Downtime

“Oh My God, It’s Milton Friedman for Kids”

A historian of capitalism exposes how Choose Your Own Adventure books indoctrinated ‘80s children with the idea that success is simply the result of individual “good choices.”

An illustration of two book covers in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure with arrows pointing two different ways.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

In my corner of the 1980s United States, Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks were a hotter commodity than G.I. Joe or Big League Chew. My family amassed its own little library of them to sate my hunger for choice, and we weren’t alone. In a 1983 letter to the creator of the iconic second-person children’s interactive book series, a teacher wrote: “In 20 years of teaching, I have never seen 12-year-olds so excited about anything as they are about Choose Your Own Adventure.” Now, as a grown-up who never has a fav she doesn’t want to see problematized, I was excited to see that Eli Cook, historian of capitalism and author of The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life, had written an article for the Journal of American Studies putting this series in its historical place.

We spoke recently, and Cook explained why he connects Choose Your Own Adventure to an ‘80s-era idea that now dominates our lives so thoroughly that it seems natural: the conviction that individuals can control their own destinies, if only they make “good choices.”

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: Were you have a fan of these books when you were young? I certainly was.

Eli Cook: Yeah, of course. I love these books. I used to read them all the time. I remember going to the library, and having read them all, and wondering when the new ones would hit the shelf!

I’m mostly a 19th- and early-20th-century historian. I haven’t really written about the late 20th century before. But this is also the first time I’ve really written about history that’s so personal to me.

Do you remember what you liked about the Choose Your Own Adventure books when you were young? 

I think it was the choices, right? It was the feeling of agency and power and freedom. Obviously we always used to cheat, and you would kind of flip to see if a choice would bring you to the end, and then pretend, “Oh, I didn’t see that!” [Laughs] They’re not the greatest books in the world, as far as plot; they’re often kind of superficial.

But I couldn’t believe that nobody had written about Choose Your Own Adventure as a bit of cultural history. They were so popular in some places that booksellers were complaining that the series and its imitators pushed all the other books out of the kids’ section. Two hundred fifty million copies sold! I think you could argue that this is one of the most powerful cultural artifacts of the 1980s.

So you contacted the guy who created this series. Were you able to get him to talk about how he created it, or how he chose the stories, at all?  

Yes, Edward Packard. He turned out to be the sweetest guy. He’s about 90, now. He [forwarded] me some fan mail, and said I could use that in the article, which was really great.

But other than that, when it got where I was really pushing him on specific questions, he was like “I’m gonna hand you to my daughter, because my memory isn’t as good as it used to be.” I was trying to make this argument that the Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t get popular because of technological change [because they drew from the language of computing or gaming], as you might initially think, so I asked “Was your dad really into computers at all?” And she said, “No, I think he got this idea while telling us bedtime stories, because we had more fun with them when he gave us choices.”

What interested me a lot was the fact that Packard actually came up with the Choose Your Own Adventure idea in the 1960s and took it to publishers, but nobody thought it was a good idea! They all said, “This is weird. It’s a game, not a book.” Then 10, 12 years later, when he did it again, all the publishers said, “This is amazing, you’re a genius.” So clearly, something deep changed in American culture.

It’s natural to us, now, the idea that individual choice and individual responsibility is everything. In the article, you run through a little bit of evidence for the idea that this was not a postwar mode of thinking, but something that was new in the 1970s and 1980s, right when these books became popular.

I think the word individual is key. Take Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 speech about the “Four Freedoms”— Freedom From Fear, Freedom From Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship. I think for people who experienced both the Great Depression and World War II, many of their notions of freedom were about safety, solidarity, security. I think for those people this notion of “choice” just being like, you know, “the individual decisions I make” would seem a little odd.

The other big thing that’s interesting about the 1950s and the 1960s, after the war, is how skeptical people were about the very notion of free choice. From B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists, who basically were saying there’s no free will, and everyone is programmed by their outer experiences—no innate desires, no inherent preferences. Then there was also a lot of talk about brainwashing—think of The Manchurian Candidate—and a whole scandal about the idea of subliminal advertising messages in movies. … Americans were just much more skeptical about their own freedom. I cite C. Wright Mills, the sociologist, who has an amazing quote where he says something like—I’m paraphrasing!—“Freedom isn’t just choosing between two options, it’s being able to have the power to decide and design what the choices are going to be.” [Here’s the quote in full.]

The connections you draw between Choose Your Own Adventure and other uses of second-person address in the 1980s, in places like advertising and self-help, were very persuasive to me in establishing the series as a deeply 1980s artifact.

Yes! One of the things that I immediately thought about when starting to write about these books was the format—the fact that it was written in the second person. Of course there are people who have written a lot about the history of the second person, so soon, I was down that rabbit hole.

Of course Choose Your Own Adventure wasn’t the first literature, not even the first children’s literature, to use second person, but this mode of address became much more mainstream in advertising and self-help in the ’80s. I made the argument that Choose Your Own Adventure is kind of like self-help for kids. They’re trying to position you as an individual with agency, but that means that if you make the wrong choices, then that’s on you; that’s an idea people who write about neoliberal ideology call “responsibilization.” Second person is really, really powerful because it turns you into this person who just floats around, choosing A or B.

One of my favorite finds, looking into this, were the few books that were Choose Your Own Adventure for adults. I’m looking at my copy of one of them right now! It’s called Woman Up the Corporate Ladder, and the picture on the front is hilarious—this 1980s woman, this short haircut, kind of dressed like a man—a total yuppie. Here’s what’s on the back of the book: “Go one way and you’ll have a seat at the Board of Director’s Table—and your face on the cover of Time. Select a different path—and brace yourself for the unemployment line.”

I don’t usually write about Choose Your Own Adventure [laughs]—what I usually write about is the history of economic thought. Anyone who studies economists like Milton Friedman and other neoliberal economists who exploded in popularity around that time knows that for them choice is everything, it’s the only thing. The world is just individuals floating around, in an ahistorical space. Reading this, I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s like Milton Friedman for kids.”

The question about influence and ideology—the back and forth between the culture of the 1980s, this popular literature for kids, and then kids’ evolving beliefs that, in turn, shape the culture we’re living in now—interests me a lot. There were references you found to Choose Your Own Adventure in writing by right-wingers, who mention reading it as young kids and living by its ideas as adults.

Yes, at one point, I put “Choose Your Own Adventure” into Google Books to see what would come out, and one of the best references was in the introduction to a 2016 book by Fox News pundit Nick Adams, titled something classic: Retaking America: Crushing Political Correctness. Adams quotes the warning that always appeared at the beginning of these books—something like “You, and YOU ALONE, Are in Charge of Your Fate.” And so this guy references that tagline and says, “In many ways, the American people are like these readers, able to control their future!”

Another example I really liked was this guy Eric Greitens, the former Republican governor of Missouri, who later got into a lot of scandals, just a pretty shady guy, who had also passed some serious anti-union right-to-work laws. He literally says in his autobiography that he was “addicted” to the Choose Your Own Adventure series books.

I mean, not everyone who reads these ends up thinking this way, but I definitely think that in some ways this is hegemony.

You point out that Choose Your Own Adventure rewards certain kinds of actions—the books always rewarded readers for making the highest-risk decisions. I was remembering how I, a relatively timid child as a young reader, knew that I would not make a certain scary choice—going down a hallway toward the sound of screaming, or something—in my real life, but also knew that the Choose Your Own authors would want me to make it, so I’d pick it anyway.

Yeah, there are two examples I give in the article, about how the narrative would drive you in certain directions. So the one you just mentioned, about riskiness being the object—think of how a big part of how neoliberal economists legitimize the fact that Wall Street bankers make billions of dollars is just, “Oh, well, they’re really taking a lot of risks, so we have to pay them a lot.” Which just makes me laugh because what about the single mom with no health care—why is she getting paid so little, when her whole life is risk? But you know what I mean. You, as a reader, were being taught over and over that you need to take lots of flashy risks to win.

Then the other thing is the books don’t let you make one big choice. I was totally blown away when I found out that all of the books—I didn’t remember this, at all—assume that the “you” who’s reading the book is white, and almost always a white middle-class boy. They totally could have kept [the protagonist] neutral, you know? They didn’t have to have it be a white boy.

A perfect example of how whiteness gets cast as default!

Exactly. It’s just ironic, right, you get to make all these choices, but the one choice you don’t get to make is your very identity.

I’ve been thinking so much, while talking to you, about the piece of parenting advice you sometimes hear, which is to offer two choices—each of which would be acceptable to you, as the parent. “Would you like to climb into the car seat yourself, or would you like me to help you?” Such a simple illustration of that principle of choice architecture. (This strategy does not, by the way, always work.)

Yes! I’m going to be writing a book about this whole idea, and Choose Your Own Adventure would be just one example in the book. I’m thinking of calling the book Funneled by Choice. I think what happens a lot in different areas of our lives is that we’re given two choices, maybe three, and we make those choices and it feels very free. But we’re not thinking about how people are funneling you down certain lanes.