What 'The Influencing Machine' Teaches College Kids
Several colleges and universities have adopted a common read program, in which first year students read the same book during the summer, then discuss it when they get to campus.
NPR'S Neal Conan talks with Brooke Gladstone, co-host of On The Media, about her book, The Influencing Machine, a graphic novel that tries to decipher the rapidly changing media business and the ways people interact with it.
On why her book works as a freshman read
"I wanted to write a comic book ... before I wanted to write a book. And ultimately, I wrote a 2,000-year history of the media and a manifesto as to why it is the way it is and what one needs to do to make it be the way we want it to be — all in panels, about 160 pages, 2,000 years and tons and tons and tons of end notes. And I think it's because it's so compressed. It's a useful book, because every chapter, rather than completing the discussion, is kind of a launch for discussion, because you really have to say things in very, very few words."
On the process of writing a graphic novel
"The difference between a comic book and an illustrated book is in an illustrated book, the pictures support the text, but in a comic book the pictures replace the text. And as a result, I had to come up with every single image, and there's about a thousand of them. And I would write a panel in words and then I would cut it in half, and then I would figure out what could I indicate with the image, and then I would cut it in half again. So ... every panel went through three written revisions before they even went through the three stages of drafting, penciling and inking. That's pretty intensive."
On misinformation and the media
"It has been ever thus. We've always had a wide range of media choices. And stories have always been made up in the paper. I mean, Edgar Allan Poe made up a story about a balloon launch, and there are other stories about people landing — a telescope seeing people on the moon and so forth. ...
"[And] they are among the biggest sellers. But here's the thing is, you know, we buy that stuff. It's a business. We don't want it to be government owned. And I think my principal argument is that the sooner we take responsibility for that consumption the better, because there is every bit as much excellent, complete, thorough, contextual news out there as there is the load of crap."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
And now we conclude this year's TOTN freshman reads. Each year, we select a few of the books all incoming freshmen are required to read over the summer by many universities and colleges. So far, we've talked about two popular perennials: "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond and "Enrique's Journey" by Sonia Nazario. Last week, an off-center choice, "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Apocalypse" by Max Brookes. Today, Brooke Gladstone and "The Influencing Machine" selected by the University of Maryland and Millersville University in Pennsylvania.
If you'd like to nominate another choice for freshman read, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from member station WNYC in New York is our own friend Brooke Gladstone, co-host of "On The Media," which is produced there at WNYC. Nice to have you back, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hi, Neal. Nice to be back.
CONAN: Is there any summer reading book you were assigned from your student days that you can remember?
GLADSTONE: Well, you know, I found out that these freshman reads are actually a fairly recent invention. And it was partly because kids were having trouble making the transition from home to college, whereas people of our generation just ran from home to college and hardly ever looked back. So it's part of the transition, creating a kind of community that can all talk about the same thing, so I didn't have that.
CONAN: Yeah, I always had these summer reading lists of, you know, three or four, you know, tomes, and "Ethan Frome" was always my least favorite.
CONAN: But, you know, middle of August, it would start weighing down on me even more than they weighed already because I hadn't started them.
GLADSTONE: I have to say that "Guns, Germs, and Steel," though, that you mentioned is just, I think, one of the greatest books ever written. It is so astoundingly audacious to take over 10,000 - to consider 10,000 years of civilization and why there are haves and have-nots.
CONAN: We've been talking a lot about geography on this program lately. Now what do you think your book, "The Influencing Machine," why would it be valuable, you think, to an incoming freshman?
GLADSTONE: What does it have to offer?
CONAN: Right. Exactly.
GLADSTONE: Well, for one thing...
CONAN: Defend yourself, Gladstone.
GLADSTONE: Well, I have to say that I wanted to write a comic book essentially before I wrote - before I wanted to write a book. And ultimately, I wrote a 2,000-year history of the media and a manifesto as to why it is the way it is and what one needs to do to make it be the way we want it to be - all in panels, about 160 pages, 2,000 years and tons and tons and tons of end notes. And I think it's because it's so compressed. It's a useful book, because every chapter, rather than completing the discussion, is kind of a launch for discussion because you really have to say things in very, very few words.
CONAN: Well, we want to hear from listeners. "The Influencing Machine" or others, what would be a good freshman read? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And Cheyenne is calling us from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
CHEYENNE: Hi, Brooke.
GLADSTONE: H, Cheyenne.
CHEYENNE: How are you today?
GLADSTONE: I'm very well.
CHEYENNE: I was just wondering, with your experience in the media industry, do you feel that the corruption (unintelligible) to the service is a necessity to keep the media as strong as it is? Because it seems, though, the misconstrued information that some reporters give is what sells. And how does that reflect on your statement that you said we get the media we deserve?
GLADSTONE: Right. Well, the thing is that it has been ever thus. We've always had a wide range of media choices. And stories have always been made up in the paper. I mean, Edgar Allan Poe made up a story about a balloon launch, and there are other stories about people landing - a telescope seeing people on the moon and so forth.
GLADSTONE: They are among the biggest sellers. But here's the thing is, you know, we buy that stuff. It's a business. We don't want it to be government owned. And I think my principal argument is that the sooner we take responsibility for that consumption, the better, because there is every bit as much excellent, complete, thorough, contextual news out there as there is the load of crap that you rightly refer to.
CONAN: Cheyenne , it sounds as if you have read this book.
CHEYENNE: I have read this book and enjoyed it.
CONAN: In the context of a freshman read?
CONAN: Where do you go to school?
CONAN: Oh, so that's one of the - I wonder, are the fellow frosh there talking about it?
CHEYENNE: Actually, yeah. It was very - a controversial debate in many of my classes, but overall we enjoyed the book a lot, and it kind of exposed us to a lot of stuff we didn't know went on behind the scenes in the media.
CONAN: And so you would recommend it?
GLADSTONE: Thank God. I'd really be upset if she called up and said this book sucks.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Cheyenne.
CHEYENNE: Thank you.
CONAN: The other school that assigned this book as a freshman read is the University of Maryland. And joining us from that school is Christophe Fulgaris(ph). He's is a freshman there and read the book over the summer. Nice to have you with us today.
CHRISTOPHER FULGARIS: Hello.
CONAN: And would you agree with Cheyenne that it was a pretty good book?
FULGARIS: Oh, yeah, I would definitely agree. It's a very interesting book. I think the fact that it was kind of like a comic book, it gave a nice novelty to it. And, I mean, it's just - you could read it and it never got dull at any point really.
CONAN: Never got dull.
GLADSTONE: Oh, that's good.
CONAN: I think that's going in quotes on the back page of the next edition.
GLADSTONE: Well, they do say it's, you know, there's a certain - I won't say. It's a rye voice. It can be pretty cutting at times. It's definitely in the vernacular. It's - it is not an academic book, although it could possibly have been if written differently without pictures. So I'm really grateful for my artist, Josh Neufeld, who had an enormous amount to do with making sure that there was flow and cohesion.
CONAN: We also asked those who had to choose these books to defend themselves, and this was the statement from Lisa Kiely, assistant dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland: Everyone loves to hate the media, but Brooke Gladstone says everything you hate about the media was there from the beginning. With the rise in citizen journalists, particularly in the Arab Spring, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, we wanted a book that gave students a good history of journalism, even going back 2,000 years. What a great time to do so with the presidential election, where many of our students will vote for the first time. Another reason for selecting the book is the opportunity to discuss a graphic text and debate the validity of this medium. How does one read a graphic text? Do our students all know how to read images? Many of our first year's writing classes are discussing this issue.
And Christopher Fulgaris, is that being discussed in your classes?
FULGARIS: Yeah. We are about to begin discussing it in our honors colloquium and it's going to be a big talking point for most of the class.
CONAN: So you will want some zinger quotes from the author, no doubt.
GLADSTONE: Well, the pictures were coming up - the thing about - the difference between a comic book and an illustrated book is in an illustrated book, the pictures support the text, but in a comic book the pictures replace the text. And as a result, I had to come up with every single image, and there's about a thousand of them. And I would write a panel in words and then I would cut it in half, and then I would figure out what could I indicate with the image, and then I would cut it in half again. So everything went through - every panel went through three written revisions before they even went through the three stages of drafting, penciling and inking. That's pretty intensive.
CONAN: Hmm. Are you writing all this down?
GLADSTONE: I'm sorry. You probably didn't even ask that question. Are you still there?
FULGARIS: Yes, I'm still here.
CONAN: So as you get on to discuss this, do you think the fact that this was written in that illustrated fashion, as sort of a comic book, a graphic novel, as it were, or a graphic fiction, or nonfiction, the - do you think that worked?
FULGARIS: I think it does work. I think the discussion is going to be maybe a little bit easier because you can kind of look at the pictures and see kind of almost what the words are trying to say. You can paint a little better image and it helps - I would say it helps the discussion overall.
CONAN: And if you had to pick a book for a freshman read, Christopher, what would you suggest?
FULGARIS: If I had to pick a book for a freshman read, I would probably - we read a particular book last year in our literature class called "Beloved."
FULGARIS: By Toni Morrison, I believe it was.
FULGARIS: And that book was - I mean, it was - it had this - it had an almost gothic feel to it, but it kind of brought up some issues that I thought were just kind of important. And it was just - it was interesting from the sense that you wanted to find out where it was going because it was almost eerie at the same time as well as pretty dramatic.
CONAN: I'm sure - I'm willing to go out in a limb and suggest that some places have indeed selected "Beloved," but we'll...
CONAN: ...consider it next year. Thanks very much for the...
GLADSTONE: It's a remarkable book.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us, Christopher. And good luck with your freshman year there at the University of Maryland.
FULGARIS: Thank you.
CONAN: We should also mention that we have this statement from Caleb Corkery, the assistant chair and associate professor of English at Millersville - that was the other school that picked "The Influencing Machine": We picked the book because of its rich material and how we can use it during this election season. The book is dense with information, much of which can be brought to bear on current events. We want a common read that can educate, challenge and be useful. There's something for nearly everyone in the book, I think. We also find the format compelling and innovative. We were able to reach out to graphic artists on our campus with a comic strip writing contest.
We're also doing programming with the art and design department as a result. For instance, they are bringing in an artist, Martha Rosler, to talk about her work with media. We'll do a panel discussion before the election with the two of them, plus an academic from Rutgers, Jack Bratich. So you're sparking panel discussions, Brooke.
GLADSTONE: Yes. And Martha Rosler, who is an extraordinary artist who came to the fore in the '70s and has been there ever since, is actually and quite coincidentally the mother of Josh Neufeld, the person who drew the pictures for my book. And that was entirely unintentional on Millersville's part.
CONAN: We're talking with Brooke Gladstone, co-host of WNYC's ON THE MEDIA and the author of "The Influencing Machine." That's the book - one of the books selected as one of this year's TOTN freshman reads. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get some other suggestions for freshman reads. Gregory's on the line with us from Grand Rapids.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead.
GREGORY: Hi. I was thinking "Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. You know, it's not one of his more popular books. But it does give the historical context almost of post-World War II, you know, don't trust the - don't trust the - what was it Eisenhower said? Don't trust the...
CONAN: Military industrial complex.
GREGORY: Military industrial complex. Correct. And, you know, it goes in on the haves and the have-nots and how that, how that, you know, how there's a certain section of people that run the country and everything. It's really - it's really an interesting book. And...
CONAN: I suspect, Brooke, you've dipped into it.
GLADSTONE: I've definitely read it. In fact, a friend of mine refers to "Player Piano" as kind of the gateway drug to the rest of the Kurt Vonnegut oeuvre...
GREGORY: Perfect. Perfect.
GLADSTONE: ...because it's - it is a fairly early book, and it really touches on some of the ideas and values and principles and priorities that he re-approaches and re-imagines and deals with in the rest of his novels.
CONAN: So I would recommend "The Sirens of Titan" as well.
GLADSTONE: You naughty, naughty boy.
GREGORY: Naughty person. OK.
CONAN: Gregory, thanks very much for the call.
GREGORY: You're quite welcome. Thank you very much. Have a good day. Bye-bye.
CONAN: You too. Let's see if we go next to - this is Mike and Mike's with us from Grand Rapids.
MIKE: Yes. I do have a recommendation. It's a book called "Be Wise, Do Good, Live Free: Random Advice for the Best Kind of Life" by Gregory Smith.
CONAN: I can't say that I'm familiar with it.
MIKE: He's an original author, independent author, publisher and business owner, historian, here in Grand Rapids, speaks at a lot of colleges and business organizations regionally.
CONAN: And what in it do you think will be particularly helpful for incoming freshmen?
MIKE: Well, there's a lot of stuff I wish I knew when I was an incoming freshman from the book, things like (unintelligible) complicated, just hard; don't panic ever, there's no scenario in which panicking helps; 10 things I wish I knew when I started a business; 10 things I wish I knew before I got married; 10 things I wish I knew when I was high school. Just a bunch of - really 150 short parables, random advice for people to live really, you know (unintelligible) stuff on business, life and faith.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much. What an interesting recommendation.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: And, of course, we remember don't panic. That's the cover of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
GLADSTONE: Which might be a great freshman read.
CONAN: I wonder. Do you think college kids want advice on life and business and how to be free?
GLADSTONE: Well, you know, I've looked at some of those freshman reads, and generally they aren't of the self-help variety because they want books that will incite a certain amount of controversy, maybe disagreement, maybe challenge conventional wisdom a little. I haven't read this book. If it's a book of good solid wisdom that you need to be reminded of as you enter school, that might be something you'd put in your orientation sack. But if doesn't incite conversation, it probably wouldn't fit in.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Dave: I think a great book for freshman to read would be "The Space Merchants" written by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth in 1952. Talk about prescient. I think it would really open the minds of kids to the level of control advertising and commercialism extends over our lives. I love the reference to the senator from DuPont, et cetera. Of course he used to be senator from Boeing...
CONAN: ...from - one of the senators from the great state of Washington. Kornbluth and - that's interesting. I haven't thought about them for while. Frederik Pohl.
GLADSTONE: Right. I know. But I know that we have a mutual fondness for Philip K. Dick, who deals with many of those issues...
CONAN: Yes. We do.
GLADSTONE: ...especially manipulation, and that could be a fun one. "Man in the High Tower." I think I'd vote for that.
CONAN: Oh, well, "Galactic Pot-Healer."
GLADSTONE: I know you might...
CONAN: "Galactic Pot-Healer." No, "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch."
Let's go to Victoria. Victoria with us from Huntington in New York.
VICTORIA: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
VICTORIA: I went to Hunter College in New York, and my freshman read was called "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich.
VICTORIA: She's a social...
VICTORIA: Yes, thank you. And she goes across the country and she works entry-level jobs. She's a maid. She works at Wal-Mart, and she's a waitress. And she just tries to live, whether she lives to work or works to live and, you know, tries to maintain her rent. And it just showed us as freshmen how important college is and how...
VICTORIA: ...to continue going to school, because it's very hard with these, you know, $7.50 an hour, you know, to actually strive and succeed and have time for pleasure.
CONAN: I think it's an interesting suggestion, Victoria, and an interesting instructional for incoming freshman.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
VICTORIA: Thank you. Bye.
CONAN: And, Brooke, thanks very much.
GLADSTONE: Oh, you're very welcome, Neal.
CONAN: I have to ask, freshman reads, does this, as they say in the business, move product?
GLADSTONE: Thank you all, you guys out there. A lot of people are assigning it to media studies courses in journalism, so I'm very happy with that.
CONAN: Brooke Gladstone, the author of "The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media," and co-host of NPR's ON THE MEDIA. She joined us today from WNYC in New York. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.