Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future: The Moral of the Story?

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Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future

I recently listened to this young adult novel by A.S. King on audiobook. Before we go any further, I should probably admit that I’m not a young adult. Okay, I’m actually an old adult, but I’m always on the lookout for smart, interesting books. The description of this one was as intriguing as the title and reviewers at my local library also gave it four of five stars. You can read the New York Times review of it here. I remembered having really enjoyed the Hunger Games series, which was also written for young adults. The runaway success of that series demonstrated the potential power of authors within the young adult genre to raise social awareness of political corruption and social injustice. However, listening to this book caused me to question the extent to which publishers participate in promoting political propaganda via literature.

Mainstream media channels are increasingly in the hands of fewer people–with more money and power. I had no idea how true that was until I started trying to find out who owned Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, the company that published the book. They are the third largest trade and educational publishing company in the world. They own a startling number of publishing subsidiaries, but wait—they themselves are a subsidiary of Hatchette Livre, a French company, which is a subsidiary of Lagardere Publishing, which owns publishing concerns in nearly every country in the world. But wait, they are just the publishing arm of the Lagardere Group, the owner of which was also the CEO of a military aerospace manufacturing company.

According to the mission statement of the American subsidiary that published the book, one of their primary goals is to “be be market focused in all we do, and to lead change in popular culture”. I think it’s safe to say that means that they publish a) writing that will make them money (like the Harry Potter series) and b) writing that contributes to the kind of change in popular culture they want to promote. 

Considering the fact that the current head of the Department of Education is billionaire Betsy DeVos, sister of military mercenary and founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, I’m nervous about how that might influence the types of books our young people read. School administrators choose books that become required reading for students, and the messages in those books exert a great deal of influence on still-developing minds. It turns out that Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, in addition to having won several prestigious prizes, is now in schools all across the country.  The fact that its required reading makes it a real money maker, which meets part of the criteria of the publishing company’s mission statement. To meet the rest of the criteria, what changes to popular culture might it lead?

Well, in this book, Communism is portrayed as the cause of just about every evil that exists. The dirty commies across the road live off land that doesn’t belong to them, they home-school, don’t maintain a lawn, and don’t have real jobs.  They just protest microwave ovens, raise chickens, and have drum circles and sex.  Jasmine, the leader of the commune is portrayed as having no ethics whatsoever beyond being against consumerism and living off the land. This book reminds me of the movie Reefer Madness, but with communal living replacing marijuana as the evil monstrosity capable of destroying all that has been deemed good in the world.

When the commies aren’t being portrayed as outright evil, they are portrayed as selfish children who need to grow up and learn to live in “the real world”.  The real world is where Glory’s father gives her a check for $50,000 dollars as a high school graduation gift.  In their real world,  he can afford to isolate and work a part-time job that doesn’t pay much from home because he still has the huge inheritance and owns the farm.  In this story, commies don’t work because they are selfish, dirty and lazy—and want something for nothing.  People who inherit wealth who don’t work aren’t lazy and don’t want something for nothing. They just want to make art. 

Despite what the New York Times said, I found it really difficult to feel the characters’ emotional struggle through all the political propaganda.  Ayn Rand did a better job making readers care about her characters, even if they were created to be nothing more than vehicles used to promote capitalism.  To her credit, the author did openly rebel against the concept of women existing merely to be pretty toys for men.  However, as long as women spend more money on makeup than education over their lifetimes, the lot of women’s lives will remain pretty much the same as that of Lot’s wife in the Bible—valued only for being, and then producing, younger, more beautiful women—and then silenced and left behind.  Think Ivana Trump.

If I were on a school board, this is definitely not a book I would vote to make required reading. I thought I wanted to learn more about the process of how books are chosen until I read this article about it. Now I’m not sure I want to know.

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