12 Rules for Life (Book Review)

12 Rules for Life (Book Review)

12 Rules for Life (Book Review)

I felt a need to apologize for this being a book for our newly minted book discussion group. Even though I picked it, I guess I hated it more than most. I chose it because of comments that the author is “the most intelligent person alive on the planet right now,” and he “is the most influential intellectual in the Western world right now,” from reputable sources. All I have to say is, if that is the case, we are in trouble.

There is a bunch of controversy about the author, which we put aside, and just discussed the book at face value. When you actually slog through this dense and meandering tome, you realize his incendiary aspects are mostly cluelessness, amplified by a big dose of ego driven sense of authority. A lot of what upsets people in this book does not even push forward what he was trying to defend.

For example, he labels “order” as “masculine,” and “chaos” as “feminine.” First of all, this is unnecessary and unhelpful, but secondly, I could as easily argue it the other way around. Think of who has traditionally started and perpetuated war, which is the ultimate chaos, for example, and I would submit it is not the feminine. Then the subtitle of the book is “an antidote to chaos”? No wonder people think he is anti-feminism, which interestingly reading this in detail, I don’t actually think he is.

What came out in our book discussion is that men, now that women are coming into their own voice and refusing to be repressed, don’t know who they are supposed to be. Interestingly, if you look at who is loving this author, it is millennial men, who seem to have found in this author a bizarre spokesperson. I think they could do far better.

One of my biggest problems with this book is that the author defines life as suffering. That simply is not my world view. He points at the Russian gulag and the German concentration camps to support his view. But I see life as good, and I find a majority of examples in the world to support my view. I believe Love wins, not that we will be defined by our worst tendencies.

He emphasizes how horrible we can be, and then tells us to try to do better. But that goes contrary to his own example of  getting a child to eat. In that case, he says that expecting good, and reinforcing it every step of the way, is how improvement is made. He should have enlarged and extrapolated that idea, and then he might have had a productive book.

The writing here is slow and chases many non-sequester rabbits down proverbial holes that laboriously have nothing to do with what he is actually trying to talk about. There are some jewel tidbits, if you think it is worth mining for them. Like me, for example, he thinks no one is actually an atheist, and that everyone does believe in something. There are a few quotes in there that might be worth reading, but unlike I usually do, they are not worth typing out here. (If you are looking at the book, I tabbed these pages:36,137, 209, 230…after that I stopped keeping track and just tried to endure.)

I’d give this book only two stars, although most of our (still critical) book discussion group would give it more than that. It is just not productive, and furthermore is frustrating because it is a lost opportunity to actually help someone. I’m deeply impressed with our new book group that they actually got through it. Mostly it was a lesson for me to vet our books more carefully. I also learned to take both his controversial-ness and his power as an influencer with a huge grain of salt.

So skip this book. Especially don’t listen to the audio, which the author reads himself, and practically bludgeons the listener to death. Boy, I’m glad to be done with this one, but also glad we had such a great first book discussion about it. On to something lighter and hopefully more redeeming!

I work to amplify good wherever I find it. I love color, texture, beauty, great ideas, nature, metaphor, deliciousness, genuine spirituality, and exploring new territory. I encourage authenticity, nurture creativity, champion sustainability, promote peace, and hope to foster a new renaissance where we all are free to be our most fulfilled, multifaceted, and terrific selves. Read more here.


  1. BG 5 years ago

    Polly- In all of the book groups to which I’ve belonged (two of these have been in existence over 25 years, with at least a handful of original members), one rule has proven to be critical: At least one member of the group must have read the book before we choose it.

    Ocassionally we break this rule, usually for sound reasons (“my friend loved it!” or “the reviews were fabulous!”) …and find out, like you did, that sticking to our discipline of having at least one person having read it first is critical.

    Good luck with the group. I belong to a generic book group, and also a book group focused on resilience and spiritual growth. Both add a lot to the members’ lives. It’s worth doing!

    • Author
      Polly Castor 5 years ago

      Wonderful point. I’d be interested in what titles your spiritual growth group liked best!

  2. Barbara 5 years ago

    This was interesting to read. My brother Liam has this book on his shelf at school. The title makes it sound like a “self-help” book. I thought it was weird to see this book on my brother’s shelf and even weirder when he said, “Yeah, I’m really excited to read it!” I think his interest in this book is because he likes watching some of the author’s lectures that are on YouTube. I didn’t understand the talks nor were they helpful or enlightening to me in any way. So I thought it was interesting when you said this book is interesting to millennial men. This is true. Hope you find something lighter.


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