What It Means to Be a Writer

Scrolling through my Twitter feed when I found a link to this piece.

I walk by accident into one of London’s über-bookstores to be taken over by a very familiar type of sadness—as a child I used to feel this way when thinking about the cosmos and my own insignificant place in it. This is London’s biggest bookshop: 6.5 km of shelves, the website proudly tells us, as if this particular length and not another were a reason to rejoice. Book after book after book thrown into this worded jungle—a hoard that could be a waking counterpart to a Borgesian wet dream. Fiction books and books on writing fiction. Photography and art books and books on photography and art. And so on: most forms of expression and myriad words of meta-dialogue, some of them even justified or at least nicely edited and with colourful covers. Nothing escapes this total library: no corner of the universe or the mind is left unaccounted for. It is a hideous totality for it is an ordered totality, filtered through the minds of who knows how many marketing specialists; it is effective as a selling platform but it is a desert of anonymity for the diminished names on the shelves. Were I ever to be asked for a writing tip, something born out of this experience would be my choice: walk into any gigantic bookshop and think whether you can face being one more name lost in this desert of words. If that ideal situation proves too much to bear do something else with your time (it is of course highly likely that if you go around asking for writing tips you will never make it on print).

Okay, first of all, that parenthetical comment at the end gets you a punch in your snooty little snoot with a fist labeled Fuck You. I presume you mean that true poetry, great writing, emerges from the soul as a fait accompli, like Athena cracking her way out of Zeus’s head fully-grown; if a would-be writer is too naive to recognize this immortal truth, and to think that one could simply ASK for a way to be a better writer, then that person is doomed to less than mediocrity. Or else it is the bourgeois feeling of the “writing tips,” the oversimplified, sanitized, pre-packaged saccharine packets that show up in ten-item numbered lists on the various clickbait websites advertised on Facebook. I am more understanding of contempt for those, as I am contemptuous of people who make a living on the internet by telling people how to make a living on the internet – by running a website telling people how to make a living on the internet, which is done (Spoiler alert!) by getting people who want to make a living on the internet to buy your secret to making a living on the internet; and the people who do this always seem to call themselves “writers.” But my contempt is for the people at the top of the pyramid: not for the people down on the ground, choking on dust and sand, dreaming of a way to climb. Those people who want writing tips because they want to be better writers deserve respect for their courage in trying to find a way to get what they want; and their desire to improve, whether or not they know a good path to improvement, is admirable and not at all an indication of their potential as writers. Fuck you in the snoot, sir.

Now let’s talk about the central issue here. You’ve got two problems with this bookstore and the despair it engenders in you. One is that your words will never be truly unique, because somebody out there will say pretty much the same thing you say – or in Borges’s universe that you reference later, with his infinite Library of Babel that holds all combinations of letters and thus every possible book, one of the other volumes on the shelves will say exactly what you say. And maybe Borges was right and it does repeat in a chaotic pattern for eternity, if such a thing can be said to exist. Right? All the kilometers of fiction books, the books about art and photography and writing; all been done before, nothing is new, nothing is original. Somebody get me a cigarette and a bottle of cheap red wine, and build a Parisian basement cafe around me for a tomb.

The second problem is that you will never be the one person whose words everyone reads, everyone knows, everyone talks about; because there will always be so many others putting words on the page, that it is impossible that your words would be the ones that capture every reader at once. Particularly not if you want to capture every non-reader as well. This problem seems to be the larger one, as you speak more of being lost in the noise than you do about repeating what has already been said.

The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.

This is a poor proof. Your message in a bottle being surrounded by other messages in a bottle does not make your message pointless. Not even in the metaphor: so long as one person finds your message and reads it, and – I suppose – comes to rescue you from your desert island of despair (Perhaps your bottle message is something entirely different, something like “If you let your eyes go unfocused, a Moen kitchen faucet starts to look like a snobbish sheep with a very long snout. But it’s hard to recapture the magic once your eyes go back to normal and the sheep turns back into a faucet, so don’t waste it.” In that case, you won’t be rescued, but somebody may spend a lot of time squinting at their kitchen sink because of you, which is pretty funny, really. I’d call that success.), then your bottle was a success. You won. You did what you set out to do. You made your point. Wherefore, then, does it become pointless? Is the idea that the thousand bottles around your bottle make it less likely that your bottle will be read? This is not true for the same reason your enormous bookstore should not lead to despair. Ready for the reason? Here it is.

There is more than one person reading. (Shocking, I know. Hold onto your snoot, Buttercup.)

Let’s start with the metaphor. There are a thousand bottles with messages in them, bobbing in the water by the seashore. If there was only one person walking by, and for some reason that person had sworn a sacred vow to read only one bottled message, then your chances of being read are a thousand to one. Agreed, and that would suck. But in the – ahem – “real world” of this fantasy, that one guy wouldn’t stop at one bottle: he’d keep opening bottles. Because if he was doing it out of curiosity, out of a need to see what was written on those messages; or if he was looking for the perfect message, the one that would speak directly to his soul, then reading one message would never be enough. He’d read another, and another, and another. He’d probably try to read them all. I would. Wouldn’t you? If you saw a thousand bottles bobbing in the water with message inside them?

And if it was more than one guy on the shoreline? If it was actually a crowded beach, with tourists, and beachcombers, and dogwalkers, and a tai chi group, and a bunch of hungover teenagers wrapped in sandy blankets and the stench of wet cigarette butts? The bottles would catch all of their interests. They would all want to open their own bottle, be the first to read a message. Then they would share the messages they found with each other. They’d be diving into the water, throwing bottles back onto the shore, shouting and laughing and waving their messages over their heads. The more bottles there were in the water, the bigger the spectacle would be, and the more those people would be drawn to where the bottles were. They might even come back the next day to look for more bottles.

Are you following me, sir? Those bookstores with the kilometers of shelves? They are not only filled with books, they are filled with people. People who read books. And those people never stop at just one book. I know: I used to frequent a very similar establishment, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Five floors of twelve-foot-high bookshelves, covering an entire city block. I never expect to see so many books on display in a single place in my life again. I could spend the rest of my life reading (Ah, bliss!) and not finish a single floor’s worth of books. I went there every month for the ten years I lived in Oregon, to buy books, and you know what? That place was always packed with people. With readers. Never mind the kilometers worth of shelves: how many kilometers of people do you think go through those stores on any given day? 3,000 people, on the average. [source] Average front-to-back measurement of a person is approximately ten inches; I’m an American and we’re thicc, so let’s bump that up to a round foot. (Screw the metric system, though I’ll convert for your convenience, sir.) 3,000 feet of human every day, which is very nearly one kilometer of human flesh – around 915 meters, to be precise. And that’s not even lying down head-to-foot. That means that in a week, if the London store has a similar number of visitors, the people looking at those books outdistance the books they are looking at. And I can tell you that the turnover rate for the people looking is far higher than the turnover for the books on the shelves.

There are an enormous number of books in the world, and it grows every day. It is impossible for one person to read them all, and realistically impossible that one of them will be read by all people.

But that doesn’t mean that my book won’t be read. It doesn’t mean that your words will never be seen.

I think about selling my books, which I have not yet succeeded in doing. But let’s imagine that I do so: imagine if my sales, by every measure of the publishing industry, are absymal. Let’s pretend that I only sell one thousand copies of my novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate. So lame, right? I am – what was your phrase? – “lost in this desert of words.”

A thousand people bought my book. Presumably that means a thousand people read it. (Some surely would cast it aside in disgust or disappointment, sure, but I think some of them would like it enough to share with someone else, or else resell it. Let’s just imagine that one sale equals one reading.) Think about that. I have never been in a room with a thousand people who all know me: not in the way that a reader knows at least an aspect of a writer. I have spoken to thousands of people in my life, but I doubt that a full one thousand of them cared about what I had to say: cared enough to sit down, in a quiet room, and spend hours just listening to my words, thinking about my thoughts. Hearing me. If I could sell just one thousand copies of my book, then I could achieve that. So what if at that same time a million people were listening to Stephen King, and ten million were listening to Kim Kardashian? So what if the world is larger than I can speak to at once? So what if all I can have is one small corner –with one thousand people listening to me?

Isn’t that enough?

Think about it in terms of time. I don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but the pirate book was finished in about a year, so let’s use that. It’s a pretty fast read, I think; someone could finish it in maybe ten hours of reading at a leisurely pace, maybe even less. If a thousand people spend ten hours reading my book, then the year of my life spent writing it (And of course the vast majority of that year was spent sleeping, working, eating, singing in the shower, watching TV, playing The Sims, et cetera) has turned into ten thousand hours of other people’s lives spent – on me. There are 8,760 hours in a year (And 525,600 minutes), so even if I had spent every single one of them working on my book, that time spent is balanced by time spent reading my book if only a thousand people were to read it. More than balanced.

So the question is, what more could you possibly want?

If the only thing that would make writing worthwhile, that would give this endeavor a point, is if every single person on Earth read your work, and only your work, then I agree that writing would be pointless. But I can’t fathom a writer, a real writer, being that childish, that selfish, to think that the world must revolve around your work and your work alone. I mean, the only cultural phenomenon with that impact is Wyld Stallyns. Granted, you’re not them, and neither am I. And that stings a bit, I’ll bet. Yeah, it does me too.

I’ll comfort myself just thinking about how easy it would be to get a thousand people in the world to read a decent book. Shit, if all I want is readers, I could offer it for free and get that many readers without even trying. You wrote this obnoxious angsty piece of snobbery, and I read it, and then spent – mmm – more than an hour responding to it. See? The time you spent on this crud then earned for you this time spent out of my life. Time I could have been reading, ya selfish bastard.

And honestly, I think this is enough time spent on you. I am sorry that your life is so empty and meaningless, and sorry that I threw a couple of hours of my life into your black hole of an ego. Do us both a favor: gain some perspective, will you? Thanks.

(I have to say: the rest of the piece has some valid points about marketing on social media, and about the democratization and banalisation [His word] of writing that has occurred through the internet. There is some good thought here. If there hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end, and then taken the time to write a response. I don’t disagree with everything he says. Just the central premise. I dream of having a thousand readers, and I am absolutely sure that, even in a world inundated with voluminous writers of every imaginable quality and a limited number of readers with a limited number of books they will read, still: I will hit that mark. And it will be worth it.

(Thank you for inspiring me to write this, sir. Now pull up your fucking pants.)

Book Rant — I mean, REVIEW: Dune Messiah

Dune Messiah

by Frank Herbert

 

What does it mean when you don’t understand a book?

This is something that has bothered me for a long time, now. Because back in grad school, I signed up for a class that was going to focus on James Joyce’s Ulysses; each student in the seminar was going to annotate one chapter of the thing. I had never read Joyce, and so I got Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out of the library, and read it, to give myself some idea of what I was in for.

Couldn’t understand it at all.

Two weeks later, I dropped the class and dropped out of grad school.

Joyce wasn’t the only reason I did that, and that wasn’t the only book I couldn’t understand. But it’s bothered me ever since, both looking back on that period in my life, and also whenever I read books now that, like Portrait of the Artist, I just can’t really grasp. There’s a spectrum, of course: some books I get almost all of it, except for a certain section, or just a few paragraphs; some I can’t break into at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of the latter; Wuthering Heights, one of the former.

And Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, the sequel to the legendary classic Dune, is another one that, like Wuthering Heights, I couldn’t quite get all of it. And I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not as smart as I think I am, or if Frank Herbert thought I (and the rest of his audience) was even smarter than I am, or if Frank Herbert wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was. All I know is, though I could follow most of the plot, and there are parts of this book that I actually really enjoyed, there were a number of sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters that I had to read over and over, and at some point, I said “Screw it,” and just skimmed those parts, thinking, “Yup, don’t get this. Don’t get this at all.”

So the general idea of the book: Dune is a story of intergalactic intrigue. There is a noble family, many millennia in the future, called the Atreides; they are put in charge of the most valuable planet in the galactic Empire, the planet Arrakis: known as Dune, because the entire planet is one huge desert. Dune is the most important planet in the galaxy because it is the sole source of melange, the spice; the spice is a drug that allows people to see into the future, which is the only way that spaceship pilots can steer through hyperspace. The spice has various other effects, too, not the least of which is that it extends human life (Unless you stop taking it, in which case, you die.). So the Atreides family gets to take over Dune, but unfortunately, they have enemies, and their enemies invade Dune and wipe the Atreides out. The wife of Duke Atreides escapes with her son Paul, and they find refuge among a group of desert nomads called the Fremen, who are, because of the incredibly harsh conditions of their life on Dune, the baddest-assed badasses in the whole galaxy. Paul and his mother are adopted by the Fremen, and over time, Paul comes to be their leader; he leads the Fremen back out of the deep desert and reconquers Dune, and from there, the entire galactic empire, because as soon as he controls Dune, he controls every powerful person who uses the spice, because if he cuts off their supply, they will all die. He threatens to do that, and he also blackmails the emperor, and hey presto, Emperor Paul Atreides. End Book One.

Now, that’s not the whole story. There is a crapton more, because Frank Herbert liked him some complicated universes, and there are various factions and issues wrapped up in the whole thing – the Landsraad and CHOAM, the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, on and on it goes. There are also prophecies and religious ideas, and Paul becomes Muad’dib, and the Mahdi, and also Usul, and he’s the kwisatz haderach – it’s a lot. You wouldn’t want this guy’s life. But that’s the main plot: family gets destroyed, son comes back and takes revenge and seizes power for himself. Combination of Macbeth and Hamlet. No problem.

But then there’s Dune Messiah.

I would like to note here that my father, in discussing this series with me some years ago (This is my second time through the series; the first time I made it to Book 4, God-Emperor of Dune, before I gave up.), expressed his opinion that the first book was a fluke, that the other five books were the ones Herbert wanted to write, and the first book had somehow gone astray — and was, he said, the only book Herbert wrote that is worth reading. Just something to keep in mind.

In Dune Messiah, Paul Muad’dib has been Emperor for twelve years, and his legions of Fremen have been waging a successful jihad against the rest of the galaxy – there’s a point when Paul talks about Genghis Khan and Hitler, and the millions of people they killed; then he says that a conservative estimate would put his death toll at 90 billion humans. Paul and his sister, St. Alia of the Knife (If I ever had a daughter, that would be her name. St. Alia of the Knife Humphrey. And I wouldn’t let her shorten it, either.), have been turning themselves into religious idols, mainly because both of them are prescient: they can see the future. It doesn’t seem like this is a good idea, though, because neither of them want to be gods, and they have grown to distrust their own theocracy. Paul is also having trouble in his personal life because he has a sort of unofficial marriage with the Fremen woman he loves, Chani, but in order to become Emperor he had to officially marry the daughter of the former emperor, a woman named Irulan, whom he doesn’t care about but has to placate in order to keep his throne secure. Both of these women want to have Paul’s children. Paul only wants to have children with Chani, but he can’t cast aside Irulan; but for some reason (it isn’t an accident) he and Chani can’t conceive. Meanwhile he’s dealing with this whole issue of the Fremen turning on him, partly because they think he’s become corrupt, partly because they’ve become corrupt – it’s not clear. And then there are the Bene Tleilax, (Want to know how to pronounce all of these names? So do I. Guess. It’s what I do.) who resurrected one of Paul’s old friends and teachers, who was killed in the first book when the enemies overtook Dune, and have now sent that guy to — maybe kill Paul? Maybe help him maintain power? We don’t know. And then there’s a guy floating in a tank of orange gas, because he’s so addicted to the spice that he breathes the shit; and that makes him prescient, though not as prescient as Paul – because of the kwisatz haderach thing, in addition to the fact that Paul’s horking down spice by the bucketful; but the kwisatz haderach thing is why the Bene Gesserit are so obsessed with him, because the Bene Gesserit are a quasi-religious order who are basically eugenicists, who have been trying to breed the perfect human for like ten thousand years, and they finally did it, and it’s Paul. And now they want him to have kids and pass on his perfect genes – but Irulan, who is a Bene Gesserit, is their choice, while Paul only wants kids with Chani, but if he binds himself more closely to the Fremen then they will take the whole Messiah-Jihad thing waaay too far, and will kill Paul’s whole family and probably the universe, too. And Paul can pretty much see all of the possible futures, except for where another prescient person is involved because then they muddy up the timestream because they can see what’s coming and therefore can react to it, which changes Paul’s ability to see what comes next, and so he’s trying to pick the best future but he can’t really see which one it is, and every future kinda sucks.

And that’s not even what I couldn’t understand. Other than the Bene Tleilax, who literally make no fucking sense but are really cool anyway because they have these people called Face Dancers who can change their appearance at will and I love that name, I could follow all the political stuff. And most of the time stuff. The last ninety pages or so are the best part of the book, largely because the motivations become simple; also at one point Paul gets blinded – but it doesn’t matter because at that point he can see the future so completely clearly that he can see where everything around him is, in his visions; so he can point to people and describe their appearance, even though he has no eyes in his head, and it’s both cool and interesting.

No: the problem with this book is the way people talk. Herbert expects us to pick up on their subtleties, to understand not only what they say but what they really mean, so clearly that he never explains what the characters mean when they talk. It’s worst with two specific characters, both related to the Bene Tleilax: a Face Dancer named Scytale, and the resurrected friend of Paul’s, who was originally named Duncan Idaho and now goes by the unfortunate name of Hayt, which is much too much like a bad screamo band name. When these two guys talk, it just – it makes no sense at all. In the first chapter, Scytale is having a meeting with his other anti-Paul conspirators, and he says, “You wish to draw me into this fools’ fight? Very well. We’re dealing with a potential messiah. You don’t launch a frontal attack upon such a one. Martyrdom would defeat us.” I mean, okay, but you know what he left out? What their goal is. Kill Paul? Replace him? Take down his self-made religion, and his jihad? Bring back the old ways? We have no idea. They just – can’t have a martyr. And then one of his partners says “You think that’s the only danger?” And when Scytale doesn’t respond, and she says, “Well?” Scytale says, “I was enjoying the silence. Our hostilities are better left unvoiced.” And again: what hostilities? It’s never explained. You don’t like each other, sure, I don’t like you either, but – why not? If you don’t like each other, why are you working together? And why is it better if the hostilities are left unvoiced?

I guess we’re supposed to either figure these people and their goals out from subtle clues, or else just – know. Somehow. Herbert never explains what the Bene Tleilax want. He says that they create tools, but by the end of the book I don’t know if Paul is the tool, or if Hayt/Idaho is. Or both. Maybe neither. And it’s not just these people, though Scytale is the worst: we’re not clear what Paul wants, or what St. Alia of the Knife wants, or what the Fremen want, or anyone, really. Which made this book terribly annoying when it wasn’t talking about very simple things: by the end, Paul wants his wife Chani to live. We get that. St. Alia of the Knife wants to be loved. Sure, yes, good. Hayt wants to be Duncan Idaho again, and remember what that meant. I get that, and I approve. And if that had been what the whole book was about, I would probably like it; as I said, there were parts that I liked, and I did really like Dune.

But then there’s this kind of shit: (Note: Hayt is a ghola, a reanimated zombie, basically, who used to be Duncan Idaho; he is also a mentat, which is a human computer, like a Vulcan, pure logic, no emotion, super fast thoughts. There is no reason to think he would know the future, and yet somehow they all seem cool with him making predictions. Your guess is as good as mine. Oh – and he has steel eyeballs instead of normal ones.)

“Hayt,” Paul said, “are you the tool of my undoing?”

“If the substance of here and now is changed, the future is changed,” the ghola said.

“That is no answer!” Chani objected.

Paul raised his voice. “How will I die, Hayt?”

Light glinted from the artificial eyes. “It is said, m’lord, that you will die of money and power.”

Chani stiffened. “How dare he speak thus to you?”

“The mentat is truthful,” Paul said.

“Was Duncan Idaho a real friend?” she asked.

“He gave his life for me.”

“It is sad,” Chani whispered, “that a ghola cannot be restored to his original being.”

“Would you convert me?” the ghola asked, directing his gaze to Chani.

“What does he mean?” Chani asked.

“To be converted is to be turned around,” Paul said. “But there’s no going back.”

“Every man carries his own past with him,” Hayt said.

“And every ghola?” Paul asked.

“In a way, m’lord.”

“Then what of that past in your secret flesh?” Paul asked.

So. Dunno why Paul asked that first question when he’s the one who can see the future. Dunno what Hayt’s answer means. Dunno why Paul asks the second question, either; Chani wants to know what the hell he’s doing with this zombie thing that can’t be trusted, and Paul doesn’t fucking help at all, he just makes it more confusing – and he completely ignores Chani when she voices the same confusion that I’m feeling. Which I assume is why she changes the topic entirely in the middle of the conversation – maybe she’s offended by the money and power comment, though I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s offensive – but then Paul is the one whose answer makes no sense, but they slip right past that into this last exchange, ending with the “secret flesh” thing, which – huh? He’s no secret, you’ve known all along that he’s the reanimated zombie of your friend. Everybody knows it. What fucking secret flesh, Paul? WHY DON’T YOU MAKE SENSE, PAUL?!?

Anyway. Maybe it does all make sense, and I’m too dim to understand it. All I know is, I probably should have stopped after the first book. I don’t think I’ll read the third.

 

One last thing: I have a new theory why this book was so confusing for me. Here is the cover of my book (finger added for emphasis):

And here is the title page, also with emphatic finger. See the problem?

Book Review: Modoc

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

by Ralph Helfer

 

This is a very sweet book, an amazing story about a remarkable elephant. It is also unbelievably cheesy.

That doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. Most love stories are cheesy to one extent or another, and this is, most definitely, a love story. It’s a story about a man named Bram Gunterstein and the three loves of his life: the two women he loved, Sian and Gerdie, and the elephant, a female Indian pachyderm named Modoc. He called her Mo. Mosie.

Mo and Bram were born on the same day, in the same hour, on the farm owned by Bram’s elephant-trainer father, near the Black Forest in Germany. The two grew up together, and the pastoral idyll of this portion of the book is almost painfully innocent and sweet – it did, for me, get a bit saccharine, especially when Gerdie comes into the picture and she, Bram, and Mo spend summertime frolicking through the hedgerows and splish-splashing in the lakes. Ah, Youth. But then reality catches up and the owner of the circus where Modoc performs with her elephant family sells everything to an American circus owner. Bram is to be left behind as Modoc and the other animals are moved to America.

But Bram can’t leave Mo. So instead, he leaves Gerdie – and as sad as it is, it is clearly the right choice.

Unfortunately, when Bram and Modoc leave the pastoral perfection of their childhood, frankly, the shit hits the fan. A whole lot of shit hits a whole lot of fans, and spreads far and wide. The two have incredible adventures, most of them in some way terrible. There is suffering, war and blood and death, disease and starvation and fire and misery. There is also a tremendous amount of love, and quite a lot of spirituality; Bram believed that the way to God was through communion with nature, particularly through close bonds with specific animals as he had with Modoc. If he was right, then he no doubt found his way to God, because I can’t imagine a closer bond than his with this elephant.

In the end, I liked the book. It was absolutely riveting at times, and heartbreaking at others; though the author, Helfer, who knew Bram and Modoc both towards the ends of their lives, tends heavily towards the cheese, I would say it’s because he’s an animal trainer, not an author. I will also say he’s a much better poet: there is a memorial poem he wrote included at the end of the book which is by far the best moment of writing. But even if he was a terrible writer – which he is not – this book would be worth reading just for the story, and the characters. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark

Westmark

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I grew up reading the Chronicles of Prydain by Alexander, and I only discovered as an adult that, in fact, the man wrote several other books. It’s been a lot of fun discovering and reading those other novels, even though it makes me feel kind of dumb that I didn’t already know about them; after all, Alexander won two National Book Awards and was nominated for four more, so . . . I guess everybody but me knew about his broader legacy. I would like to blame my parents for not telling me about Alexander’s other books. And also Piers Anthony, who so captivated my youthful love of fantasy that I read every single one of his books. Including his genuinely crappy autobiography, Bio of an Ogre.

Blame and castigations aside though, this is a genuinely good book. It is more adult than the Chronicles of Prydain: it really only belongs in fantasy because it’s Lloyd Alexander. He never writes with too much magic, but this book has none; rather, it has – politics. It’s about a printer’s assistant, Theo, who goes on the run after his master Anton is killed by the military as part of an attempt to control the press. The printer’s assistant hooks up with a con man and snake oil salesman who is a mixture of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and the King and Duke from Huck Finn; he’s a big, bombastic, lovable rogue who makes no bones about the fact that he’s in it for the money and will tell whatever lies he can in order to get it. He’s a lot of fun and he makes the book a lot of fun.

It isn’t all fun and games, though: the fear and anger over the printer’s death and the subsequent flight are quite serious. Theo eventually parts ways with the con man and joins up with a group of intellectuals leading a rebellion, who are a great set of characters; the last third of the book is a quite realistic portrayal of the beginnings of a revolution, including Theo’s efforts to print anti-royalist pamphlets as his own efforts to free the people. Yeah: definitely not a simple children’s book.

The book leans more fantasy in the royal aspect of the politics: although there is a definitely historical feel in the elements about revolution, the causes of the nation’s oppression come straight from a fairy tale. The king is bereft and despondent to the point of uselessness over the death, several years ago, of his beloved only daughter. An evil counselor – I definitely think of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, or Flagg from Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon – has taken over running the kingdom, and is trying to consolidate power for himself, becoming a tyrant in the process. He is overcome not by the revolution, but by the direct actions of our hero, who essentially saves the day – though there is a twist I won’t give away.

It’s a good book. The characters are well-drawn, as is the setting; the plot is a little haphazard, which I think is because of the mix of fairy tale and historical novel, but it isn’t hard to follow. And the other reason for the somewhat complicated course of the story is: this is the first book of a series of three. So there are seeds planted here, paths started but not taken to their ends, because there is more story to tell.

I’m going to try to find the other two books. I recommend this one.

One last note: the biggest downside of this book, for me, was honestly the cover. I hated this image, and the way it depicted the characters, so much that I tried not looking at it while I was reading the book, and even now I can’t stop thinking bitter thoughts. Yech. But of course, don’t judge this good book by its crappy cover.

The Complete Douglas Adams

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide

by Douglas Adams

 

I don’t think the world needs me to say that these books are brilliant and wonderful. They are brilliant and wonderful, but I hope everyone already knows that. If anyone out there within sight of these words has not already read these books, then you absolutely must pick them up as your very next piece of reading – particularly since it is summer time, and there are no better beach reads than these.

There are a few things that I will add to the conversation.

First, this Omnibus edition is probably not the best way to read these books; it’s convenient to have them all together, but it’s much too large and unwieldy; this is the kind of book that you almost don’t want to read lying down in bed, because there’s no way to hold it up without your arms getting tired. And very little in life makes one feel more pathetic than watching your arms tremble from holding up a book. Also if you are, like me, prone to dozing off while reading, this book will do real harm if it falls on your face. I will also say that the bonus story here, Young Zaphod Plays It Safe, was almost entirely pointless. Not in a wacky Douglas Adams way, but in the way that I didn’t know why I had read it.

On the other hand, while I have seen the first three books everywhere for years in small convenient paperbacks, I have not seen the last two books, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless in the same format with the same frequency. And just like Star Wars, while there are plenty of people who carp that the first three are the only good ones, I disagree; Mostly Harmless has some flaws, but So Long and Thanks for All the Fish not only fits in well with the others, but it has one of the best romances I have read in a light-hearted book. There aren’t a lot of comedic authors who can tell a good love story (Christopher Moore is actually the only one who comes to mind), but this book is a good love story. It is worth reading all by itself. Mostly Harmless probably is not, but it has some absolutely wonderful moments: Ford Prefect pulling a Mission: Impossible on the Guide central office; Arthur Dent as Master Sandwich Maker; the realm of The King; the planet of What Next. I hated the ending, predictably, as it is not funny; but it certainly puts a period on the series. I think fans of the books should read it, most definitely.

The second thing I would like to add is this: not only was Douglas Adams a creative genius and a hilarious man – probably the funniest author I know of – but he was, simply put, a hell of a writer. This is his description of the Vogon Constructor Fleet in the first book:

The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the way that bricks don’t.

That last sentence is pure genius. And for a simpler, beautifully done writerly trick, this is the way he describes the actual destruction of Earth (I can’t think that’s a spoiler: it happens at the end of the first chapter, for Pete’s sake.):

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

There was a terrible ghastly noise.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

 

 

Some of my other favorites:

The first thing that hit their eyes was what appeared to be a coffin.

And the next four thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine things that hit their eyes were also coffins.

 

(Describing a paranoid military character practicing his menacing:)

Number Two’s eyes darted feverishly about the room again and then settled back on the mirror, like a pair of flies briefly distracted from their favorite piece of month-old meat.

 

From Life, the Universe and Everything:

“The dew,” he observed, “has clearly fallen with a particularly sickening thud this morning.”

 

This, from So Long…, is a description of the woman half of the romance, and this is why this book should be read and enjoyed.

She was tallish with dark hair which fell in waves around a pale and serious face. Standing still, alone, she seemed almost somber, like a statue to some important but unpopular virtue in a formal garden. She seemed to be looking at something other than what she looked as if she was looking at.

But when she smiled, as she did now, suddenly, it was as if she had just arrived from somewhere.

 

And what may be my favorite description of all time:

If you took a couple of David Bowies and stuck one of the David Bowies on the top of the other David Bowie, then attached another David Bowie to the end of each of the arms of the upper of the first two David Bowies and wrapped the whole business up in a dirty beach robe, you would then have something which didn’t exactly look like John Watson, but which those who knew him would find hauntingly familiar.

 

The last thing I will say about these books is a personal confession: when I was 12, I auditioned for a school production of Pirates of Penzance by reading the Vogon poetry from Hitchhiker’s Guide. And when the director tried to cut me off by saying, “Okay, thank you,” I held up one finger to signal that I wasn’t yet done, and went ahead and finished the piece.

I didn’t get the part.

But you should get these books.

Oh freddled gruntbuggly,
Thy micturations are to me,
As plurdled gabbleblotchits,
On a lurgid bee.
Groop, I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes,
And hooptiously drangle me,
With crinkly bindlewurdles, mashurbitries.
Or else I shall rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon,
See if I don’t!

Getting Deeper into Atlas Shrugged

This is the first of what may be a new category of post on this blog. As you’ve probably noticed if you’re a follower, I’ve been moving away from the usual ranting essay type of post and more into book reviews; this is intentional. But sometimes, I have more to say about a book, and when I do, I will write one of these. I’m going to call them DustNotes. (Maybe HumpNotes? No. Definitely DustNotes.)

I will also say that this one comes from requests that I got from friends, several of whom said they were glad that I had read this book because now they didn’t have to. This gave me an idea: I have plenty of TBR books of my own, of course — too many, really — but I would be willing to take requests, if there are any books that someone wants to get my opinion on. That includes new and unpublished authors, by the way; I’m willing to read and review pretty much anything you want my take on. You can email me at writeth@tonidebiasi.com if you’re interested.

For now, here are my DustNotes.

 

Book: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Concept: While the book was being written, the working title was The Strike; that is the concept. (Gotta say: Atlas Shrugged is actually an excellent title, and a clever way to describe the theme. Godlike being holding up the world, and the weight grows too much for him, so he – shrugs it off.) The Prime Movers (as Rand referred to them in her notes, though not in the novel), the most valuable members of society, withdraw from society – they go on strike – and society collapses without them. In general, these people are the Men (and the book is bloody sexist, though maybe a reflection of the times, as it was written between about 1946 and 1957) of the Mind; most of them are industrialists – an oil man, a steel man, a copper man, a man who makes cars and another who builds airplanes. Though there is also a physicist and a philosopher, a banker, and a token few artists. They are the Men of the Mind because they are extremely intelligent, extremely capable, extremely strong-willed; they are perfect rational beings, which Rand saw as the human ideal.

The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men. We need them, but they don’t need us. Not that people couldn’t live without them at all, but rather, without the Men of the Mind to prop up the society we have built which relies on them so heavily, will inevitably and rapidly destroy itself. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.

Rather than get into a specific synopsis – which, considering how excessively long this book is, would be too dull to read – I’m going to break down the ideas in the book into the ones that are Interesting, those that are Silly, and those that are worth More Thought. I will probably not explain these too well; partly that’s because I’m trying to be brief about some complicated things, some of which I still need to think more about in order to understand and agree with or critique; partly it’s because the explication of these ideas came in the form of a novel that was too long by a factor of ten. I got tired of trying to understand, and Rand’s writing doesn’t make it easier. I will try to present them anyway. Here we go.

Interesting idea: man is a rational animal; a creature of “volitional consciousness.” The means of our survival is our reason, which is our ability to perceive reality and then act upon it and shape it through the application of our intellect. The “volitional” part is where Rand states that we must choose to use our rational faculty; if we do not choose to do so, then we are not human, or not good. It is interesting to state that our purpose is to think, and that thinking defines us; so many of our definitions have to do with chosen associations like nationality or religion or politics, or accidental ones like race or bloodline or family name. I like this idea.

Idea that needs more thought: the realization of man’s rational faculty is – production. Rand is very clear about this: because production is the means of our physical survival, it is the natural and correct result of our reason – which is the means of our survival, remember, so by using our reason, we produce, generally concrete value, preferably in the form of steel or coal or oil or a railroad. The pinnacle of our society, she says, our greatest accomplishment as a race—is New York City. This is also why the industrialists are the pinnacle of human achievement, because they are the most productive. I am not sure that everything that humans do qualifies as productive – if a scientific theory doesn’t lead to better steel or a faster car, is it productive? If not, does that make it evil or a waste of time? What about art? – and I am not sure that our purpose is to continue surviving through concrete productivity. More thought on this one, for me.

Silly idea: The United States of America is the greatest country in the history of the world because it was the only country founded on the idea that men should be free to use their reason and be independent individuals; all other countries are founded on random chance and evil institutions. Okay, sure, the Constitution is a genuinely special document, and the Founding Fathers were, in my opinion, some of the greatest political geniuses who ever lived, and we are the recipients of their genius; but that really doesn’t mean that every other country is a pile of shit, which is essentially what Rand says. Particularly not now, when a large number of modern nations have exactly the social and political structure that Rand claims is the only moral one – that is, capitalism (though of course, she wants it laissez-faire – but hell, America ain’t that, either.) and a foundation of individual rights. It’s American exceptionalism taken to an extreme, and it ignores both the flaws in this idealized nation and the successes of other nations. It’s silly. Though I guarantee that this is one of the reasons this book is so very popular among Americans. I should note that the book was written during the height of the Cold War, and Rand herself lived through the rise of the Soviet Union and suffered because of it; she was virulently anti-Socialist, and in the book, every other nation on Earth is socialist, and all of them are propped up by goods provided by the United States. So she might have been picking a very specific bone in a specific context; given the world of 2017, she might pick out a couple of other nations that are acceptable, the UK or Australia or Germany or South Korea or Japan.

Interesting idea: industrialists are the greatest contributors to our modern productivity. Through innovation and economic leadership, they add more to our productive capacity than anyone else, and therefore create more wealth and save more time, through freeing up people from menial labor, than anyone else in history. For this we should be grateful; instead we tend to castigate them as greedy, soulless robber barons. I hadn’t thought of industrialists this way, and I think there is validity to it (Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being, just as NYC is the ultimate achievement. I’m not there, but I can appreciate the things that industry has done for us. I’m glad I don’t have to spend my life behind a plow.). I know I have been hard on capitalists and industrialists and corporate men in the past, and this has made me realize I shouldn’t have been. Sure, of course some of them have been and are vile people; but just the fact of being a successful industrialist isn’t a crime, and shouldn’t be seen as morally reprehensible.

Needs more thought: the individual is better, in all ways, than the collective; altruism, which for Rand means sacrificing something of value for the sake of another person, is evil. This is the fundamental piece of the book’s philosophy that I have the most trouble with. The leader of the Men of the Mind has them all take an oath: “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” The book argues that any gift is a sin, that the only moral interaction between people is voluntary trade, with value given for value and the consent of both parties. It is very clear that charity is evil: not only for those who ask for help, but also for those who grant help, unless it is part of a trade. Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch. She grants marriage the status of a trade largely because of sex; she says nothing about raising children. I don’t see how raising children can be anything but a gift from parent to child; I know I certainly can’t repay my parents for what they gave me. I suppose the possibility that I will care for them in their old age as they cared for me in my youth, but what if that doesn’t happen? Certainly it isn’t a debt that can be called in except under specific circumstances, and if it isn’t called in – isn’t that a gift?

Rand is also clear that only the person who owns a thing, a thought, an invention, a piece of property, should be permitted to judge what to do with it. Having any form of government or social control over an individual’s property is always theft. Only an individual can decide what to do with his mind, or the product of his mind; any attempt to coerce that individual is a denial of that individual’s rights, and also, interestingly, a denial of the coercer’s basic humanity: because when I claim that I need someone else to do something for me, to make a decision for me, then I am saying that I can’t make the decision for myself. I am denying my own rational capacity, which is, Rand says, what makes me human. (One of the unfortunate corollaries of this in the book is the idea that anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal. It gets a little tired.) The Men of the Mind in this book are always absolutely sure of their own individual decisions; everyone else can’t make a decision even when their lives depend on it. This theme is repeated so often that it turns first into a parody, and then into just repetitious drudgery. After 1070 pages of the non-awesome-people saying, “I don’t know what to do! I can’t decide! You decide for me!” and the awesome people lifting their mighty chins and saying, “No,” I wanted to freaking decide for them just to shut them up.

Point is: the idea that I have to choose what I do, that only I can choose for myself, that I must trust my own judgment over all others’; interesting idea. The argument that taxes, therefore, for any purpose other than police or courts or national defense are only theft of an individual’s property at the barrel of a gun – the libertarian ideal – still needs more thought for me, though this book did make me move a bit more libertarian and a bit less liberal, at least at the moment. The idea that this also means that I can’t ever give anything to anyone, that altruism is suicide, that EVERYTHING must be traded value for value – pretty freaking questionable.

Silly idea: All of the Men of the Mind are tall. All of them are slender, and all are white except for one Argentinian. Who’s pretty danged white, since he only speaks English, never spends time with anyone who isn’t a white American (Not when he’s in the actual narration. He does go back to Argentina, where he talks, presumably, to other Argentinians, but we never follow him there.), and has blue eyes. All of the Men of the Mind have light-colored eyes, blue or gray or green. A lot of ’em are blonde, though they are mostly tan, so not all white. But that doesn’t matter; we’re concerned with their abilities and their actions, not their appearance. Still, the book talks a whole lot about the good people being slender and the evil ones all being either pudgy or scrawny; the pattern is too consistent to be accidental, or anything other than specific intentional symbolism. And as a member of the House of Pudge, I found it annoying and distracting. Though I will note that Rand would have thought me evil. So maybe she was onto something.

Interesting idea: Happiness is the moral purpose of life. Our purpose in existing is to experience joy, the complete, fulfilling, guilt-free joy that comes with actually doing what we are meant to do. Now, this gets a little tangled around the idea of “purpose.” Our purpose as living things is to keep living, but that’s not enough for happiness; our means of living as humans is reason, but just thinking isn’t enough for happiness; our purpose in living is happiness. I’m not really sure how to parse those all out, but I like the idea that we exist to be joyful. Rand claims that our joy comes from the realization of our individual values, which I find more questionable – because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people – but still: joy good. Rather than “sacrifice to a greater good” being our source of true fulfillment, or a specific thing like raising a family, living a good Christian life, whatever – we should live to be happy. There are interesting implications of the idea, but mainly, I just like it.

Needs more thought: Existence exists, reality is real, A is A. This comes apparently from Aristotle, so isn’t properly Rand’s thought; but it is a major theme of this book, because the book claims repeatedly (exhaustingly, just like everything else in this book) that contradictions cannot exist, that when we think we see a contradiction, we are mistaken in one of our premises – and I am very glad that I don’t have to read, again, about the Men of the Mind emitting some manly condescending chuckle and saying, “Check your premises.” Buncha know-it-all smug-butts. Apart from that, though, this is the foundation of Rand’s epistemology, and apparently has a lot to do with her criticism of modern society. It seems we make shit up a lot, and act as though it is real; in so doing, we create contradictions, and then either ignore them even as they break down our ability to progress, or use the contradiction we have created as evidence that there is nothing absolute in life, that everything is relative, which leads eventually to nihilism.

It isn’t so much that I question this tenet. It’s more that I question the converse which Rand is criticizing. It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought – the idea of Original Sin, the doctrine that knowledge of good and evil led to man’s fall from paradise, the idea that suffering in life leads to bliss in the afterlife, and the basic sundering of spirit from body – and I don’t agree with any of that. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.

I also question the idea that there can’t be contradictions. I think maybe there can be. I get the idea that it is probably because of a mistaken assumption; when I teach paradox, I generally point out that most paradoxes rely on a specific perspective, and if you change the perspective you eliminate the paradox, which is that “Check your premises” shtick. But there are contradictions that, even if we know it is a mistake in perspective, we can’t resolve. Modern physics, for instance: Schrodinger’s cat leaps to mind. Telling me to check my premises isn’t going to fix that problem. So this one needs more thought.

Silly idea: all smart people think alike. Okay: Rand was trying to make a philosophical point about the ideal Man. Her ideal Man is an industrialist, an extremely productive person. Okay, sure. The thing is: none of the Men of the Mind are drunks. None of them are teetotalers. All of them smoke. (There is a TON of smoking in this book. Pretty funny, really.) None of them are bipolar, or manic-depressive, or have traumatic pasts. None of them are cantankerous, or impolite, or smelly; none of them habitually refuse to wear pants or eat nothing but cornbread. None of them are even gay, which would seem like the simplest way to have some variety in the characters, if you don’t go for the equally obvious choice of having a couple of them not be honkies. They all love classical music – not a jazz fan, or a blues fan, or a country and western fan in the bunch. They all believe in the value of money, and in the essential goodness of capitalism, and of productivity. They are all rationalists. When the leader tells them his secret, none of them disagree, or refuse to join the strike. (I should say: one of the real main characters, probably the most important character in the book, does refuse to join the strike. But she does it while agreeing with everything the strikers believe. Even she doesn’t think differently; she’s just more optimistic, or less beaten up by the world, than the rest of them. She’s also pretty much the only woman. Coincidence?!?) None of them are vegetarians. None of them have pets. All of them are open-minded about the same things. All of them feel the same way about everything. Now, that level of conformity follows logically from an ideal based only on a couple of very simple tenets – A is A, man is rational, only trading can be moral – but it really undercuts the message of individualism. I think it’s pretty well exemplified by the fact that at least four of the Men of the Mind are all in love with the same woman, the one female main character, the railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart. (By the way: Rand has some spectacular character names, particularly among the bad guys; but a lot of her heroes have really dumb names. Midas Mulligan is one of the dumbest. Ragnar Danneskjold and Francisco d’Anconia are fine, but a bit of a mouthful. Ellis Wyatt and John Galt are good. But Dagny Taggart? Yick.) And even though she chooses only one of them in the end, they are all perfectly happy for her, and perfectly at peace with all of their rivals for her affection. Come on: not one of them is petty? I mean, we’re all rational beings, sure, but we’re still human.

Idea that I want to label as silly but Rand seems really damn sure of it so maybe it needs more thought: compromise is evil. When John Galt speaks at the end of the book and reveals an encapsulated version of Rand’s philosophy which this book is supposed to represent, he talks about morality and right and wrong. And he says that the people in the middle of a moral argument are the worst people, the greatest evil. Someone who takes the wrong side is at least taking a side, even if they are wrong about it; people who want to compromise are the real villains. So for me, this is complete bullshit; compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other. But this book is one large slippery-slope argument; the looters – like me, with my support for taxes and public welfare – have survived as long as we have while leeching off of the Men of the Mind because the M.o.t.M. are willing to compromise with us. They give us a little; then we ask for a little more. They give us more; we ask for the rest. They give us the rest; we ask for their lives. The book depicts this as inevitable, and the only solution is what the M.o.t.M. do in this book: they stop it dead, they walk away, they say “No more!” and go on strike. Leaving all of us looters to die in chaos and bloodshed, whining pathetically that it’s all their fault.

Now, as a public school teacher, I understand the danger of a slippery slope. My school is always asking me for a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more. It does seem as though taxes just keep going up and up; the American Revolution was fought over a tax burden of about 1-3% of total income. But the fact that compromise shifts you off of your extreme position doesn’t mean that you can no longer make a stand: it means you have to select a new position somewhere more towards the middle, and stand there. Whether you stand on the far side or three steps in from the edge makes no difference; in either case, the strength of your stance is the same, whatever determination you can muster to maintaining that position. The difference is that a position somewhere in the middle acknowledges that other people have minds, as well, and probably have a point in their argument; believing Rand’s argument that I must trust my judgment above anyone else’s doesn’t mean I never listen to anything anyone else says, ever. And it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to get along with other humans, which requires compromise. Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.

Since I have to take an extreme position, though, I’m going to call this idea silly.

 

In the end I think there are better ways to get the same set of ideas, rather than reading this book. Then again, the book is still selling, still being read; maybe this really is the best form of the argument. Maybe there’s something good here that I missed, or didn’t appreciate. I will note that if you happen to be a tall, thin, money-loving independent American businessman, then accepting the ideas in this book would make you the pinnacle of humanity and the source of all good things in the world: that is a very attractive reason to think Rand has a point. If you are one of those.

But as a liberal, moderate, government employee, and member of the unproductive bourgeois, I guess I’m not one of the Men of the Mind. That’s okay: I don’t want to die, as every other character in the book does when society collapses and returns to the Dark Ages; but I also wouldn’t want to hang out with those people. They don’t read enough. And clearly, I read too much.

 

COROLLARY  DISCUSSION:

After I posted a link to this on Facebook, a friend and former teaching colleague of mine, who has spent far more time reading and thinking about Rand’s work than I have, commented on that link about this review/explanation of Atlas Shrugged. Her comments came in two parts because of the permissible size of Facebook comments (I had to do the same thing in my reply to her); I responded to the first half but not the second, and then she replied to me. All of that discussion is below; I’m appending it because her explanations of Rand’s thoughts and the corrections she made to my above explanations are both important and useful. There are still some things I disagree with, and still things that require more thought; the second half of her initial response requires more reading of Rand’s non-fiction, which I plan to get to eventually, and until I do there’s no point in continuing our discussion of compromise — but it’s going to end up being a sticking point, I think. At any rate, if you read this post, please do go on and read this discussion: it is very helpful. Any further discussion is entirely welcome in the comments.

The only formatting change I’m going to make is to mark quotations we both used. All her quotations are from me; I quoted myself and her response, and marked it as such. The name-links lead to our respective Facebook pages.

 

Jessica Porter Dusty, I enjoyed reading your take on Atlas Shrugged. Your review is more thoughtful than many I have read. I first read Atlas Shrugged about three years ago and have spent a considerable amount of time since then mulling things over and sorting through the different pieces of Rand’s philosophy to see if they stand. Your review is fair in some areas but off in others. There are several places in particular where the book’s big ideas are not quite accurately represented—and since many people are never actually going to read Atlas Shrugged but will look to reviews like this for a summary instead, I think it’s only fair to push back on a few things.
__________________

 

“The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”

-This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

“Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

-This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

“The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

-No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

“Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

-It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

“Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

-Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Jessica Porter

“Because in Rand’s eyes, we all have the same values, namely that we are all happiest when we are being productive, and I question that because Jeffrey Dahmer was happiest when he was murdering and eating people “

-A valid question, yet this overlooks the fact that rationality and reason are absolute requirements for true happiness. Galt sums it up well when he says, “Happiness is not to be achieved at the command of emotional whims. Happiness is not the satisfaction of whatever irrational wishes you might blindly attempt to indulge. Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.” I am no expert on Jeffrey Dahmer, but I doubt very much that Dahmer’s actions fall into the category of non-contradictory, non-destructive joy. I suspect one would find a great number of contradictions in Dahmer’s personal philosophy.

“It turns out a lot of this book is, for me, a straw man argument: a whole lot of the immoral collectivist thought that damages and imprisons the Men of the Mind is actually Christian thought …. So for a thousand pages, I was told that I’m an evil man who’s destroying what humanity could and should be – because of my Christian dogma. And, well: nope. I’m not a nihilist, either, so all the declarations that reality is knowable and that we can act based on our knowledge weren’t challenging for me. So I don’t know how much this philosophy changes my paradigm, and therefore how much it matters to me.”

-If you don’t think that Rand’s label of evil applies to you, then why are you sure that throughout the entire book, she is saying you are a horrible person? I don’t think Rand’s criticism is so much against Christianity as it is against the altruist morality, which is 100% not exclusive to Christianity. Rand’s background was an atheist dictatorship rather than a Christian one, and as far as I know, she reviled and wanted to destroy socialism much more so than she did Christianity (although she hated Christianity as well). What makes you think that her philosophical criticisms are targeted primarily at Christian dogma?

“Compromise is how humans build society and survive with each other.”

-I recommend that you read the essay, “The Anatomy of Compromise” by Rand.

“Rand seems to believe that life should be a constant competition, and if you aren’t the winner, then you should get the hell out of the way. Personally I think that damns the vast majority of humanity to essential worthlessness, which seems bad. But then, I don’t really like the majority of humans very much, so maybe there’s something to it.”

-Where does Rand say that life should be a constant competition and that if you aren’t a winner, you should get the hell out of the way? That is not an idea I have encountered in my readings of Rand. Where are you getting this? She definitely does not shy away from judging people, but nowhere does she advise against thinking through other people’s ideas, having friends, acknowledging that other people have minds, and pursuing the values that are unique to you personally (not everyone is a steel magnate). You frame this as if Rand is some sort of non-human Nazi with a riding crop incapable of living any sort of thoughtful life with other human beings. That, I think, is a bit of a caricature. You have to take the whole of Rand’s philosophy into account, where there is plenty of room for love, connection, and thought. Compromise, not so much, but again, you should read “The Anatomy of Compromise” for more details.

 

Theoden Humphrey

Me in blog:'”The reason the Men of the Mind go on strike is because they recognize that society only exists because of their contributions, but that society gives them nothing in return for what they provide to their fellow men…. According to this book, the Men of the Mind are good in all ways, and the rest of society are weak and lazy, incapable and, as Rand frequently states unequivocally, evil. Intentionally, utterly evil. Why? Because we don’t produce, we simply take what the Men of the Mind produce. We are looters.”‘

You: -This summation is incorrect. It’s not that the producers are upset that society merely provides nothing in return for their contributions; it’s that what society does provide in return is contempt, derision, and threats. “Society” also steals from the producers, taking values through violence that were not offered freely, value-for-value. For the producers, this is a matter of justice. The framing of their motives is important, and your framing obscures the injustice that underlies the trade imbalance between the producers and the consumers. Your summary frames everyone who is not a producer as being a looter worthy of total contempt. For Rand, though, the label of evil is for the James Taggarts of the world: those whose entire mode of operation is looting and non-thought. Not all lesser-producers are this way in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand does not condemn all of the non-industrialists as she condemns James Taggart. What distinguishes good people from bad people, in Rand’s view, is essentially: are you trying to focus and think, or are you purposefully trying to do the opposite? Taggart seeks non-thought and non-production and is entirely happy to mooch off of others. A person could be weak, lazy, and incapable but yet still be seeking rationality, pursuing the full achievement of their values, and trying to be better. I think Rand would, in that case, not categorize that person as evil at all but as a person who is at least making a noble attempt.

Me now: You’re right, I should have included the concept of justice and injustice; it is critical to Rand’s explanation of this situation. I don’t know that I agree with her description of society’s treatment of producers, that the injustice of a trade imbalance, as you describe it, leads to contempt, derision, and threats; I suppose that is the distinction, that it is evildoers like Taggart who take us from – can I say “mere injustice?” I don’t mean to belittle the problem, but I do see a distinction between the injustice involved in taking the production of people, and doubling down on that injustice by offering them contempt, derision and threats. Taggart and his ilk take it to that point. Society – “only” – steals from the producers. I should have talked about the theft.

I don’t know that I saw that critical distinction about thought and focus being enough to earn Rand’s approbation. Yes, Taggart seeks non-thought, I saw that; but I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable. There is a set of evildoers who are the real villains – but the workers at the 20th Century Plant, and the citizens of Starnesville who return to savagery as a result of what Jed Starnes’s heirs do, are not good. They are not as villainous as those heirs, and the guy at the end, the drifter with the clean collar – is it Jeff Allen? – whom Dagny gives a job to, is clearly one of those people who has done wrong by participating in the corruption of the 20th Century plant, but is trying to do better now, and he receives positive treatment from Dagny and from Rand. So I see what you’re saying. But he seemed the exception. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general. It seemed like ignorance was not much of an excuse. Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.

Me in blog: “Note that you have to agree that the purpose of humanity is production to accept the full conclusion that Rand gets to, which is that the industrialist is the ideal human being.”

You: -This is not the case. First of all, I don’t think that Rand would even agree that there is a “purpose of humanity” at all. Individuals have purposes. Humanity as a collective does not. For each individual, though, Rand’s take is that each person’s purpose is not production, but rather the achievement of their personal happiness (which you discuss later in your post). Production of some sort is necessary for the achievement of values, but Rand is in no way stating or suggesting that industrial production is the purpose that every individual should pursue. She is also not suggesting that those who do not pursue industry are any less noble or valuable as human beings than those that do. Also, for Rand, the ideal human being is John Galt (and all of the characteristics that define him), not the “industrialist” in a disembodied, abstract sense. Galt’s skill set includes innovator, inventor, and philosopher. He is a man of thought and action, moral and practical. He is not a stand-in for Bill Gates or Elon Musk. Among other things, I think Atlas Shrugged was a thank you note from Rand to the industrialists who made the Western world great, and this is why many of the heroes in this book happen to be industrialists. In The Fountainhead, by contrast, Rand’s hero is a starving artist.

Me now: I was confused by the idea of purpose in this book. The achievement of personal happiness comes from achievement of values, which requires some form of production; doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it? I got lost in the idea of what is good and what is purposeful and what is valuable. I’m not explaining my confusion well, I know. I do understand that industrial production is not the key, but it is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art. She has a doctor character in Galt’s Gulch, so it isn’t that industrialists are the only good men – but it seemed like they were the best men. I see your point about Galt’s various qualities, but there is also the point that he specifically avoids academia to go work for a commercial, industrial concern; isn’t there a higher value, then, placed on that sphere of activity? You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?

Theoden Humphrey Me in blog: “The book argues that any gift is a sin.”

You: -No, the book does not argue that any gift is a sin. Rather, any sacrifice is a sin. A sacrifice, according to Rand, is “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a non-value.” For example, in the book, when Hank Reardon tolerates his wife’s denigration of his life and his values, he makes a sacrifice. Hank is giving up the full expression of his own pride and accomplishments for the sake of getting along with a wife who is an awful person. He does this merely because he assumes without giving it much thought that this is expected of him. Hank gives up (until he meets Dagny) the opportunity to be with people who actually value him for who he really is and respect him for what he values for the sake of keeping up appearances and doing what society expects a person to do. Rand would agree that sacrificial charity is evil, but she would not agree that all charity or gifts are evil.

Me now: Okay, yes, but if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift. If it is better for me to use the word “sacrifice,” so as not to taint the idea of gift-giving, then sure; I’m not trying to critique Rand by saying “She’s against BIRTHDAY PRESENTS!” I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.

Me in blog: “Rand has to do some fancy stepping to make things like love and family fit into this ideal [of love as being selfish rather than altruistic]; she claims towards the end that giving aid to someone you deem worthy is a trade, because you as the giver gain the value of supporting someone you think worth supporting; this strikes me as a real stretch.”

You: -It sounds like your trouble with this is that you don’t see how a love-based relationship like marriage or parenting could be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. Ask a parent: Is your life richer for having had children? If their answer is no, then their experience of parenting would fit your framing and would be considered altruism. If their answer is yes, however, then the act of parenting, even though it takes a huge amount of work, also brings huge rewards. For many people, choosing to parent is a choice that is made in order to bring joy and fulfillment to life. By Rand’s definition, this is selfishness, not altruism. Your analysis neglects the fact that relationships do bring enormous values to many people. Watching a child you love grow up and experience the world, for example, is worth more than what it costs to be a parent for many people (which is not to say that being a parent doesn’t cost something). Same with marriage. Does marriage have a cost? Absolutely. But many people choose marriage because the rewards it brings outweigh the costs. This is not altruistic. For Rand, love is 100% a selfish act, according to her definition of selfishness, which may be worth looking into further.

Me now: Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?

I think I’m having trouble understanding the distinction between trading value for value, and acting in a kind way in order to receive emotional rewards – or rather, I think there’s a distinction there that Rand maybe wouldn’t make. Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings. Like that last sentence: I see it as wrong because I said “to feel incorrect.” I know, happiness is the goal, and so if parenting brings true happiness, then that is value returned for the sacrifice (But it isn’t a sacrifice if it makes me happy. Still confused about which word to use.). But it doesn’t come from the kid, it comes from the existence of the kid; the kid doesn’t return value specifically. It’s not a trade. I think I see your point, but it is confusing.

Me in blog: “Anyone who supports charity is actually a murderous, larcenous, amoral villain; everyone who isn’t a Man of the Mind in the book is essentially a caricature of a cackling mustache-twisting criminal.”

You: -Be careful not to equivocate on the concept of charity as it is used in the book. If a person supports forced, sacrificial charity, then according to Rand, yes, that is bad. But if a person supports the trading of value for value, which includes non-sacrificial charity, then that is great. Also, Eddie Willers is not one of the leading industrialists but is also not characterized as a mustache-twisting criminal. What is different about Eddie that causes Rand to frame him in noble terms even though he is not in the ranks of Galt, etc? This matters. If you perceive one of Rand’s points as being that if a person is not a super star Superman industrialist, they are an evil, pathetic loser, you may be reading your own concerns into the book.

Me now: What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?

You’re right about Eddie Willers, and Cherryl Taggart is another one. I do not think that it is simply a dichotomy of John Galt and James Taggart. But Eddie and Cherryl both die when everything falls apart, so I dunno – didn’t seem like they were all that positive as role models for the reader. I had trouble discerning where the criticism of the looters ended and the – what, the pity? – for the regular folks who weren’t either the villains or the victims began. I wasn’t sure how much the regular folks should have been working to avoid the villainy of the looters. Are they villains to some extent because they allow the looters to control the government? Because they vote for the government officials, because they believe the propaganda, and they are not always properly grateful to the men of the mind? Because they don’t understand what the men of the mind understand?

And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it? I have no idea how to answer that, in any case. Don’t know how to step out of my own perceptions and critique them. I will say I have no idea how Rand would have seen me (I’m pretty sure I’m not a villain, but I am not a hero. I do not know if Rand would have seen me as rational. Please don’t answer that for me; I am going to continue reading Rand and figure it out for myself.), and that probably contributes to my overall confusion here. I did say a lot of this needs more thought.

Jessica Porter

1. “I’m not sure I agree that this book depicts a world where a lazy, weak, incapable person, who is seeking to get better, is valuable…. I felt like the book was tremendously critical of everyone who was not on board with Galt’s ideas, in general….Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy, since the villains suffer as well.”

I agree with you that the book is not centered around lazy, weak, incapable people seeking to be better who are painted as noble. You are right about that. But Rand’s book is primarily a novel with a plot, and just because she doesn’t place many characters like that within this particular plot, that doesn’t mean anything in any moral sense about those characters. Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel; it doesn’t seek to answer every question of Objectivism, cross every T, and refute every objection that could ever exist. There is much that goes unaddressed. Weak people trying to be better would be one of those things that Rand does not focus on in this book, although she addresses moral questions related to that in her other writings. But mostly, my point here is that just because Rand’s world in this particular novel does not include a specific thing that you are interested in or an idea that you want to see doesn’t mean that her philosophy rejects that thing. You probably wouldn’t write a pirate novel, for example, with large chapters focused on the pirate captain’s many children growing up alone without a father on an exotic island somewhere if their story didn’t contribute to the book you were trying to write. As a side note, Rand expressed in her theory of aesthetics that in any work of art, absolutely every element is and must be essential. And this, I think, is why weak yet noble characters are de-emphasized in A.S. They are just not relevant to the story Rand wanted to write, and I don’t think it’s useful to draw moral conclusions from their absence.

Also, you are right that characters like Eddie, the train hobo, and Cherryl are exceptions and that Rand expresses general criticism toward most of the Joe Schmos in the book. I think this is because Rand’s view of the average person is that most people just kind of go with the flow while the leaders set the tone for a society. Rand thought that most folks take their philosophical and political cues from the leaders and repeat whatever the leaders emit. But if the moral leaders of the day are James Taggart and his ilk and are setting the tone for the millions under them, people will likely behave badly. But that is more a tragedy of circumstance than it is a moral failing, I think. To what extent it is a moral failing, though—that is not addressed in A.S. as far as I can remember. I think the resentment you are reading in Rand’s tone has more to do with the worldview the common people have accepted from their leaders than with the fact that they are not industrialists or producers like Galt. There are two classes of people that I think you might be conflating: actual looters (people who actively contribute to and participate in stealing from the producers and create moral justification for doing so) and low-level producers (who don’t participate in politics and just do their low level jobs every day). It’s the first group, the people who forward along the looting meme, that Rand really has a hard time with.

And finally: “Maybe I was misreading suffering for villainy.” In Rand’s universe, unlike in the Christian moral universe, for example, people don’t necessarily get what’s coming to them in the moral sense. There is no karma (although her heroes always win—but that’s a different topic, I think). Rand’s point is not that what happens to people is what is just. I think her point is more that what happens to people is a combination of their personal effort, luck, their environmental circumstances, and the kind of society that they live in. So, when good people like Eddie suffer and die, Eddie doesn’t suffer because he is ignoble, he suffers because the society of Atlas Shrugged is impossible to live in.

2. “Doesn’t that mean that productivity is, if not THE purpose of a human life, a critical element of it?”

Well, yes. It is. I thought that you were trying to say that industrial production in a sterile, pre-selected, universal sense, is the collective purpose of humanity, and that industrialists are morally superior to every other kind of person in Rand’s view. I guess it really just depends on what you mean by production, and I was not sure what you meant. For Rand, production really just means, “the application of reason to the problem of survival.” Or, to quote her further (this is one of my favorite quotes on this subject), “Whether it’s a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one’s own eyes—which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification—which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before.“ So, yes. Production in this sense would be a necessary component of any full, human life.

3. “It is telling to me that the focus of much of Rand’s praise is related to industrial production. She talks about how innovators and inventors and industrialists have saved us time, and therefore life, along with providing the means of sustaining life, through increasing our productivity; she doesn’t say as much about the value of, say, medicine as a means of saving lives, or the value of producing art…..You say it, too: “the industrialists who made the Western world great.” Did they? Is that who did it? Then doesn’t that mean that there is indeed a bias towards industrialists?””

Rand’s point in A.S. is not that industrialists as human beings are morally superior to doctors and artists; rather, her point is that society does not recognize the enormous value that innovators have added to the world. In Rand’s view, all rational people are equally moral, but in a purely quantitative sense (entirely removed from the realm of morality) industrialists and innovators have been humanity’s greatest benefactors (after philosophers and perhaps artists). But people already know that philosophers and artists provide us with great ideas and inspiring works. Philosophers and artists are much less controversial than industrialists, who are painted as greedy, exploitative, unfeeling robber barons who love to watch children go hungry if it pads their wallets. Because of the efforts of a few great innovators (great in the sense that what they did was extraordinarily helpful to the lives of others, not great in the sense that they are more moral than any other rational person), the world is exponentially easier and more pleasant to live in. This is just a matter of economic fact, and it is a fact that was particularly important to Rand, as she saw society as completely overlooking this. Take for example, the person who invented modern agronomy: Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s contributions, and others made billions of lives possible at the most basic level: he made it possible for them to eat. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand is trying to dramatize the millions of people starving that we in our non-Atlas Shrugged world didn’t have to see because of contributions like Norman Borlaug’s. So, yes, she does elevate industrialists, but she does so in order to reveal them as benefactors, not to christen them as the moral gods of humanity. And she does this because people do not commonly see it.

Jessica Porter

4. “But if a gift comes with a reward in return, then it isn’t a gift…. I have an issue with the idea that all sacrifice is a sin, and I used the word “gift” to signify a sacrifice of value that doesn’t come with an equal return of value.”

Really? Then is it not a gift if I treat my mom to a tour of the Japanese Gardens on Mother’s Day and then give her a gift card to the gardening store? I get a huge return of value from that—I love to see my mom feel loved and happy. Creating a situation where I get to make my mom’s life a little happier brings a lot of value to me because a world where my mom is happy is a world I want to be in. If I hated my mom, though, and if I bought her flowers for Mother’s Day even though I resent her for every moment of my childhood, would that be a proper gift according to your definition? If I were to take my mom to the Japanese Gardens and then say, “But you have to pay for lunch so that we are even,” then I would agree with you that that is not a gift. But in Rand’s world, it’s not that there is some God of Value-for-Value Payments hanging out in the sky calculating who owes what to whom. It’s more that each individual should act for her own benefit. She should do things that make the world more like a place she wants to live. If giving a gift to someone makes the world better for you, then giving that gift is not a sacrifice. It doesn’t matter where the “payback” comes from or what sort of currency it’s in. All that matters is that you receive some value from giving the thing and that you aren’t trading a higher value away to the universe for a lesser one. It does not matter where the value comes from (whether it comes from the exact person you gave the gift to or not).

5. “Correct, I don’t see how a love-based relationship can be fundamentally selfish and not altruistic. I suppose again I’m considering altruism as something other than sacrifice; I think of it as meaning “kindness.” Totally selfless kindness, if that is the definition (and according to Google it is, so I suppose I’m wrong on this), is not what I think of in regards to love-based relationships; I agree that we enter into those relationships because we gain rewards from them. I don’t think anyone thinks differently: I didn’t see Lillian Rearden as a realistic character. Is she? Is that really how people are in a marriage, demanding that the other person destroy themselves? So is there a marriage that isn’t the pure trading of value between Galt and Dagny, but isn’t the abusive marriage of the Reardens?”

I am a bit confused by your confusion. First you say that you don’t see how love-based relationships can be fundamentally selfish rather than altruistic. But then you say that you disagree with the definition of altruism in the dictionary, and you think of altruism as meaning something other than what Rand is saying that it means. (“Kindness” is not at all what Rand is talking about when she talks about altruism, just like a stingy lack of regard for others is not what she means when she talks about selfishness.) And then you say that people do enter into relationships because people gain rewards from relationships. And then you ask whether Lillian Rearden is a realistic character. I am not quite following. Rand is pretty clear about what she means by altruism and what she means by selfishness. And if people enter into love relationships because they gain rewards and they want to be kind to their loved one….then isn’t that an internally consistent way of framing selfishness? Why would the existence of a non-abusive, non-value-for-value marriage be relevant here?

6. “Maybe it is the harsh criticism of acting on feelings that runs throughout the book; I know that’s because the non-rational characters use “feelings” as an excuse for their irrational behavior, but it was hard – it is hard – not to feel incorrect whenever I talk about feelings.”

It’s not acting on feelings that Rand condemns, but acting on feelings as a primary. Emotions are supposed to be the shortcut to knowing how to respond to the world; there’s supposed to be reasoned-out values bolstering them from below. Rand condemns those who respond to the world from feelings that they themselves do not understand and do not want to understand. Feelings themselves are not being criticized. What’s being criticized is irrational action based on unexamined emotion.

7. “What exactly is non-sacrificial charity?”

Non-sacrificial charity would be the same thing as taking your mom to the Japanese Gardens and paying for lunch because her happiness makes you happy. Or giving money to a cause you believe in because doing so contributes to the world becoming more of the place you want it to be. It is giving away a value in order to receive an equal or greater value without expecting something in trade from the person who receives the gift.

8. “And of course I’m reading my own concerns into the book; am I not supposed to? Am I not supposed to see how this relates to me, how I fit into this worldview? Was I supposed to read this book just as an escape, a pastime? Maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. Are you saying that I am feeling my own guilt for my own actions and seeing Rand’s criticism of regular folk too harshly, is that it?”

I don’t mean that you should not read the book with your concerns and worldview in mind, and I especially don’t mean to say that you must be expressing your own feelings of guilt. Not at all. I do mean that the concerns you (or anyone) brings to a book this challenging can obscure what Rand is actually getting at. If we take for granted, for example, that altruism is just kindness based on a sort of vague, culturally absorbed definition, then Rand’s treatment of altruism will probably seem contradictory or bizarre, but it isn’t either of those things. But it can be difficult to see what Rand is talking about at times if a person is not able to set aside the culturally-absorbed definition of altruism, for example. I say this after having personally struggled a lot with my own concerns clouding my ability to really follow some of Rand’s ideas all the way to the end at first. So, I did not mean any insult. If I offended, it was not intended.

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

by Ayn Rand

 

My god.

Now: I’m a word guy, a writer and a literature teacher, so I read quickly. I enjoy it, so I dedicate a lot of my free time to it. I’m a high school teacher and it’s summertime, so I have a lot of free time. I’ve been averaging about a book a day since school ended.

Until I hit this one.

1070 pages of some of the smallest print I’ve seen outside of User Agreements. 562,000 words, according to the Indefeasible blog. For scale, that is 25,000 words less than War and Peace by Tolstoy, and 400,000 words more than The Grapes of Wrath, the longest book I’ve ever tried to teach. It is equivalent to 12.186 Fahrenheit 451s.

This took me eight days to read. I spend at least 3-4 hours a day reading, too. It was a tough slog, too; because it is a philosophical treatise as much as it is a novel, I had to concentrate on the ideas harder than I would on, say, a book from The Wheel of Time or Harry Potter. I did it because the book was recommended as an important first step in understanding a former colleague and debate opponent’s worldview, which he describes as Aristotelian and bears a lot of resemblance to Rand’s philosophy, which she called Objectivism. I wanted to understand his worldview because his ideas are different from mine, and he is very, very sure of his positions and opinions; so I wanted to know from whence came his surety, and if I could and should be thinking along the same lines. So I read the book.

It made me think lots of interesting things. It really did: it made me realize that there are some things that I have done (like mock and castigate industrialists – in my case my favorite target was Bill Gates) that I shouldn’t have done, some things that I do that I shouldn’t do (like use words ambiguously, or symbolically, with little concern for their actual meaning), and some things that I haven’t done that I should do (like think about what my purpose in life really is, and why). There are some parts of the philosophy espoused and exemplified that I find interesting, and that I plan to investigate further and perhaps even adopt, if I can verify that they work for me.

However: reading this book was not worth it. Even with my personal interest in knowing what it has to say, I got so bloody tired of reading it that for the last three days, I had to work twice as hard to pay attention – and since I had to work twice as hard as normal to pay attention in the first place, this has been a mentally draining task. I did it, though, and now I’m here to tell you: don’t do it.

Rand was not a good writer. I’ve read three of her books now, and while this one was leagues better than Anthem, that’s like saying that shaving with a chipped-flint spearhead is better than shaving with sandpaper: you still wouldn’t want to do it. I read The Fountainhead in high school, so I don’t remember it well; once I’ve recovered sufficiently from this one, I may read that one. I dunno, though. It’s only 311,000 words, but that’s still two Grapes of Wrath.

That’s the biggest problem. She used too many words. And I say that as a wordy writer, which I am; my first book was 200,000 words. But she repeats things too many times, unnecessarily, as though using five words to describe something makes up for the fact that she is telling and not showing; and when she explains them, she uses too many synonyms and appositives. As a random sample from a page I just flipped to:

The scream of an alarm siren shattered the space beyond the window and shot like a rocket in a long, thin line to the sky. It held for an instant, then fell, then went on in rising, falling spirals of sound, as if fighting for breath against terror to scream louder. It was the shriek of agony, the call for help, the voice of the mills as of a wounded body crying to hold its soul.

So there was an alarm, then. You know, just the word “alarm” implies that it was bad, and “scream” implies fear; you could basically say this same paragraph in three words:

An alarm screamed.

Now of course repetition creates emphasis, which is presumably the point of the extended description; but there doesn’t seem to be anything in this book that Rand doesn’t want to emphasize – which means, of course, that nothing is really emphasized, because all of it seems almost like – well, like a screaming alarm siren fighting for breath, crying to hold its soul. By the end of this book I was very tired of being yelled at. I can’t imagine how fatiguing a conversation with this woman must have been.

In addition, the level of rage leveled at people like me – political liberals, that is, which means Rand saw me as a looter, a moocher, a liar, a coward, a fool, a murderer, a thug, and the destruction of humanity – was just as exhausting. I knew going in that there was a critical speech at the end, when John Galt speaks (No spoilers – that’s the name of the chapter, “This is John Galt speaking.”), which explained the whole worldview being dramatized in this book; but the problem was that most of what Galt says had already been said by the narrator or one of the other characters. I probably could have just read Galt’s speech and skipped the rest of the book. I would have been happier, too, because Galt carries the deepest anger, the most righteous condemnation of anyone who would support, you know, taxes and welfare and stuff. So I had to read that after reading another 900 pages of pretty much the same stuff, just not quite as angry as when Galt says it. I got really tired of being insulted so many times, and with such bile.

I will also say that, while the story itself is interesting (though much too long) and, I think, disturbingly realistic, the characters are not. Not that I think Rand’s idealized hero-industrialists are absurd; I mean, they are, but they are absurd the same way that Tom Brady or Michael Jordan is absurd, or William Shakespeare, or Isaac Newton, or Michelangelo or Mozart: nobody should be that good at what they do. But as all those names (Just the first few to come to mind. Of course there are many more examples.) show, people really are that good at what they do. It is possible. No, these characters are unrealistic in the way they read each others’ expressions. Like this:

The suggestion of a smile on Mrs. Hastings’ face held sadness, but the face had no imprint of tragedy, only a grave look of firmness, acceptance and quiet serenity.

Picture that face, that smile, in your mind. Okay, that’s good, just the suggestion of a smile . . . No! No imprint of tragedy. That’s better – but it needs a little more firmness in that look of quiet serenity. Got it, now? Or this:

There was the faintest coating of mockery spread, like shellac, over the smooth notes of her voice.

I mean, I like that, it’s a nice phrase – but what the hell does that sound like? And how would someone pick up on it?

These aren’t the best examples, the best examples are when someone heroic looks into the face of one of the villains and sees what they intend to show, along with what they’re hiding, and also what they are unaware they are really feeling; but I didn’t want to spend the time looking through the book to find one. It took me long enough to find these examples.

There are thoughts worth thinking in this book. I intend to spend more time thinking about those ideas. But good grief: I have already spent enough time reading this book. No more.