Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why Do Kids Love Ayn Rand Novels?

There are two novels that can change a bookish 14-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.Kung Fu Monkey

When I was a sophomore in college, it seemed that everybody I knew was reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. To find out what the excitement was about I picked up a copy of The Fountainhead and read it … or tried to.

Goddamn, what a POS. Two-dimensional, unbelievable cardboard characters. Stilted, wooden dialogue. Long, turgid, barely coherent descriptive passages.

As an English major I had read some great literature. This crap most emphatically was not great literature. Even calling it “literature” was a stretch.

I slogged my way through The Fountainhead and then embarked on Atlas Shrugged. I couldn’t take that much torture – I had to put it aside after about 50 pages. A thousand pages of this dreck? Fuhgeddaboudit. (Years later, I returned to Atlas and managed to stick it out to the end. It hadn't improved with age.)

Of course it wasn’t the way Rand wrote that was – and is – so powerfully appealing to all these bright (but sorely lacking in worldly experience) young readers; it was what she wrote.

All clever but na├»ve young people believe they are destined to become Masters of the Universe – if not tomorrow, then the day after. In Fountainhead and Atlas they find characters who are actually living that fantasy. They build skyscrapers, they run railroads. They compel other people, society, and even the natural world to do their bidding by the sheer force of their indomitable will. When the world doesn’t like what they do, they tell it to go fuck itself. Metaphorically speaking.

And best of all, these Randian supermen and superwomen are very much like the young readers themselves – intelligent, but socially maladroit, solitary, alienated, misunderstood. Here’s a description of young Dagny Taggart, the heroine of Atlas:

“She felt a bored indifference toward the immediate world around her, toward other children and adults alike. She took it as a regrettable accident, to be borne patiently for a while, that she happened to be imprisoned among people who were dull. … ‘You’re unbearably conceited,’ was one of the two sentences she heard throughout her childhood, even though she never spoke of her own ability. The other sentence was: ‘You’re selfish.’”

Most of the young people who are sucked into the fantasy world of Rand’s novels get over it eventually, the way one gets over a childhood case of measles or the mumps. When they go out into the real world they discover it bears little or no resemblance to the world Rand describes.

Others, strangely, never seem to discover this – and they are capable of doing a lot of damage. But that’s a topic for another post.