Ayn Rand and Reading Groups

Reading Part II, Chapter 10 in Atlas Shrugged: Why did Dagny stop the conductor from ejecting the aging tramp from the stalled train? "There was no astonishment in the tramp's face, no protest, no anger, no hope . . . The only gesture of concern he made was to tighten his grip on a small, dirty bundle, as if to make sure he would not lose it in leaping off the train. It was the laundered collar and this gesture for the last of his possessions--a gesture of a sense of property--that made her feel an emotion like a sudden, burning twist within her. 'Wait,' she said."

As the date for a paperback release of my book approaches, I’ll be visiting a number of reading groups to discuss Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s novels and essays, and her immense influence on our national discussion of everything from literature to religion to a building site for the disputed downtown Manhattan mosque. (More on that in a forthcoming post.)

The 18th-century Princeton home base of Korelitz's reading group, which benefits Housing Initiatives of Princeton, and of Korelitz, her husband, the poet Paul Muldoon, and their two children.

The first of these visits, which took place on September 14, was to a venerable reading group hosted eight times a year by novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz, in Princeton, New Jersey. Most of the group’s eighteen members–writers, publicists, parents, and teachers–had read my book and either The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged or both. (Since one of my goals for the book was to inspire readers to take a new look at Rand’s novels, this made me happy.) Members were especially interested in Rand’s celebration of individual achievement, but wondered, “Where is her empathy for those less able?” One reader thought she had spotted such empathy in Dagny Taggart’s favorable response to Jeff Allen, the tramp on the stalled and abandoned Taggart train in Atlas Shrugged; for those whose memory is hazy, Allen had worked for the Twentieth Century Motor Company and reveals to Dagny the identity of John Galt as a former Twentieth Century engineer and inventor. I pointed out that empathy is not a cardinal virtue in Rand’s universe; justice, as defined by John Galt, is:

“Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature,” Galt says on page 933 of my copy of Atlas Shrugged, “. . . that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero. . . that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement–that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devalue your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit.”

We also talked about private property as a basis of capitalism and at least one member’s recollection of Nixon’s final scuttling of the gold standard in the summer of 1971. She was in Europe and recalled that, within a day or two, her dollars bought ten percent less than they had. Of course, Europe was redeeming dollars for gold in that era of endless war and huge trade deficits, and she was reading Atlas Shrugged.

For a Knopf/Doubleday reading-group guide and suggested discussion questions about Ayn Rand and the World She Made, go to http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400078936&view=rg.

-Anne C. Heller

Importance Of Being Selfish

I was first introduced to Ayn Rand at the age of 15, when I read The Fountainhead and, like most young Rand readers, was influenced to the point of being thunderstruck by her philosophy. This led to a flurry of reading Ayn Rand books: We The Living, The Night of January 16th, Atlas Shrugged. These were novels of ideas, in which Rand, in her own words, aimed for “the portrayal of a moral ideal”. Rand espoused a noble individualism, a “selfishness” and “egotism” that lead to the good of society as a whole. She believed man to be heroic, armed with reason and capable of great things when pursuing his own happiness.

In all her writings, Rand’s authorial voice was clear and unmistakable. She shone out of the pages of her works. Very soon after the publication of The Fountainhead in 1943, Rand had become a cult figure, with a dedicated group of followers and an equally vehement group of detractors. She was regarded a genius by some (or, in the case of her disciples, “the greatest human being who has ever lived”), and a “reactionary crackpot” by others.

It is a matter of some surprise then, that Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, published 28 years after Rand’s death, is the first objective and investigative biography of this fascinating woman. The only previous biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, published in 1986, was written partly in the form of a memoir by Barbara Branden, Rand’s friend and disciple, and the wife of Rand’s young lover, Nathaniel Branden.

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OPEN Magazine: “Reason is All”

Book review published by Sudha G. Tilak of OPEN Magazine:

A new biography of Ayn Rand takes us closer to one of the more complex literary personalities of the last century.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography.

It is impossible to have not known or read Ayn Rand. For most readers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were an introduction into the muscular world of Rand and her approach to individualism against collectivism. The appeal of Howard Roark, the young architect hero of The Fountainhead (published in 1943), who chased an individualistic approach, resisting the traditional, was enormous on her readers. Atlas Shrugged (1957), led by the hero John Galt, again spoke of a world where the government takes over collective control and the individual is expected to toe in, giving up on his mind and desires.

Rand’s influence on America had been a powerful one as a polemicist on objectivism, and her philosophy of staunch individualism, reason, capitalism or market economy found many supporters, especially among right-wingers. Rand’s compelling and persuasive philosophy about the pursuit of money and her career as a Hollywood screenwriter added to make her one of the most interesting personalities of our times.

At 19, Galt and Roark’s petitions as young rebels seeking subjective gratification against a monochromatic social or governmental order held great appeal for her supporters. Both in her times and later, Rand’s theories were challenged for advocacy of vulgar, selfish satisfaction and egoism. Whatever the position, Rand’s influence remains powerful and her books continue to sell in thousands.

Revisiting Rand has never been as interesting as reading Heller’s striking biography. It takes us closer to the creature that Rand was, a compelling entity whose advocacy of rebellion and individualism held a mesmeric quality over those around her, even detractors who rejected her idea of wealth. Heller includes interesting details of how Rand would wear dollar pins on her dress to advocate her support for capitalism, though she did not attach much importance to wealth when she gave up her royalties. Heller points out that for Rand, the wealth of ideas amounted to the intellectual capital she so cherished in her own life. Alan Greenspan might find her ideas appealing, but at heart Rand’s philosophy owed more to Nietzsche, hints Heller.

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Who Was Ayn Rand?

New book review by William R Thomas of The New Individualist.

Anne Heller. Ayn Rand and the World She Made. New York, 2009: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 567 pp. $35
Any book review partakes of the perspectives of its writer, and any book review can be objective insofar as it appeals to publically accessible facts and gives reasons for its idiosyncratic value judgments and personal impressions. That said, this review is more personal than most.

I know the author, Anne Heller, principally because she took a course in Objectivism from me while she was researching this book. I met her and communicated with her on occasions after that. From knowing her and appreciating the serious, independent approach she brought to her subject, I have been on tenterhooks awaiting this biography.

So I am particularly pleased to be able to say that Ayn Rand and The World She Made is biography done right: well-rounded, engaged, judicious, thoroughly-researched, occasionally revelatory, and often moving. It is focused on Ayn Rand as a person. With whom did she have personal relationships? What were the sources of her drive and independent thinking? What were the origins of her story ideas and her aesthetic approach? What was she really like, beneath the mythological view of herself that she presented to readers, fans, and even many friends?

Heller is an intelligent fiction critic, who, encountering Ayn Rand’s work in mid-life, was able to see its strengths and appreciate its inspirational power. This is rare. Usually becoming culturally literate involves hardening oneself against whatever is not intellectually modish. And Ayn Rand, though popular, was out-of-step with 20th century intellectual culture both by inclination and on principle.

Heller points out that Rand brought to her fiction elements as varied as her “nineteenth-century scope, her jaw-dropping integration of unfamiliar ideas into a drumbeat plot, or the Dickensian keenness of her eye for bureaucratic villainy” (p. 282, regarding Atlas Shruggedin particular). Rand’s writing was characteristically “logical, original, complex, and though sometimes overbearing, beautifully written.”  Heller recounts that she tore through Rand’s oeuvre after being introduced to her ideas, and states that she “became a strong admirer, albeit one with many questions and reservations.” (p. xii)

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