The fraught experience of reading Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead was one of a stack of books that my parents gave me as a high school graduation gift. Its fellows were 1984, Me Talk Pretty One Day, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird among others. I’ve always been a passionate reader, but this gift was meant to help round out my library and my way of thinking about the world.

So I read The Fountainhead that summer and then Atlas Shrugged soon after. I enjoyed them, and not because I believe capitalism is the answer to all of society’s problems or because Ayn Rand is the best writer in the world (that 30 page manifesto voiced by John Galt, while impressive, is a challenge to power through for even the most determined of readers). No, on first reading I enjoyed them for some reasons that I will detail below, perhaps the first of which is I hadn’t yet learned that reading Ayn Rand was a political statement.

I went to a pretty liberal university. Liberal, politically. Of the two major universities in my city, mine has a certain reputation for being the home of hippies and hipsters, which made it a great place to protest things or buy hemp products but a difficult place to read Ayn Rand.

I was a 17-year old freshman, educated but sheltered. It took me a while to learn not to talk about Rand at all. Forget actually talking about the content of her argument, somehow even mentioning you’d read her books was off-limits. It was a strange experience. I hadn’t known Rand was associated with extreme-right Republicans, spouting selective snippets of her novels to explain why greed is good. I hadn’t known her books were second on the corporate asshole reading list and first on the liberal feminist list of books to vilify. (Let’s be clear here that I am a liberal feminist. But it’s in university that many of us first learn to look upon the baked-in injustices and institutional prejudices to which we were previously completely blind, and so on my first reading of these novels, I skated over the disastrous consent issues in the rape-fantasy scenes with a vague sense of discomfort, not yet able to fully conceptualize the implications and dangers of Rand’s message.)

Though people hear The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged and think of angry, white, privileged, middle-aged men who have a lot of money and zero compassion, I had the chance to read the books without those associations.

There were obvious flaws in her philosophy. I could see them with only a bit of effort. The most major, in my opinion, was: yeah it’s great if everyone just works as hard as they can and the most talented win out… but for that system to truly work, everyone would have to start on equal footing and receive equal access to opportunities (obviously a far, far cry from any human society I can think of and unthinkable in Rand’s “self first” ideology). However, I thought Rand made some good points – and I will intentionally say “Rand” instead of “Rand’s characters” since there seems to be no difference. Here’s a random sampling, from my memory:

  • She thought everyone should work their hardest at whatever they do and everyone who is willing to work should have a job
  • She thought the people who are the best should be rewarded regardless of their connections
  • She thought people should make their own decisions and not rely on advertising or popular opinion, only on reason and fact
  • She thought quality shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of placating people’s feelings
  • She was a little mixed on women… but she wrote certain female characters equal to their male counterparts in power, intelligence and business acumen, which is pretty good for the decades in which she was writing
  • She thought women should be in control of their own bodies
  • She thought religion was harmful and “holy men” were frauds; same with public relations people
  • She thought people shouldn’t be afraid of something new (and that we shouldn’t fall back into a certain behavior simply because that’s how something has always been done)
  • She thought architecture should suit its surroundings
  • She thought people should be passionate about what they do and what they believe
  • She was completely opposed to war, calling it the second-greatest evil humankind can perpetuate

In fact, I doubt she’d think very highly of any of the politicians who I’ve recently heard quote her novels and who use her name as a Republican secret handshake. Is money the only interest they actually share with Rand? If we put aside the typical American political-right positions on foreign policy, religion, public relations, and women’s health, money seems to be the only thing that remains. And who knows if Rand’s love of capitalism would have held out in today’s world? Her mid twentieth-century vision of capitalism had a purity to it. The formula was basically: hard work = more money. To my knowledge, it didn’t conceive of hedge funds or securities trading or David Li’s Gaussian copula formula.

By all accounts Ayn Rand was a smart, opinionated woman who wasn’t afraid to tell powerful people that they were destroying the world. I doubt she would look at the current presidential candidates (regardless of party) and give any of them a thumbs up because they sort of adhere to some portion of her philosophy. She’d probably be their most vocal critic.

I am definitely left-of-centre, politically. I should add, Canadian left-of-centre, to clarify to my American readers why I don’t use the term “Democrat.”

Anyway, I’m thankful for the “socialist” benefits that allow me to live a healthy, educated life. I believe pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is ridiculous, and that those who have lots should give a shit about those who have nothing. I think there should be a basic human imperative to help others, and if I have to sacrifice a chunk of what I earn to ensure that all of my neighbors can have access to food, housing, education, healthcare, employment, and a decent standard of living, I will do that without complaint. It seems obvious to me that a community, city, or country where the least fortunate residents are given access to these fundamental needs will be a place that breeds happiness, collaboration, and kindness. And maybe even wealth.

(This is not to say that Canada does a great job at this, especially when it comes to supporting and creating opportunities for our aboriginal population, but we are better than some.)

I say all this not to try to encourage you politically one way or another – to each his/her own – but to prove something about people who read Rand as opposed to people who use her books as self-promoting dogma.

There’s no way Rand and I would be on the same page politically, but that doesn’t mean her ideas are worthless, or that my time reading her books was wasted. Reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (more than once, I should mention), helped me think critically about my government, about capitalism, and about how we define value, for the first time. I don’t have to agree with the message to enjoy the books, and in fact my belief in my own positions was formulated and strengthened through understanding Rand’s contrary arguments.

It comes down to this: I had the singular experience of reading a highly politicized author while being blissfully unaware of her significance. In the years after exploring her ideas, the reading of them hasn’t spoiled my compassion or increased my greed. Rather, the reading of her ideas has brought as much, if not more, value to my way of reasoning and thinking critically as any other books I have read.

Belated Fringe reviews for your reading pleasure

Hi, friends.

I know it may look like I went to the Winnipeg Fringe and never returned, but that was not quite  the case. I did see an awful lot of shows (but thankfully, not a lot of awful shows). I shattered my previous Fringing record. Here are my brief reviews of those experiences:

Burning Hearts: a skillfully told and atmospheric one-man show. 4 inspirational ghosts out of 5.

The Telephone: a bit hammy for my taste, but the singalong was cute. At the very least, you should leave with a smile. I give it 2 rotary phones out of 5.

White Pants from Hip.Bang: 4 spilled glasses of wine out of 5. Everything you need from a sketch show. Highlights? Cooool Tips and the “clothes fastener” improv.

Three Men in a Boat: 3 Britishisms out of 5. The actors were incredible, but I’d rather see them in a different play.

Channeling Kevin Spacey: Solid, well-acted and funny (esp. if you’re a Spacey or Pacino fan). 3.8 gold chains out of 5 from JT. Round down for me.

For Body and Light presents Coming and Going: Moody and damp contemporary dance and spoken word poetry. 2.5 rubber boots out of 5 for neato concept and lighting but strange execution. (5 yeses out of 5 for local poet Chimwemwe Undi’s opener.)

Hey ’90’s Kids, You’re Old: 5 Baby Bottle Pops out of 5. Delivers the perfect balance of nostalgic warmth and legit teasing. Highlight is Where’s Waldo and Carmen San Diego online dating, but every sketch is strong. Best for those born in the 80s (obvs).

Die Roten Puntkte: Best Band in the World: With lyrics like “You’re like a verb, always doing things to me” Die Roten Puntkte really is the best. 5 bananas out of 5.

The Orchid and the Crow at Fringe was excellent. Funny, sad, and smart. I give it 4.5 yellow jerseys out of 5.

Saw Snafu Dance’s Snack Music and loved the skittles and the puppetry. It’s too bad the audience didn’t provide much improv help. 3.5 out-of-tune zithers out of 5.

ViVA Dance Company’s Dreamscape kept getting stronger with each piece. I give it 4 barefoot pirouettes out of 5.

Major Matt Mason Collective’s Air was incredible. I left with numb fingers from the anxious fists I made. I give it 5 doubling cubes out of 5 (and a bag of chips). ***My favourite of the whole Fringe, ever***

Spotlight: Short performance which the moody, anxiety-ridden creative types will find familiar. Patchy casting (ironic) with a couple bright spots. 3 last chances out of 5.

How to Talk to Human Beings: witty, dialogue-heavy script with solid acting (Gilmore-esque with more neuroses). 4 polite Canadians at the end of their ropes out of 5.

Read recently: The Martian by Andy Weir

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Published: serial blog turned self-published e-book in 2011 turned physical from by Crown Publishers in 2014
Read: July 1 & 2, 2015
Recommended by: someone online

Synopsis (from Andy Weir’s website)
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Review
First, maybe I’m crazy, but I assumed something called The Martian would be shelved in science fiction.

For a reason I can’t quite understand, it was shelved in fiction/literature. I had an interesting time trying to track it down. I know that’s not the book’s fault, but it was an inauspicious start to the reading experience.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about this book: the main character’s sarcasm (which made me laugh out loud on a few occasions), the absence of a romantic story arc (which is a refreshing change from everything else I’ve watched or read lately), the not-so-subtle jabs at bureaucracy (which are necessary with a book that involves a government agency with an $18 billion budget)… all good stuff.

But the thing I loved about this book? It was basically a giant high-five to all the big-brained something-ists (astrophysic-, botan-, chem-, etc.) out there. It’s a book about heroic, interesting  scientists. Look, I don’t know anything more than the average person about physics, engineering, or astronomy, but The Martian reads as if the author knows about all of these things, and it’s impressive.

This is a novel where the science drives the story, and while that should be dry, instead it’s just interesting and different. Yay!

I’m a bit nervous about it becoming a movie (coming out on October 2, 2015 starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, etc., etc.). Yes, there’s plenty of action, and I’m sure Ridley Scott and his cinematographers, designers, and special effects peeps will have a splendid time creating an impactful visual experience of the surface of Mars… it could be an exciting and stimulating film… but the SCIENCE. I think the film will have to cut out all of the technical details that I felt made the story special. I guess we’ll see.

As always: If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE (and preferably an independent bookstore) instead of an online retailer — though as The Martian was originally written and released online and then as an e-book, maybe this time I can get off my paper-loving high horse.

S.E. Lund

Re-reading binge

I borrowed the first book in Jack Whyte’s Dream of Eagles cycle from my mum on Sunday. I’ve read the series maybe three times before. The books are long — I believe all are over 600 pages; some significantly more than that — and including all of the companion books, there are nine in total. Nine. Even though I love them, I usually get tired around book five, because it’s a lot of time spent in that world (generations upon generations, in fact).

It’s historical fiction, though often shelved in fantasy, which has always bothered me. Sure, it’s about King Arthur and Camulod, but it’s an historical imagining of the “real” people behind the legend. There’s no magic in it. That’s the point.

It’s Thursday now, and I’m well into the third book, The Eagles’ Brood. It’s the one where the narrator changes from Publius to Merlyn, and it always takes me a bit to get over the fact I won’t be experiencing the world through Publius’s eyes any longer. It’s like when The Doctor re-generates. It takes me a while to give the new one a chance. (You too, Whovians?)

Anyway, I truly love these books. They’re well written and the research is super impressive. For a while after I re-read them, I know a lot about the decline of Rome. I know several of the dates of significant invasions in Britain. I know quite a bit about the military structure of the Roman Legions. I know a smidgen about early Christianity. These are all things I learned on previous readings (and, in part, in World History classes), but they come flooding back, and it’s nice to feel like I’m re-visiting and refreshing my knowledge.

These books are also pretty “R-rated.” Lots of sex; lots of death. Not quite to the level of GoT (because, let’s be honest, George R.R. Martin has set that bar shockingly high), but certainly more than your average novel.

If you enjoy historical fiction or books about war or series’ that go on forever or King Arthur stories or Canadian authors or layered and flawed heroes, I would recommend these books. The Skystone is first. Enjoy!

I’m so jealous of future people

Have you heard about the Future Library (“Framtidsbiblioteket”) art project by Katie Paterson? Basically, one writer every year until 2114 will contribute a text to the Future Library, with the writings held unpublished until then.

A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply the paper for the special anthology of books of the writings  to be printed in one hundred years time. As per the website: “Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.”

Margaret Atwood was asked to be the inaugural writer for Future Library which is fitting, I suppose, since her most popular works have been speculative fiction. I’m just jealous of the future humans who get to read her contribution.

I love this idea, though I would love it a lot more if someone would have started it, say, 50 years ago, so I could have a chance of reading the anthology.

Umm… literature vlogs have taken over my life.

Dearest readers and friends,

How did I not hear about The Lizzie Bennet Diairies until a couple weeks ago? Please – if you enjoy being entertained, binge-watching anything, Jane Austen, attractive people with great hair, increasing the “adorbs” in your life, and appreciating a Pride and Prejudice adaptation that feels fresh and modern – watch this series. Want an opinion other than mine? Read this article.

In my consumption of the fledgling genre of literary vlogs, I’ve also devoured The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (set in BC — yay Canada!) and Emma Approved… and I’ve started on Welcome to Sanditon and Frankenstein, M.D..

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was brilliant, and I’m truly sad that I didn’t get to have the immersive experience of watching/tweeting/etc. while it was going.

The Autobiography of Jane Eyre grew on me. The production quality was slightly lower and in a different style than the Pemberley Digital productions, but Jane sold the series. However, the real stars are the actresses who play Mary and Diana, who show up for some much-needed comedy and joy at just the right moment.

Emma Approved is… as good as it can be considering that Emma is my least favourite Austen. The actress who plays Emma is actually great. It’s hard to play a pretentious, spoiled brat who interferes in everyone’s life and still be, well, likeable, but somehow she manages it (beeteedubbs, Cher Horowitz got a pass). If only they would do Sense & Sensibility. Or Persuasion! Please Persuasion!

 

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Read (not so) recently: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Title: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Published in 2000 by Little, Brown and Co.
Read sometime in 2007 and then July 2010
Recommended by: The staff at Chapters as a gift for me

Synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly:

Sedaris is Garrison Keillor’s evil twin: like the Minnesota humorist, Sedaris focuses on the icy patches that mar life’s sidewalk, though the ice in his work is much more slippery and the falls much more spectacularly funny than in Keillor’s. Many of the 27 short essays collected here (which appeared originally in the New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere) deal with his father, Lou, to whom the book is dedicated.

Sedaris also writes here about the time he spent in France and the difficulty of learning another language. After several extended stays in a little Norman village and in Paris, Sedaris had progressed, he observes, “from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. ‘Is thems the thoughts of cows?’ I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.” But in English, Sedaris is nothing if not nimble: in one essay he goes from his cat’s cremation to his mother’s in a way that somehow manages to remain reverent to both of the departed. “Reliable sources” have told Sedaris that he has “tended to exhaust people,” and true to form, he will exhaust readers of this new book, too – with helpless laughter.

The good:

Sedaris’s stories are funny, intelligent, and dysfunctional. With writing both fresh and bitter, his semi-fictionalized personal snapshots put on display the horrifying, embarrassing, self-doubting, uncomfortable, and ultimately triumphant moments in his life. I predict you’ll be amused. And if you somehow fail to see parallels of yourself in some of his experiences, you’ve led a more charmed life than me.

The bad:

I can’t think of any reason not to read it. Maybe it won’t be to your taste, but don’t you take that risk with every book you choose?

The other:

The first time I read this book I flew through it. It felt light and humorous and not particularly memorable. The second time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day was a totally different experience. Jay and I were on a road trip. During a fourteen-hour driving day covering the blandest part of the Prairies, I chose to flip off the radio and read this book aloud. (Me Talk Pretty One Day – and really all of Sedaris’s oeuvre – benefit hugely from being read aloud. It allows the reader to pick up on the rhythm and timing of Sedaris’ comedic precision.) While reading the essay from which the title was plucked, Jay and I were laughing so much we were ugly crying. We nearly crashed.

Ever since, Sedaris has been Jay’s favourite author. Of the 15 books in our house that we say belong to Jay, three are by Sedaris.

Jay’s bookshelf, in no particular order:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Leather by David Sedaris
– Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling three books
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Anchorboy by Jay Onrait
Kings of the Rings: 125 Years of the World’s Biggest Bonspiel by Sean Grassie
The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester
– two investing books
– a couple of childhood favourites

Not a bad selection, actually. For an accountant.

I got the chance to meet Sedaris when he was on a book tour for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Note: I don’t really care if fiction authors are likeable – but autobiography relies on building an affinity with the author/protagonist, and disliking him in person would tarnish his stories for me. I’m relieved to report that he’s almost precisely as charming and awkward in person as he is on paper (and presumably on the radio, although honestly American public radio is not part of my life). I couldn’t think of anything witty to say when he signed my book, but he wrote a flattering message anyway.

As always:

If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to go to a bookstore – it’s half the fun.

S.E. Lund