Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

by Kurt Andersen

Hardcover, 2017


Random House (2017), 480 pages


History. Politics. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The single most important explanation, and the fullest explanation, of how Donald Trump became president of the United States . . . nothing less than the most important book that I have read this year.”—Lawrence O’Donnell How did we get here? In this sweeping, eloquent history of America, Kurt Andersen shows that what’s happening in our country today—this post-factual, “fake news” moment we’re all living through—is not something new, but rather the ultimate expression of our national character. America was founded by wishful dreamers, magical thinkers, and true believers, by hucksters and their suckers. Fantasy is deeply embedded in our DNA. Over the course of five centuries—from the Salem witch trials to Scientology to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, from P. T. Barnum to Hollywood and the anything-goes, wild-and-crazy sixties, from conspiracy theories to our fetish for guns and obsession with extraterrestrials—our love of the fantastic has made America exceptional in a way that we've never fully acknowledged. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams and epic fantasies—every citizen was free to believe absolutely anything, or to pretend to be absolutely anybody. With the gleeful erudition and tell-it-like-it-is ferocity of a Christopher Hitchens, Andersen explores whether the great American experiment in liberty has gone off the rails. Fantasyland could not appear at a more perfect moment. If you want to understand Donald Trump and the culture of twenty-first-century America, if you want to know how the lines between reality and illusion have become dangerously blurred, you must read this book. NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE “This is a blockbuster of a book. Take a deep breath and dive in.”—Tom Brokaw “[An] absorbing, must-read polemic . . . a provocative new study of America’s cultural history.”—Newsday “Compelling and totally unnerving.”—The Village Voice “A frighteningly convincing and sometimes uproarious picture of a country in steep, perhaps terminal decline that would have the founding fathers weeping into their beards.”—The Guardian “This is an important book—the indispensable book—for understanding America in the age of Trump.”—Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
If you want a screed about how much America sucks and how the roots of that stem from the religious convictions white Europeans brought over from the outset, this is your book. Andersen concludes that the collapse in shared reality comes from our childishness, which is tied to our religiosity. Fan
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fiction comes in for condemnation, as does cosplay, and conspiracy theories and belief in UFOs and pretty much everything else that isn’t at least cold-eyed agnosticism. I recognize that my ox is being gored so perhaps I’m not in the best position to judge, but it seemed to me that Andersen confused two very different things: relativism, which is to say that not everything that is true for me is true for you, and evangelicism, which is to say that everything I feel is true is true and if you disagree you are wrong and must be punished. By condemning both together, Andersen makes it hard for people who believe in pluralism to find a place to stand.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
*I received a copy of this book through a GoodReads Giveaway.*

I'm not sure how to feel about this book, which takes the long few of American history, going back to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation which lead to the Mayflower and groups of discontented Puritans journeying to North America.
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The primary theme is the American predisposition for fantasy - that is, in the early days, the idea of gold at Jamestown, and is now apparent in the virtual reality games played by millions. The secondary theme is religion and Americans' exceptional belief in a diversity of religions. It's quite clear the author is agnostic (he says as much), and the religious theme gets old pretty quick. However, I did appreciate this breakdown of how we arrive at the current moment politically and culturally. This book definitely resonates with current events, even if it has me questioning my own escapist tendencies.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
"Fantasyland" has its strengths, but it feels both overstuffed and, at times, lamentably superficial. One of its problems, I think, is the author's decision to make it a "500-year history," which gives him a lot of ground to cover, perhaps too much. It allows him to make the point that Americans
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have always, to a certain extent, been extremists, but, even as a (cultural) Catholic, I think he overemphasizes the role of United States' Protestant heritage in the madness we're currently experiencing. He's an agnostic, and I wouldn't be surprised if many readers feel that he plays the religion card a bit too often in "Fantasyland."

Which isn't to say that there's some good stuff. The book is filled, as one might expect, with odd facts and anecdotes about long-forgotten crazes, beliefs, and religions, and the author does a good job arguing that American delusion comes in both impossibly optimistic and apocalyptic flavors. More to the point, the describes the parallel rise of the extreme right and the extreme left during the tumultuous 1960s. His account of how fringe religious beliefs became respectable in America -- from Billy Graham to megachurches -- also seems on point, as does his account of how science's prestige has diminished in tandem. Furthermore, Andersen's good at looking through labels in order to discuss what his subjects' core beliefs actually are. On the other hand, his take on the various ways that fakery have invaded American life can seem important in some places -- it's good to remember that Americans would have once considered war reenactors, the modern version of Times Square, and adults in Halloween costumes downright bizarre. We didn't he seems to be saying, always live this way.

But I also feel that he sometimes fails to differentiate between largely harmless activities undertaken by knowing participants (Dungeons & Dragons, video games) and more dangerous kinds of fantasy (the Satanic Panic, the polarization of the news media, the growth of the extreme right). His take on why a few dozen million Americans could have pulled the level for Donald Trump is also incisive, even though dozens of such theories have been published in the last year, and, finally, his portrait of a family that's chosen to live in Disneyworld's created community is deliciously creepy and oddly prosaic at the same time.

Andersen spends some time on Walt Disney, and some on P.T. Barnum, and a bit of Karl Rove. Baudrillard comes up once or twice. But at the expense of the book's readability, I wonder if he shoudln't have included more theoreticians here and given his book a more academic bent. That, and narrowing his focus, might have made this one truly essential. "Fantasyland" is mostly a good, fun, occasionally thought provoking-read, but Kevin Young's "Bunk," knotty and disorganized as it can be, is really the one to choose over this one.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 –Year History, Kirk Andersen, author and narrator
I was so disappointed. At first, I thought it was a humorous portrayal of history; I thought the author was presenting his facts tongue in cheek. He seemed to be an equal opportunity “mocker” of
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everything. As he systematically tore down the fabric of our lifestyles, starting with our faith in G-d and continuing to our beliefs in all things supernatural and our desire to remain eternally young, yearning for fantasy and freedom from reality, I thought this is going to be kind of a self-deprecating presentation of humanity. Instead, it was a book intended to “cut off Trumpism”. As Andersen took a series of somewhat random events throughout history, to prove his point, a point which kept going further and further to the left until the last eighth of the book, it became obvious that the whole point was to present bias against the right and President Trump, the Republican Party and anyone associated with it, regardless of their accomplishments, because at this time in history it was more expedient and far more profitable.
Andersen read his own book and his voice and tone were representative of his disdain and disagreement with Trump and those on the opposite side of the political spectrum than his. In his mind, the right and the GOP are all deranged, bipolar, and/or living in a fantasy world, while he and most of those who agree with him, on the left, have the one right way. This book turned into nothing more than a hit piece on the Trump Administration by a partisan who cherry picked his facts, presented only one side of the story, the side that satisfied his viewpoint, used his own interpretations and opinions, rather than presenting the complete truth, and did it while claiming that it was the other side, the “right” side, that was not entitled to their own facts. He writes, several times, the oft quoted statement about being entitled to your own opinions, but not your facts, to make it sound like he is the only one who is presenting real facts. Actually, he is presenting his opinion and leaving out facts that would support any opposing view, mocking religion and creativity that doesn’t support his views, including television shows and journalists and news outlets that represent the right, rather than his preference, the left.
He conveniently debunks the accuracy of the polygraph, and he blatantly accuses Trump of lying while ignoring completely the lies of those on the left. Hillary Clinton who falsely claimed there was a vast right wing conspiracy and to have been shot at flying over Eastern Europe, Elizabeth Warren who claimed to be a Native American Indian, Richard Blumenthal who claimed to be a Vietnam War veteran, Bill Clinton who claimed not to have had sex with Monica Lewinsky, and other hypocrites who lied on the left were ignored or glossed over as unimportant. There have been dangerous calls for a revolution and resistance by the left that were disregarded. Maxine Waters has called for physical attacks and verbal attacks on the right and nothing was said about her insanity. Bernie Sanders called for a revolution. Nancy Pelosi has called for resistance. Madonna has wanted to blow up the White House, etc., but these were unimportant facts to Andersen in his effort to trash the views of the right.
To me, whatever sins they have accused Trump of have paled in light of the behavior on the left. The pot calls the kettle black, and it gets away with it. The media, the world of entertainment and the system of education in America, are complicit and they have been hijacked by the left in the image of Saul Alinsky that has led them to their goal. The money of socialist George Soros has funded them. They have the bully pulpit and it is hard to defeat them or even discuss their atrocious behavior because that behavior will not be covered by those on the left. They spread their lies or half-truths and do not get called out for it. The public only knows the truth that they present, the truth the left wants them to hear, but to question it is to offer yourself up to their mockery. The successes on the right are ignored or mocked or twisted in favor of concentrating on the talking points of the Progressives which only trash the President for some stupid language of his youth and, weirdly, his success in business. Anyone associated with Trump seems to be on a hit list and is destroyed. I wonder how these people sleep at night.
The author calls the President a fraud and a racist in the manner of the left-leaning talking heads who use identity politics to further their Progressive agenda, stoking the hate and the fear. He blames Breitbart, Roger Ailes and Fox News for supporting Trump and those on the right, but he writes little or nothing about the constant condemnation and skewed stories coming out of CNN, MSNBC and other cable news outlets, as well as the New York Times. He ignores the corruption that took place during the Obama administration as in the IRS investigations. He ignores the bias of social media which ran with every hint of negative news on Trump implying, without proof, anything they could to damage him while blocking their positive posts on their sites. He ignores the bias on college campuses. He brings up the fantasies that people create, like the psychiatrist who treated Sybil and the case of sexual abuse against the children in the day care center run by the Martin family to prove that the people on the right have been trained to live in a world of unreality. Even though the stories about the Martins and Sybil were proven to be false, the press and the government raged on, engaging in character assassination and they still engage in that despicable behavior today. He talks about the desire to remain young being so strong that the use of cosmetic surgery is commonplace, breast implants, botox, and any means available is being used to maintain the fantasy of eternal youth. Adults do not want to grow up or accept responsibility for their actions.
He mocks those who believe in G-d. Faith and religion are definitely not on his menu. They are the biggest fairy tale of all. He believes that things like Disneyland and The “X” Files have been instrumental in causing Americans to disregard reality and cling to childhood. He dislikes homeopathic medications and natural medicine. He mocks Mormons, Baptists, most everyone who believes in a higher power than themselves. He complains that Trump exploits us and is destroying America, while Obama and Clinton represented hope and the future. He mocks the wiretapping theory that Trump presented, although it now appears to possibly have been true as facts about the investigation into Trump and those on the right seem almost like a silent coup with government employees secretly engaging in behavior to thwart him and delegitimize his Presidency. The author cites Politifact as a source. It is a left-leaning fact checker, as most of the fact checking sites are. He mocks the Enquirer, Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh. He says nothing about Keith Ellison, Rachel Maddow or Joe Scarborough or Mika Brezinski or Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg’s foul-mouthed comments. He speaks in such deleterious ways about the President of the United States that is surprising to me that he is not being investigated for undermining the government.
It takes a long time to read this supposed expose because it proclaims to cover 500 years of history, however he has chosen the historic moments that side with his views. He traces religion, the birth of science fiction, the use of magical realism, Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye, Pat Robertson and even brings up Hitler, among so many other ideas to prove HIS point. He criticizes religious leaders for their beliefs that are based on legend, not facts.
At the end, in his remarks, he explains who he really is and what he really believes. He believes that Trump’s election signals doom. This narrative may succeed and really bring doom to the country because the left with Antifa, which he doesn’t mention, with Black Lives Matter, which he doesn’t mention, with Occupy Wall Street which he doesn’t mention, and other groups that are calling for resistance and committing acts of violence against this government and its supporters are being ignored. The degradation of American culture is being aided and abetted by the author and those that support him. We will be doomed if they take over because he and his ilk do not believe in conversation that doesn’t support their own views, not do they believe in compromise. As Andersen worries, so do I, but for the opposite reasons.
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LibraryThing member arosoff
This is a good book, but inside it is a great one struggling to get out. Andersen's thesis of a national tendency towards the fantastical is a good one, but he's trying to cover too much territory at once. Almost every element of recent history, including pop culture, is fair game, and it makes for
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a lot of short chapters on topics that could fill a book in themselves.

While Andersen rightfully aims his pen at all sides--left wing New Agers and the right wing evangelicals--some of the writing on religion in particular feels off. He's too obviously scoffing, and is no religious scholar, making some fairly elementary errors. (The New Testament was not written in Hebrew!)

It's still a worthwhile read, and a fun one, but it could have been even better. I dithered between 3 and 4 and decided to play bad cop.
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LibraryThing member nog
Not long after Trump was elected, Andersen elected to write this book. Its subject was a rather obvious one to exploit. As many journalists do, he exaggerates the influence of the targets he zeroes in on. This is especially the case in his chapters on the 60's. Some of his statements about how even
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academics discarded rationality in droves then are hard to take seriously. By the midpoint in the book, one grows tired of his repeated phrases about the "fantasy-industrial complex". Andersen undermines his premise (one in which I acknowledge a certain level of validity) by throwing out there whatever he thinks might stick. It's way too scattershot to be considered an impartial and well-researched study; it's more like Andersen's cherrypicking stuff he wants to feature and engage in a rant that might have been building up in his psyche for years.

Having said that, his book is sort of an "America's Greatest Hits of Magical Thinking", delineating a constant thread throughout our history of willful belief by some people in the most outrageous and idiotic stuff. At such, there seems to be a disquieting demise in critical thinking by Americans. It certainly does not bode well for the future; in the Internet age, no one is "in charge" of reality (as compared to, for instance, the Catholic Church in France in the 15th century). In other words, rampant solipsism in a population that has no idea what the word "solipsism" means.
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LibraryThing member writemoves
I should first point out that this is a large book ( over 440 pages) and it covers a lot of history and ground. This book is a lament of what the author perceives as the mutation of America into Fantasyland. Where truth does not matter and reason is subordinate to what people feel in their heart.
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What makes this book worthwhile is that future historians will seek it as a resource tool in 25 years or more trying to understand current American politics and culture. Anderson provides huge topic bandwidth. He writes about our history ( going back 500 years), religion, politics, media, economics, entertainment and other topics. And as an advisory to Trump supporters, Andersen is not a fan of the president as indicated by the quote below from the book.

"Trump was as much or more of an impresario as a performer, and not just in his real estate hucksterism and his deals with the WWE. Before the full emergence of Fantasyland, Trump’s various enterprises will have seen an embarrassing, ridiculous, incoherent jumble for a businessman, let alone a serious candidate for president. What connects a Muslim - mausoleum - themed casino in New Jersey to a short-lived sham professional football league to an autobiography he did not write to hotels and buildings he didn’t build to a mail order meat business to a beauty pageant to an airline that lasted three years to a sham "University" to repeatedly welshing on giant loans to selling deodorants and mattresses and a vodka and toilet waters called Empire and Success to a board game named after himself to a TV show about pretending to fire people? What connects them all, of course, is the new total American embrace of admixtures of the fictional and real and of fame for fame’s sake."

However Andersen does not believe that America went haywire with the Trump election. It started much earlier. He returns back to the days of the pilgrims and shows the evolution or maybe more appropriately called, de-evolution of reason and good judgment throughout our history. He cites various scams, conspiracy theories and fake news and how many Americans have bought into them, mostly eagerly. Andersen, who describes himself as an agnostic, examines various religions and spiritual practices with a jaundiced eye and how they impacted politics and culture.

Andersen has many interested theories and analysis. Not sure I bought into all of them but Fantasyland is thought provoking and more worth one's time and attention to cable talk shows.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Along with a lot of interesting information, this book has some oversimplification, a certain lack of empathy, and a dash of snarkiness. As a long-standing member of the reality-based community, I agree with most of what Andersen has to say. We are a more religious country than other rich nations,
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and this permeates our politics. We (at least many of us) have always been willing to believe six impossible things before breakfast, and many of us still are -- more, in fact, than fifty years ago. And we certainly find ourselves in a weird and frightening situation. Andersen documents these facts in extensive detail, and makes a compelling case that they are not unrelated. To me, however, the case seems oversimplified: Andersen seems to trace a path from religiousity to credulity to unreasonableness to Donald Trump without giving much weight to other influences (the frontier past, the demographically changing present). And this, I think, weakens this book as an argument. So does what feels to me like a rather dismissive attitude towards religion. If you agree already with most of what Andersen has to say, it's an enjoyable and informative read. But if you don't, I don't think that you are going to be convinced.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
Andersen's opinion of the current U.S. could be summarized in the line form a Paul Simon song "still crazy after all these years." He attributes our lack of allegiance to reality to a combination of Enlightenment search for truth and our religious background. He doesn't seem to take into account
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the economic factors that have influenced the culture. Interesting but a little one-sided.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
It seems like a great many of American citizens are living in a Fantasyland, a land where we can fool ourselves that those like minded people, people who share our beliefs, are n fact correct, truth telling. Seriously, how did we manage to get here, to a world and with a leader, who has taken his
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fantasies to a new level? The author shows us how this refusal to see other view points, often taking this to extreme levels, has always existed.

He takes us back 500 years to the Puritans, a group of Uber religious, who were convinced that they, and only they new the true path to heaven. The witch trials, where those who were different or who disagreed with the established truth were put to death. They must have been sent by the devil. Onto The Gold rush were many gave up everything g to follow the lure of a get rich scheme. The NRA, convincing many that they would be killed in their beds if they were not able to own a firearm, and if that wasn't enough that the evil government was intent on taking away our rights, if we start with the guns who knows what will follow. To UFO abductions, recalled memories, video games, virtual reality, and the internet, fake news and the harm this has all caused. So many other things throughout history. Our appalling habit to revere movie stars, even reality TV stars as heroes, I mean you have only look at the major amount of money the Kardashians have made, for doing and being nothing at all. He calls out those, like Dr. Oz who should know better but has instead turned into a panderer of stardom and the masses. Of course the biggest reality TV star of them all is now our President, and he continues to fire people almost weekly.

A man who is smart enough to understand some people's minds and play on that to reach the highest office of them all. I am not, however, going to turn this into my personal discourse on the President, but read this book. I think you will come to a new understanding of exactly how this happened and exactly what played into making this even possible. Think you will be as appalled as I was at the lengths people can go, how they are capable of fooling themselves and the lengths they will go to in order to defend their beliefs.

ARC from Netgalley.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
The key point: if you have a belief you can always find "facts" to support it.
LibraryThing member dmturner
“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control.”

That’s the premise of this lively, well researched, discouraging, entertaining book, and the author
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convinced me. In fact, I had to give up reading my political Twitter feed for a bit in order to survive, because every Presidential Tweet and conspiracy theory confirmed what the book says.

The narrative begins with Protestantism and ends with Donald Trump, sweeping up UFOs and antivaxxers in its net along with every other flim flam and preposterous obsession in the history of the USA.

The only thing I don’t like about the book is the author’s propensity for introducing people without giving their names at the outset, so that I had to hang on to descriptions in my head without knowing whom they described.

Highly recommended, though it will make you give up your faith that you will win the lottery one day and you will not believe in the healing power of crystals any more.
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LibraryThing member snash
A terrifying look at the number of fantasies prevalent now essentially and a look at where they came from as far back as the first American settlements. Assuredly not the single factor explaining where we now are but a significant one.
LibraryThing member hblanchard
This book has two major premises: (1) American irrationality is as old as the republic itself, older. It's as American as apple pie. (2) Right wing and Christian ascendency and imperviousness to facts share a common origin with left wing hippie culture of the 1960s, i.e. create your own reality.
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However you weigh the accuracy of the arguments, this book is a delight to read in both its accessibility and its inspiration.
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LibraryThing member zomgpwnbbq
Ok, boomer.

The premise is on point, the book is well researched, but the lens is totally myopic. It's been fantasy since Sumeria, not just when the world changed around the author's perception. I don't regret finishing it but a part of me wished I walked.
LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
This is a very interesting, and, I think, valuable book to have come out at this time and place. Surveys he cites show that one fifth of Americans think the 9/11 attacks were an inside job by American government agents, and four fifths believe that the Bible is factual history right down to the
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creation story. Only a third of us believe that the current climate changes are human caused. Various religious sects believe all the others are heretic. The author states that between the 60s anything goes ideology, the huge show business influence, extreme religions, and the internet, the lines between reality and what we merely believe in have become very, very blurred. We put feelings and beliefs ahead of verifiable facts, in ways that people in the rest of the world don’t. And this loss of touch with reality brings us to the point where religious beliefs are being used to direct boards of education and medical care, and we elect politicians on what they say rather than what their voting record (or lack thereof) shows they’ve done.

American history, from the very first European settlers (barring the Vikings, who didn’t stick around), has been different from that of other countries. He goes through the details of why Americans are unique in how they see the world. He writes about not just religion and politics but immersive gaming and comic cons. (note to the author: I’ll go out on a limb and say that 99% of us who go to cons don’t believe we’re really vampires, in an alternate Victorian age where ray guns are powered by steam, or that we are capable of flying- it’s just *fun*)

The book is not overly long (over 400 pages) but it is a solid read. Despite the length and the deluge of facts, the author has an entertaining writing style that drew me in and made this a book I couldn’t put down. I think it’s an important subject to think about, and possibly reassess how our own beliefs influence our actions. Five stars
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
This is an extraordinary book with lots of history about the US as a nation built on fantasy and delusion, finally culminating in Trump and the crazy beliefs of many 'Mericans. I highly recommend it. Those who love the story of the Pilgrims will be disturbed.

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