCK) will make you very happy. What’s better than that sweet schadenfuzzy feeling you get from hearing the celebrated get taken to task for the pompous nonsense they spin into best-selling balderdash?

IBCK is the new podcast by two veterans of the genre: Michael Hobbes is best known for the long-running You’re Wrong About with Sarah Marshall, which he co-hosted until last year, and more recently for the health myth debunking Maintenance Phase. His co-host here is Peter Shamshiri of 5-4, a podcast “about how much the [US] Supreme Court sucks”, and both are evident pros at the snappy talking points and smart repartee subgenre.

They’ve got their new project down pat and are already clearly having a blast as they go to town on what they call “airport books”, referred to by Hobbes as “the superspreader events of American stupidity”. Here’s the format: each week, they take turns to introduce a book, likely in the pop science scape, that planted itself in a widespread cultural moment.

Then they spend the next hour or so dissecting it, chapter by ridiculed chapter, poking holes in spurious or specious arguments therein, laughing outright at blatant errors and out of tuneness and pointing to sloppy takes and dangerous extrapolations.

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First up, Freakonomics, the book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J Duber that later spawned its own podcast and – because why would you leave money on the table – consulting group. Everything, from the book’s tagline to its organisation to its core ideology comes under fire. Hobbes and Shamshiri don’t hold back, and when it comes to what they see as the misuse of data, they mount a pretty good case, picking apart premises with derision.

Malcolm Gladwell gets the murderous book treatment in episode two, for his 2008 book Outliers, about why successful people get that way. Near the outset, Shamshiri offers to sum up the thesis of the 300-plus page book. “Success is driven by a combination of luck and hard work.” I dare you not to snicker.

Next up is the lib’s favourite conservative columnist, David Brooks, and his book Bobos in Paradise, published in 2000. There are legitimate swipes at Brooks’s style of broad stroke observationism: it would, after all, be nice if he had interviewed some of the people he used as examples to flesh out his theoretical swoops.

Brooks is almost too easy a target for this pair – at times the simple reading of passages from his book is enough of a skewering. And sure, Hobbes and Shamshiri can be smug and lean into the snark. But it’s not like they are taking on the powerless here: bloviating public intellectuals with deep, deep pockets are fair game.

If Books Could Kill is a lot of fun, and your average left-leaner will have a field day, even as they face their own gullibility. Hobbes and Shamshiri are smart and funny, and they are not here to challenge each other – these two don’t argue, they reinforce each other and ourselves, in an almost textbook illustration of the intellectual elite so decried by America’s previous president. But they’re not just taking down David Brooks – they’re also taking down books beloved by people across the political spectrum.

Books, we have long understood, are good for us, designed to make us smarter. But the books under fire in IBCK, the hosts posit, are having the opposite effect. Hobbes and Shamshiri are on to every piece of misused data and flawed research analysis, reminding us all to bring a little more rigour to our reading.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and journalist