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No author will dissolve a reasonable, polite group of people into a howling pile of passionate rage quite like Ayn Rand. She has both legions of passionate fans (some of whom are influential world leaders) and scores of rabid haters. Rarely will someone express a neutral opinion about any of her work. And if you met me when I was 16, I may have forced you to read her entire canon before I allowed you to become my friend.
Oh, yes. It’s true. My name is Amanda, and I am a recovered Randian (is that a word?). This is my story.
I don’t know how it happened, honestly. I’ve always been a rabid reader and as a teenager I was firmly in the Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Bell Jar, Edgar Allan Poe phase. Somewhere, I read that The Fountainhead was second only to the Bible in terms of books that have had the most influence over the lives of their readers. I picked it up in a Barnes and Noble out of curiosity, and within two weeks I had finished it, along with We the Living and Atlas Shrugged. I became a pusher, giving the books to everyone, having long (idiotic) conversations about objectivism with my frightened friends, most of whom followed me down the Randian rabbit hole.
Rand’s biggest fan base is mostly, in my experience, teenagers. As I matured and moved away from her philosophy and toward the light, I began to wonder what makes her work so attractive to young adults, and here is my theory:
She gives teens (and those who are still teens in terms of maturity) a pseudo-intellectual justification for the raging narcissism and self-centered nature of their world-view. Her characters are constantly being victimized by the world for their defense of the self, for their rejection of authority, for their dismissal of all ties that bind. In short, Ayn Rand’s work makes it okay for you to be selfish, and then provides you with the vocabulary to sound smart while doing so. At a time in life when a person feels most like a victim of authority and most like they just want to do whatever they damn well please without answering to anyone, Rand gives them an almost religious set of commandments about how to go about doing that (hence the closeness of her work to the Bible in terms of influence).
In literary terms, young people who have been reading relatively bloodless (to them) classics and blithely philosophy-free YA tend to be amazed by the fire hose of emotion pouring off the pages of Rand’s work. It is all ANGST and ANGER and sounds SMART. Personally, I was amazed that books could be such a gut-wrenching experience. I wasn’t used to having aforementioned guts wrenched. But as I got older and read more, better-crafted and subtler work, I slowly began to realize what a sledgehammer of histrionic word-vomit Rand’s work is. I lost the love. In coming out of my fog of brainy selfishness, I finally realized that Rand’s ideals would never mesh with my Christianity, no matter how hard I tried to squish them together. In fact, I realized I was really, really bad at being an ass. I wanted to be an objectivist because I wanted to get my way and feel ok about squashing anyone who stood between me and my will. I wanted to be free from the burdens of caring about other people- and I wanted it to be for an intellectual reason so I wouldn’t feel bad about it.
But I did feel bad about it. As I abandoned Rand for better writers and a kinder world-view, I looked back to see (thankfully) that I hadn’t left any real objectivist wreckage in my wake. I just grew up, like a lot of her readers eventually do, and stopped saying silly things from Atlas Shrugged at keg parties. But I kept most of her books, and they’re still on my shelf as a memorial to my youthful dalliance with jerkiness (which is one of the many reasons we shouldn’t automatically judge people with Rand on their bookshelves- you never know why those tomes are there). I even have a tattoo that nods to her work- not because I’m still a fan, but because it’s part of my literary and intellectual history. There’s still a spot in my heart for her books because they were a gateway to more serious adult literature. Without Ayn Rand, I wouldn’t be the reader I am today- and, as much as she would hate to hear me say this- I wouldn’t be as concerned about the welfare of those around me. Her stark picture of a heartless world was my philosophical cautionary tale, and I don’t regret the experience.