Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The Book: Ayn Rand, ATLAS SHRUGGED. Signet paperback reprint, 1992 (originally published 1957). 55th printing. Inscribed to the owner: "To Ellen -- I give you this book -- is it altruism? You be the judge -- Ashton 8/25/96." Good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, spine is creased, lower corner of front cover is creased.
First read: Still reading (theoretically)
Owned since: 1996

I rarely reprint the inscriptions in my books -- too personal and/or too boring -- but this one still cracks me up. My then-housemate, Ashton, decided in the summer of 1996 that all of us living at 1800 15th Street NW should read this book, and then we could discuss it. It was a great idea, but as far as I know, none of us managed to finish it -- although I lugged this with me on several business trips, and got to page 587 (it's marked) the last time I tried. I did skip to the end, and read bits and pieces of John Galt's final, endless speech.

Enough, anyway, to get the idea: altruism destroys initiative, only the strong deserve to survive, charity is a crime against the economy, our only and paramount responsibility is to increase our own personal productivity and prosperity.

Pfft. What alarmed me most was the day I had this with me at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, taking the afternoon off on a business trip to Cleveland. The ticket-taker noticed me carrying the book and said, "Oh my God, are you reading that? I loved that book. That book changed my life."

People sometimes accuse me of over-sharpness, but I still want to give myself credit for not asking how Ayn Rand's principles of Objectivism had helped this person achieve the lofty position of ticket-taker at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. See, that was altruism on my part. Sometimes it's necessary for a peaceful life.

I keep this book because I cherish the memory of that house, those housemates and that time in my life, not because of anything about the book itself. It's quoted often enough, in enough random places, that I might need it for reference once of these days. Otherwise, I don't ever plan to finish it.

Five Random Songs

"They Never Got You," Spoon. Spoon is one of my favorite bands of the 21st century (even though they've been together since the mid-'90s).

"The Old Apartment," Barenaked Ladies. Weirdly appropriate for today's post. Sometimes I wonder who's living at 1800 15th Street now, and whether they're as happy there as we were. I bet not.

"Na Na Na," The Knife. Cool European electronica, a gift from a friend; I told him I felt like I needed a whole new lifestyle just in order to listen to it.

"Back in the High Life Again," Warren Zevon. A cover of the Steve Winwood song, recorded before Zevon knew he was dying of cancer. In context, almost crucifyingly sad.

"Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle," Electric Light Orchestra. Thank goodness, let's lighten up a little...


Claire said...

I've read that book a few times and never managed to get through the whole of John Galt's speech. Oh well. I think I got the gist of it. I think I've told you before, though--our family blames Ayn Rand for my obnoxious adolescence. Her quote on the back of America: The Book cracks me up every time: "This book is similar to my works in that anyone who reads it will be an asshole for at least a month afterwards."

AnswerGirl said...

Your enthusiasm for Ayn Rand earned you some money, at least. And you're older and wiser now...

Chandra + Kris said...

i just started fountainhead, and i'm not sure if i will ever finish it. maybe it's just Ms. Rand?

Anna said...

Ah, memories! As one of the original 1800 15th street occupants I have to admit that I never finished it either. I looked on my shelf today but couldn't find the book. I must have purged it long ago, along with my guilt over never finishing it!

Moira said...

What a weight is lifted. I, too, never finished Atlas Shrugged. I have started it about 3 times and get to about the 3/5 point and just can't do it. I confess, I was really into The Fountainhead when I read it, so I thought something must be terribly wrong that I can't manage (stomach) A.S. I feel so much better that a voracious reader like you put it down too.

Hilarious Cleveland story! You're a saint.

Laura said...

Okay. I'm willing to be the only asshole here. I adored ATLAS SHRUGGED and on it I blame my unrepentant attachment to capitalism.

But I do look at it as an extreme. (And the rest of her work bores me to tears--THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS is pretty much unreadable.) Of course charity isn't evil. But as humans we have no natural boundaries and a definite propensity to be envious of what our neighbors have. And there are those among us who feel entitled to what you and I have--and are happily willing to help themselves to it with the help of the government or a handy firearm. (Or both.)

I will never read AT again, though, because it's a poorly written book. Polemic makes bad fiction. That woman sure could've used a decent editor....

(Your ticket-taker observation cracked me up! But maybe she'd been on welfare before....)