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.

The controversy of dog-earing pages

There are a lot of things that etiquette dictates we don’t talk about in polite conversation, not because they are distasteful but instead because they’re polarizing and often antagonistic. Religion, politics, unions, and recently, vaccinations all fall into this category.

Between readers, I’ve found almost nothing starts an argument more easily than “to fold or not to fold” (except for a discussion of  Twilight… but I’ll save that for another post). To be clear, I don’t think that dog-earing pages actually equates in significance to any of the big issues that have people protesting and legislating and committing violence. However, if you want to see tempers flare among introverted, mild-mannered booksellers, I dare you to fold your pages in front of them.

I am an unapologetic page folder. That, and a general dislike of cycling, were the two things that most set me apart from my indie bookstore cohorts.

To me, a read book should look as if it was handled. It should tell a story about the reader. If the pages are folded hundreds apart, it was read in hours-long stretches. If the cover is bent or marked, it was shoved into a purse or slept on accidentally when the lateness of the hour won out over the need to keep reading. If the pages are stained, it was too good to put down while eating. If it’s unnaturally fat and wrinkled, it was read on the bank of some body of water by a clumsy reader, or it was accidentally left out in the rain. If there are notes in the margins, it was studied or beloved or both.

I could keep my books pristine by reading indoors, by stopping to eat like a civilized person, by using bookmarks (I get enough as gifts), but reading is not an activity I want to do carefully.

A colleague of mine said it best when he described books as “artifacts of our lives” (shout-out to you, Duncan Stewart). They are not just a medium to receive information or decorations for our house. They are not just commodities.

They are pieces of our time in the world. They are tactile moments of education or escape, revelation or disappointment. They reflect who we were as we experienced reading them. And if that means they get a little dirty, bent, or warped along the way, all the better.

What I read this year

Hello lovely readers.

My birthday was on Monday (yay!), which signals the end of one reading year and the start of another. This year I read about 35 books… that I remembered to write down. I know that some were missed.

In my tracking sheet (sorted by completion date below), there is a conspicuous absence of books in March and April, but for the life of me I can’t recall what I was reading then. Oh well. Next year I’ll try to be a bit more dedicated to this tracking process.

Anyway, the actual excel spreadsheet also includes columns for:

  • genre
  • who/what recommended the book
  • my rating from -5 to +5; and
  • some additional key notes about the book (e.g. The Book Thief: WWII, wonderful metaphors, sad; Mrs. Dalloway: beautiful writing, insightful, difficult; Breakfast of Champions: Satire, creative, over-hyped, addictive)

…but I thought that would be a bit much to post here. Maybe I’ll add it as a separate permanent page.

Title Author last name Author first name Completed on
Y: The Last Man, Unmanned Guerra Pia & Vaughan, Brian K. 22-Dec-13
Book Thief, The Zuzak Markus 23-Dec-13
Ready Player One Cline Ernest 31-Dec-13
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Adams Douglas 1-Jan-14
Mrs. Dalloway Woolf Virginia 2-Jan-14
Extraordinary Gilmour David 3-Jan-14
Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut Kurt 10-Jan-14
Divergent Roth Veronica 21-Feb-14
Insurgent Roth Veronica 25-Feb-14
Allegiant Roth Veronica 27-Feb-14
Squirrel Meets Chipmunk Sedaris David 4-Mar-14
Naming, The Croggan Alison 3-May-14
Riddle, The Croggan Alison 6-May-14
Crow, The Croggan Alison 11-May-14
Gone Girl Flynn Gillian 23-May-14
Emancipation Day Grady Wayne 27-May-14
Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut Kurt 8-Jun-14
Sense and Sensibility Austen Jane 11-Jun-14
Pride and Prejudice Austen Jane 19-Jun-14
Fault in our Stars Green John 6-Jul-14
Persuasion Austen Jane 14-Jul-14
Northanger Abbey Austen Jane 16-Jul-14
Emma Austen Jane 26-Jul-14
Year of the Flood Atwood Margaret 11-Aug-14
Name of the Wind, The Rothfuss Patrick 4-Sep-14
I Capture the Castle Smith Dodie 14-Sep-14
Room Donoghue Emma 7-Oct-14
Cloud McCormack Eric 17-Oct-14
Y: The Last Man, Cycles Guerra Pia & Vaughan, Brian K. 17-Oct-14
Accidental Apprentice, The Swarup Vikas 12-Nov-14
Flamethrowers, The Kushner Rachel 14-Nov-14
Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart Gary 21-Nov-14
Animal Farm Orwell George 22-Nov-14
Rabbit Run Updike John  in progress
Brothers Karamazov, The Dostoyevsky Fyodor  in progress

Book buying: Christmas 2014 edition *UPDATED*

‘Tis the season of gift giving, and I am, of course, a huge fan of giving books.

Books as gifts have many advantages:

1) They are easy to wrap. Seriously. The easiest.
2) It’s an opportunity to show that you really understand what someone likes.
3) It’s an opportunity to force what you really like on someone else… and then get to talk about it with someone (finally!).
4) You get to wander through bookstores.

Being someone who reads a lot and who used to select books for people as a job (*single tear as I remember my bookseller days*) comes with an expectation of book-choosing prowess. Literally four of my family members said, or put on their Christmas lists, “get Sarah to pick out some books — she knows what I like.”

Geez… no pressure there.

But I have met the challenge. See for yourself; below is this year’s attempt at pleasing everyone with books (**SPOILER ALERT** if you are related to me):

  • Sister: Zealot by Reza Aslan; My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  • Brother-in-law: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby; Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris; Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett
  • Mum: the latest Ken Follett; Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • Dad: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi; Wool by Hugh Howey
  • Cousin: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
  • Aunt: The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
  • Mom-in-law: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • Dad-in-law: City Beautiful by Randy Turner
  • JT: On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield

Book browsing, book buying

You can never have too many books. That’s why, though my bookshelves are overflowing, in the last month I’ve bought 21 “new” books. Peruse my haul below!

The first batch came on the September long weekend. It was our “paper” anniversary, so JT took me to the local independent bookstore and let me go wild.

IMG_2138Cloud by Eric McCormick
Flamethrowers, The by Rachel Kushner
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
by David Sedaris
Name of the Wind, The by Patrick Rothfuss
Room by Emma Donoghue
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Y: The Last Man Book 2, Cycles by Brian K. Vaughan

The second batch came a week later. A local not-for-profit used bookstore and cafe in my area was having a sale — $1 per inch for books. What’s a reader to do?

IMG_2142Better Homes and Gardens Pies and Cakes
Brideshead Revisited
by Evelyn Waugh
Death in Venice and seven other stories by Thomas Mann
Fire-Dwellers, The
by Margaret Laurence
by Marilynne Robinson
I Capture the Castle
by Dodie Smith
Name of the Rose, The by Umberto Eco
Selected Poetry by W.B. Yeats, edited by A. Norman Jeffares
Selected writings of the ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn by Aphra Behn
Sonnets, The
by William Shakespeare, edited by George Lyman Kittredge
Thorn Birds, The by Colleen McCullough
What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies

The third batch came yesterday. Mum, Sister and I went shopping in the hipster district of our city for Sister’s birthday, and after a few vintage shops with used books, I finally gave in and got a couple.

IMG_2139Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood


A reality show to blow the minds of book lovers

Do you know what week it is? It’s the week to watch Canadian celebrities face off in a literary battle for the ages as part of Canada Reads 2014. Winner gets… the bragging rights of representing the One Novel to Change Our Nation. And maybe a trophy? That part is sort of fuzzy. Check out the chart to see who is arguing for what.

The panelist

The book

The author

Stephen Lewis is one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists. A Companion of the Order of Canada, he’s the chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which provides support to women and children in Africa living with HIV/AIDS. The Year of the Flood is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, which deals with a dystopic future world that emerges after years of environmental degradation. Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most beloved writers and respected thinkers, with more than 40 books to her credit — novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, social history, and books for children.
Wab Kinew is an award-winning journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist. He’s currently the first director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. The Orenda is a visceral portrait of life at a crossroads in early Canadian history, and about the arrival of a Jesuit missionary into the life of a Huron elder and a gifted young Iroquois girl. Joseph Boyden is the author of three novels, including Through Black Spruce, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008.
Donovan Bailey is one of the fastest people in the world, and was a two-time gold medallist at the 1996 Olympic Games. He still holds the world record for the indoor 50-metre dash. Evoking the world of Paris during the Second World War, Half-Blood Blues is about the disappearance of Hiero, a talented young black German jazz musician at the hands of the Nazi Party, and his friend and fellow musician, Sid, who is still coming to terms with Hiero’s fate 50 years later. Esi Edugyan is one of Canada’s hottest young writers. Half-Blood Blues is her second novel, and it won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011.
Samantha Bee is an award-winning comic, actor and writer. She has been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart since 2003. Set during a frigid Montreal winter, Cockroach is an urgent, unsettling and insightful novel about the city’s immigrant community. Rawi Hage was born in Beirut and has lived in Montreal since the early 1990s. He is the author of three acclaimed novels, and is currently the writer-in-residence at the Vancouver Public Library.
Sarah Gadon is one of Canada’s most promising young actors and a rising star in Hollywood. She has appeared in David Cronenberg’s two most recent films, “A Dangerous Method” and “Cosmopolis,” and will be seen in several major films in 2014. Annabel is a sensitive and compelling portrait of an intersex child who is raised in rural Newfoundland as male, and yet is unable to repress his feminine side. Kathleen Winter is an award-winning author and former columnist for the Telegram in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

No matter who wins, the viewer gets the real prize. Any time you get to listen to Samantha Bee do anything, it’s a treat.

Today is day two (*link spoiler alert*) of the four-day reality debate show which you can take in any way you like your CBC (radio, TV, web). The first and second debate have concluded. I‘m not going to tell you which books/celebrities/authors have been “kicked off the island” so far, because it’s worth watching.

You should tune in tomorrow. Here’s how:

Web: Watch the livestream of the debates and participate in a daily live chat starting at 10 a.m. ET. An on-demand viadeo of the show will be available every afternoon.

CBC Radio One: Canada Reads will air at 11 a.m. local time (1:30 p.m. NL) on CBC Radio One. A podcast of the show will be available every afternoon. A repeat broadcast will air at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in NL). The debates will also air each day on SiriusXM 169 at 11 a.m., 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. the following day.

CBC-TV: Watch on CBC-TV at 4 p.m. local time, or on Documentary at 7 p.m. ET and at midnight ET.

If you miss it all, there will be a one-hour recap special on CBC Radio One on March 8 at 4 p.m. local time (4:30 in NL) and a broadcast special on CBC-TV at 1 p.m. (1:30 in NL).

Happy viewing!

S.E. Lund