Review: The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

While I listen to Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! in podcast form, I’m not what you would call an avid listener of National Public Radio; in my car, I’m usually switching between three radio stations and my own mixes. So I didn’t know who Brooke Gladstone was until I read Laura Miller’s review of her new book, The Influencing Machine. And of course it went right onto my reading list. Y’all know how I feel about Laura Miller; you can only imagine the conniption fit I had when she commented on my blog last September. But this is the second work of graphic nonfiction I’ve read in the past few months (the other being Fun Home), and I’m becoming very interested in understanding the medium better—my next graphic read will be Understanding Comics, I think.

The Influencing Machine calls itself a “work of graphic on fiction on the media and its discontents”. Brooke Gladstone guides the reader through the history of journalism, other media, and the influence they have on our brains—as well as the reasons they influence our brains in the first place and what we can do about it.

(I always feel like my summaries for nonfiction are insanely short, but nonfiction—good nonfiction, that is—is usually pretty straight-forward, you know?)

In a way, The Influencing Machine feels like an episode of “On the Media”. Yes, I’ve never listened to the program, but Gladstone has a very distinctive and dry voice; this book covers some horrifying atrocities and lies perpetuated by governments, but it’s never a dark book; it’s ultimately hopeful, informing you so that you can make better choices. You’re in the right hands here—after all, Gladstone is a woman who, in her acknowledgements, tells her husband, “So I’ll just say, Fred, I acknowledge you with all my heart” (160). She leads us gently through history, her cartoon avatar often blending into the background and often sporting boots, a black dress, and a cloud of bushy black hair. I have to admit, cartoon Gladstone looks a little like a fish, but that’s because she’s very stylized, in order for us to focus on the talking heads and historical figures, who are rendered with more realism.

I really like what this book has done with the medium. I can easily see this book in a text-only format; indeed, a lot of the chapters end with a few illustrated pages of text rather than panels. But it would lose its charm, its immediacy, and the broadness. Gladstone is constantly quoting experts and historical figures, and it’s much more engaging to see them conversing with her rather than her simply quoting them. It manages to create the same sense you get in radio when you’re hearing two people converse. It also removes the distance between historical figures and the reader; I’m still horrified at the story about a censored interview that might have stopped Hitler’s rise to power. Graphic nonfiction might feel like a novelty, but it works remarkably well here.

Gladstone touches on all sorts of subjects related to the influence the media can have on you and the influence your “lizard brain” (155) has on you. She explores subconscious biases, our desire for the status quo, censorship, the influence of the Internet on, well, influence, and the history of journalism (it’s remained much the same since its early days). She doesn’t linger too long on any of these—it’s a graphic novel that tops out at 156 pages—but she covers them thoroughly and efficiently. (That’s one thing in favor of the medium—it, ideally, forces one to be efficient.) Her chapter on war journalism is a sparkling example of this, gliding from the Crimean War to the American Civil War to the Vietnam War. The story of journalist Ernie Pyle in World War II gives rise to one of the most affecting panels I’ve seen in a graphic novel; after his death on the battle field, Pyle was discovered with his last column in his pocket, so we see his corpse speaking an excerpt from that final column. It might sound a little odd, but it’s executed beautifully.

Josh Neufeld, the author of A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge, illustrates The Influencing Machine; his style is warm and realistic, except, as I previously mentioned, when it comes to Gladstone. The dissonance rarely distracts, but occasionally her glasses look like they’re melting. He renders the entire book in black, white, and a dusky turquoise, making it bright but still somber. It’s an interesting palette that I quite like; it puts me in mind of Fun Home, although Bechdel uses grey as her accent rather than anything more colorful. The paneling is clean and clear, and I quite like the lettering. …see, this is exactly why I’m going to read Understanding Comics for my next graphic read. I require tools I don’t have to properly discuss these books, even if I know I liked them. And I liked The Influencing Machine.

Bottom line: The Influencing Machine might seem like a novelty at first—graphic nonfiction—but it works remarkably well. Gladstone’s voice is distinctive and dry, allowing us to cover dark material even as she gives us the tools to fight against (or just understand) the influencing machines in our own lives. Neufeld’s illustrations are warm, realistic, and rendered with an interesting palette. Worth a read.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Gladstone, Brooke. The Influencing Machine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Influencing Machine

  1. I’m kind of an NPR-aholic, and On the Media is a terrific show. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard about, and now I only want to read it more 🙂

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