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.
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.
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.
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).