Yesterday we were having lunch at La Bottega Marino, on the Westside. It is an intimate place, with small round marble-topped tables grouped close together, perfect for overhearing conversations. At a table in the corner two young women sat finishing their dessert while they waited for someone to arrive. “I’m having a ‘cakegasm,’” one of two announced happily to the waitress as the other excused herself to use the bathroom. The friend arrived, a young man. He spoke in a soft tone—a bedroom voice. The girl at the table started talking about the book she was reading, which she said was incredible. At that, naturally, my ears swiveled in her direction. “Don’t get me started on this book,” she warned the young man, “I won’t stop talking about it.”
“I love reading,” the soft-voiced young man said.
She couldn’t resist. Minutes later, she started describing what I quickly realized was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand—the immensely long novel about a driven and unyielding architect named Howard Roark, based on a heroic Frank Lloyd Wright.
I am reminded of the wickedly funny incident in Tobias Wolff’s Old School, in which Ayn Rand comes to the campus of the prep-school-aged protagonist. She sweeps in, adorned with a pin in the shape of a dollar sign, with a coterie of followers. She sneers at the protagonist for sneezing. She cites the greatest works America has produced as being her two books (The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) and the works of Mickey Spillane (who runs a distant third place). Rand exits with a superior and sardonic air, just as she swept in. After her visit, the protagonist does not feel the same about Ayn Rand. The spell has been broken.
Rand espoused the virtue of selfishness, which she termed “the morality of rational self-interest.” Tied, as the theory was, to stunningly attractive supermen and women, with have scoundrels that are truly contemptible arrayed against them, it was a blast of ideas. Lacking in money, and feeling that my talents were unappreciated in a world that too easily accepted mediocrity, I bought into it myself at about the same age as the young woman in the Bottega.To believe oneself a superman, even or 600 quickly-read pages, is to lessen the sting of poverty and hunger, especially if one can feel scorn for the “second-raters,” with their soft layers of flab, who always seem positioned above you, through no virtue of their own.
I remained somewhat in thrall to the uncompromising Rand—at least her fabulous portrayal of the virtues of the “purpose-driven” life—until I was laughed at by my mentor, Elisa Fitzgerald, at the start of my tenure at Vermont Magazine. On my resume, I’d let on I was part of The Objectivist Club (Rand’s philosophy) at the university I had just graduated from. Okay, so I didn’t have much to pad the resume with. I don’t think Rand helped me get the job.
Just as Harry Potter has been an entry point into reading for many children, I think the tomes of Ayn Rand, which seem impossibly lengthy at first, encourage readers at a certain age, and a certain level of suggestibility, to take on more challenging works. One finishes the Rand books in a surge, wanting to read more, hungry for ideas.
And then…shades of the working world start to close around the working stiff. Time for reading becomes a luxury. And after high school or college we slowly start setting about forgetting most of what we learned. That is why it is so important to read as much as one can in those high school and college years, when the mind is a field ready to be sown.
The trick is simply to get A Journey Through Literary America into the hands of that little group at the Bottega. The blond woman had just had the literary equivalent of a cakegasm. The young man sounded just as enthusiastic as she. The doors to their reading habits are standing open. TRH