Reviewed in the United States on August 19, 2016
Although I do not typically read these sort of works, in the case of Dale Carnegie’s book I felt compelled to do so because it comes so highly regarded. Having given it a close read over the last few days, I feel inclined to share my thoughts on it. In what follows, I will discuss the structure, rigor, and content of the book.
First, this book is very loosely structured. It is divided into four parts, each of which contains a handful of chapters. While it is easy to see why each chapter goes in which part of the book, there is no real logical connection from one chapter to the next. In fact, changing the order of certain chapters would arguably make for a better read overall. Take part two of the book, for example. Here, Carnegie lists his ‘Six Ways to Make People Like You’, where each principle gets its own chapter. There seems to have been no thought given as to how these six principles could be sensibly arranged—they’ve just been randomly mixed together. While I admit that what follows may not be the best possible alternative, it nevertheless seems to make sense to me. Perhaps the six principles ought to be rearranged based on the order in which they typically come to bear, or as follows: (1) smile; (2) remember (and use) the person’s name; (3) become genuinely interested in them; (4) be a good listener and ask questions; (5) keep the conversation centered on their interests; and, as a general culmination of everything, (6) make them feel important. Given the script that an encounter with someone new typically follows, that ordering would make the most sense. Rearranging the six principles in this way, then, could potentially help readers better remember and utilize them. To be sure, ‘Six Ways to Make People Like You’ is just the second part in a four-part book, but it illustrates the book’s general lack of structure all the same. In a word, I believe that the structure of the book is poor.
Second, this book lacks intellectual rigor. At heart, it is a work of psychology. However, the number of psych studies mentioned throughout the book can practically be counted on one hand. (And of those, how many were double-blind and peer-reviewed?) To support his claims, Carnegie relies primarily on cherry-picked anecdotes, random bits of history, and a grab-bag of quotes from authors, philosophers, presidents, and the like. Although the sheer breadth and quantity of his references may seem impressive at first blush, those who reflect in any detail on the nature of Carnegie’s ‘evidence’ will recognize that it provides weak support for his claims, at best. What’s more, most of his claims are completely unqualified. For example, he does not mention any instances in which smiling may actually cause people to dislike you. He does not address any scenarios where your ‘genuine interest’ in another person may come across as over-the-top and even frightening. He ignores the fact that beyond a point you can (and perhaps even should) stop calling your best friend by their name every time you address them. In short, Carnegie doesn’t provide much good evidence for his claims, the ‘evidence’ he does provide would reduce psychologists to tears of laughter, and his claims are altogether devoid of any subtlety or nuance. Thus, I maintain that the book lacks intellectual rigor.
Third, proportionally speaking, this book is about 1% content. The vast majority of actual content can be found in the first few sentences, the last few sentences, and the principle stated in each chapter. Unfortunately, as has been noted in other reviews, all of these principles are utterly pedestrian. The other 99% of the book consists almost exclusively of anecdotes, random quotes, the author repeating himself, and other fluff. I admit that these statements sound extremely hyperbolic, so I will try to give the reader a sense of what the experience of reading this book is actually like. Throughout the book, Carnegie transitions seamlessly from one tiresome anecdote, quote, or other bit of fluff to the next. He’ll spend a few paragraphs describing the time that Theodore Roosevelt was polite to a kitchen maid at the White House; then he’ll drop a loosely-related line from Emerson on which he’ll provide little to no elaboration; that spontaneous Emerson quote will be followed by his gushing effusively over the success of some salesman who took his class; having recollected himself, he will then declare that if there is one thing to take away from his book, it is Principle X; since Principle X is so important, he will repeat himself again for emphasis; finally, Carnegie will make his way back to Theodore Roosevelt (although he seems to have also been quite fond of Abraham Lincoln). As if this weren’t bad enough, the banality is compounded as Carnegie belabors the point that Principle X applies not only in workplace interactions, but also in social interactions, and in familial interactions, too. Queue another story about some president, a quote from Socrates, a plug for his class, and so on. Then queue another story, quote, and plug for good measure. Finally, the monotony is even further compounded by the fact that every single chapter follows this formula. He moves from Principle X, to Principle Y, to Principle Z, and on and on and on. Most readers will have the distinct impression that they are reading the same few paragraphs over and over again. To put it bluntly, in light of its general lack of substance and insane amount of repetition, I submit that the book has little in the way of content.
In closing, I would like to stress that all of the foregoing is simply my personal opinion. I am sure there are many who feel differently about Carnegie’s book, and I am glad that so many people have enjoyed it. Unfortunately, for my part, I found it to be lackluster for the reasons mentioned above.