Latest Book: “The Fountainhead”

June 1, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 7:49 pm   Category: Book Reviews

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is one of those books that a lot of people talk about so I figured I should get around to reading it. I finally did recently. Here is my review.

Grade: B

The Good

The book is a real page turner (even when you have it on your ipod). Weaknesses in prose notwithstanding I found myself really wanting to see what would happen next. That is a good sign with any book. It is heavy on philosophy and while others might not appreciate that I dug it.

The Bad

Well, the writing seemed stilted to me. It was sort of a bumpy ride getting through this one. The philosophizing was generally ham-fisted in my opinion. And the heroes seemed like mentally ill freaks to me — especially in the first half of the book.

Random thoughts

Ok, when the book started and Howard Roark was introduced I was thinking “How odd that she chose an autistic savant as her hero”. Roark seriously sounded like either a sociopath or perhaps someone suffering from a form of autism. His inability to relate to human beings or empathize seemed like tell-tale signs to me. I was surprised to realize later that Roark was supposed to be our hero and exemplar in the book — a sort of “real man of genius” — rather than some Rain-Man character.

Then Dominique was introduced and I thought: “Wow a mentally ill sociopath. How odd that Rand introduced another character with mental problems”. I later learned that wasn’t what Rand wanted me to think. Oh well. With her cold disdain for humanity, inability to empathize, masochistic tendencies, and rape fantasies, Dominique was clearly a nut job. I think we were supposed to like her though.

As the book progresses it becomes clear that in Rand’s Fountainhead world there are a tiny handful of super-smart demigods — Roark, Dominique, Toohey, and later Gail Wynand — who can manipulate and control everyone else in the world (and partially read each others minds). All the rest people in the world were apparently contemptible sheep-like pawns to be generally manipulated by the enlightened demigods. (I got the feeling Rand placed herself squarely in that demigod category as well BTW)

Rands philosophy preaches some things I agree with. She celebrates the grand potential of humans as individuals. She rails against philosophies or systems of government that try to repress the potential of individuals. She preached long and hard about “Creators” vs. “Second-handers”, which basically has to do with original thinkers and artists vs. copycats and leeches. She celebrates human competence and excellence while condemning incompetence. (I found this particular message about the virtues of real competence inspiring actually.) Of course Rand is a ham-fisted philosopher so in process of throwing out certain vices of communal theories she basically chucks all religion, charity, and altruism out the window. I would say that is throwing out the baby with the bathwater but that probably doesn’t do justice to Rand. I’d say she blows up the entire house with the baby in the tub in an effort to get rid of the bathwater.

Thankfully, the Roark character seemed less socially retarded and less mentally ill at the end of the book than he did at the start. Still our hero Roark proved to be an extremist and dangerous zealot who blows crap up when the world doesn’t comply with his wishes. Rand goes to great lengths to make that seem like a virtue…

Also, throughout the book Rand tells us that Roark is a genius and the other demigod characters all immediately recognize that his designs are objectively perfect and that all other architects in the world design derivative crap. But Rand doesn’t explain the objective artistic standard used for this conclusion… Maybe that is because such standards are largely subjective in nature… But then again Rand was the original objectivist

Anyhow, I found the book worth reading. I recommend it to all. If for no other reason, so you can recognize all the pop culture references to The Fountainhead going forward. (See a spoof in The Simpsons a couple of weeks ago here).

16 Comments »

  1. Wow, if that’s a B I want to see an F…

    Comment by Matt W. — June 1, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  2. I guess I never liked the way she presents Roark as being the perfect ideal man.
    In doing so she represents those with religious beliefs as being weak which, of course, is her intention. I haven’t read it in years but is is well worth reading for prose value if nothing else.

    Comment by Bruce Johns — June 1, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  3. Heh…I’d rather get four root canals than read Rand. I tried with the Fountainhead. I felt like shooting the characters.

    Comment by Dan — June 1, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  4. As much as I had the same thoughts as you, Geoff, about Rand’s philosophy, I really enjoyed the dynamic between Toohey and Roark as antitheses.

    Even if you disagree with Rand’s theories, I think the book works well as a great piece of literature. It deserves at least a B+.

    Comment by jondh — June 1, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  5. As literature I give the book a B-. As philosophy a solid D with extra points for sheer audacity. I read it mostly as a matter of historical interest – it has sold more than six million copies despite poor reviews.

    If someone wants to read a more sober take on the same general idea try The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, Nobel Prize Winner Economics 1974.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 1, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

  6. Geoff,

    How about a book comparison? How would you rate Fountainhead against 1984 or Brave New World?

    Personally, I prefer the latter to Fountainhead, which seemed somewhat 2 dimensional to me. As you mentioned, she blows up the house with the baby and bathwater in it.

    Comment by rameumptom — June 2, 2009 @ 6:06 am

  7. a solid D with extra points for sheer audacity

    lol! For some reason I think that if you said that about me I’d wear it like a badge of honor.

    Comment by BrianJ — June 2, 2009 @ 9:04 am

  8. I never read any of her books except for Anthem, which I really enjoyed (and it’s short). I read Terry Goodkind for a fantasy world based on Rand’s philosophy, which I give a solid B for the most part.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — June 2, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  9. I have only read Atlas Shrugged but will probably get around to this eventually. It seems a little more engaging than Moby Dick was. I did like this though:
    “Anyhow, I found the book worth reading. I recommend it to all. If for no other reason, so you can recognize all the pop culture references”
    David Plotz gave that same reason (among many) for reading the bible.

    Comment by TStevens — June 3, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  10. I’ve read both Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead, in that order. Both page-turners (except in Atlas where Rand basically gives her manifesto in a 150 page or so speech by character John Galt, I had to skip that part) Overall, IMO these are great books. I don’t agree with all the philosophy, but for free-market guys like me, she makes some blood-boiling points. It’s from the humanistic part of her thinking that she and I part ways.

    Fountainhead can be an inspiring book for creative types who need a push over the edge into the “this is who I am and what I do” freefall.

    Are there other philosophers that write in this fictional manner to spell out their grandiose philosophies that I might enjoy reading?

    Comment by Keith R — June 4, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

  11. I would say that is throwing out the baby with the bathwater but that probably doesn’t do justice to Rand. I’d say she blows up the entire house with the baby in the tub in an effort to get rid of the bathwater.

    I love this! I only know of Rand–haven’t read her–but this seems like a nice summary point on her. :)

    Comment by Ziff — June 6, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  12. For some reason I think that if you said that about me I’d wear it like a badge of honor.

    When I say “extra points for sheer audacity”, I mean that looking at a point of view taken to its logical extreme can be unusually informative. The rationale sustaining moderate points of view have a greater tendency to be lost in the muddle.

    My number one problem with Rand is her failure to distinguish between coercive and non-coercive forms of communitarianism. In Rand’s world there would be no churches, no scholarships, no benevolent organizations of any kind. That sort of overweening distaste for voluntary charitable activity poisons her much more persuasive account of the downside of all-encompassing government regulation and the accompanying suppression of individual initiative and creative activity.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 6, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

  13. 1984 and Brave New World are much better than The Fountainhead, but even those two I think I enjoyed more as a teenager than I would now. The Fountainhead movie is a guilty pleasure, however.

    To answer Keith R., for some philosophical novels that are actually serious works of art you may like The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch, or The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil.

    Comment by Bill — June 7, 2009 @ 2:26 am

  14. the fountainhead was fantastic. i have one disagreement…its never too late to start at what you ‘should have done’ earlier. its never too late to find your ‘calling.’ perhaps if your goal is popular acclaim, then it can be too late. for ex: if keith richards were to start in rock n roll today…ya, not gonna happen. but an old man can still learn to play the guitar to please himself and find satisfaction.

    Comment by chris b — June 7, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  15. wow. My thoughts on this book eXACTLY. SOCIOPATHS. I dind’t understand/relate to one social interaction in the entire book! I felt like I was reading a book written by a complete sociopath. Strange experience.

    Comment by elisita — September 13, 2009 @ 12:16 am

  16. i believe that i have read that, at least in fountainhead, that this was NOT taking place in our world but rather an ideal world where the following equation is true:

    perspiration=success

    there would be no room for churches or charitable organizations if everyone was equal. I’m pretty sure that in the fountainhead world everyone is exactly equal, roark just tortures himself to a higher degree than the others in the ideal realm where everyone is a peer and an equal. roark is supposed to be the only one who doesn’t take the easy road.
    unfortunately, looking back my comment is non-linear but i hope others can harvest it in my place.

    Comment by robert soley — September 12, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

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