34. The Fountainhead

Book Club, Book Reviews / Monday, September 24th, 2012

On a rainy cool day twenty-two years ago, I walked to the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore www.shakespeareandcompany.com  on the left bank of Paris.  I had two hours to kill before catching my train back to Normandy.  I didn’t have much money on me, but I was determined to find a treasure since I was desperate to read in English.  I was learning French intensively at the Sorbonne and my brain desired nothing more than an English break.

Combing the shelves for something good wasn’t easy because there are so many goodies there, but since I was broke my choice was limited  to a really cheap book.  What did I run across?  A dried water-logged version of The Fountainhead for 2 francs.  I had only heard of this book but hadn’t had the chance to read it at university.  So, for 2 francs I figured I had nothing to lose. It’s was a steal!

I began reading it on the train and found myself immediately engrossed  in this story of Howard Roark, passionate, arrogant, driven architect who’s been thrown out of architecture school.  I was glued all weekend to this book that I found fascinating and intriguing.  I enjoyed immensely the architectural descriptions and the complexity of the story.  Now I realize I really loved this book probably because I was young when I read it.  Who wouldn’t be inspired by such a character; who is self-assured and inspired to build to perfection, no matter who doesn’t like it.

Now it’s twenty-two years later and I’m re-reading The Fountainhead with my book club.  I read it in four days just like the first time but not with the same enthusiasm.  The constant preachy theme of Ayn Rand’s unrealistic philosophy of objectivism was an omnipresent whisper throughout the novel.  Objectivism can best be described as “an uncompromising  defense of self-interest as the engine of progress.”(back cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Fountainhead)  After researching the philosophy of Rand a bit closer I discovered that objectivism can be broken down into five branches: reality, reason, self-interest, capitalism, and romantic realism.  Did this discovery make me understand and believe in her philosophy more?  Absolutely not.  Rand stated that man’s “highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness, and that he must not force other people, nor accept their right to force him, that each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.”  Blah, blah, blah…  This is the principle philosophy in all of her books and essays including the well-known Atlas Shrugged, which is a big whopping 1200 pages(surely a lot more of the same) and Anthem, which examines a dystopian world in the future where individuals don’t have names, values, or independence.  Other work by Ayn Rand include The Virtue of Selfishness, We the Living, Capitalism:  The Unknown, and The Romantic Manifesto.

As I read along diligently, I marvelled at the quality of writing and the intricacy of the story, since English was not Rand’s maternal language.  The names of the characters to the descriptions of life, expressions, and so forth are like a step back in time.  The novel is divided into four parts named after the principal characters beginning with Peter Keating, Ellsworth M. Toohey, then Gail Wynand, and finally Howard Roark.  The amazing parade of secondary characters is unbelievable but adds to the quality of the story.  If you go on Goodreads.com www.goodreads.com there is a book discussion for The Fountainhead:  Best character in The Fountainhead and why?  Difficult.  Ellsworth M. Toohey is an amazing antagonist – manipulative, cold, calculating, with a pertinacious cruelty; where Howard Roark is a hard-working, knowledgeable, self-confident, arrogant, perfectionist architect.  You can’t help rooting for Roark and hoping for the violent death of Toohey.  Needless to say, all the characters are low down and despicable!  I have never read a book like that before.

All in all, this is a must read.  I don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy at all but it’s an intriguing, well-written story on capitalism and how it can go wrong (like we don’t already know) and that was written over sixty years ago.  When I first rated it on Goodreads I gave it five stars but I’ve decided to take off a star because of the philosophy even though I know this book wouldn’t be what it is without it.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American author, playwright, and screenwriter.  In 1926, she came to the United States where she worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and produced a play on Broadway.  Her first novel The Fountainhead got her noticed but Atlas Shrugged is her best-known novel.  She was largely ignored in the literary world because of her philosophy of objectivism.  In her early life, Rand’s father was a pharmacist in Saint Petersburg and his shop was confiscated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.  Her family then fled to Crimea.  Rand was twelve years old at the time and that incident no doubt contributed to her development of objectivism.  Check out the video below of Rand ardently defending her philosophy to Mike Wallace!

12 Replies to “34. The Fountainhead”

  1. Very interesting article Deidre. A pity we didn’t discuss the book enough on Saturday, everyone seemed to digress very quickly – our reaction to the famous philosophy???? For me it was a first time read and I found it extremely interesting, like you, I loved the architectural descriptions and most of all the diversity of colourful characters – so many people to hate! However in the world we live in everything is not black or white as in Rand’s book and I have difficulty in believing in the feasibility of certain of her characters. But a good and instructive read, glad it was suggested.

    1. I’m definitely glad I got a chance to read it a second time. It really did make a big difference on me. I think at the book club some people looked a little tired from reading it, which is understandable. It’s hella long! It’s definitely one of those books you have to read in your life time. Thanks for commenting!:)

  2. I can only agree – I tried reading it a second time and couldn’t get through it. I found the writing heavy and clumsy and her individualistic drivel frankly repulsive! I also read Atlas Shrugged way back when but it would be hard to persuade me to go back to her books. To me she’s a sort of curiousity than one should have experienced but not literature!

  3. great thoughts didi! I always wondered what ayn rand was all about in simple tersm. I thought about tackling atlas shrugged but that 1200pgs totally intimadated me. I may chk out the fountainhead. thanks for this review!

  4. I remember this book from the film ‘Dirty Dancing’, that spoilt young man with the big ego and no sense of compassion or responsibility was reading it. Was never interested to check it out after a reference like that!

  5. I had to read this thick book as an undergrad in 2 days. Needless to say I didn’t do well on the pop quiz. Never considered a do over, unfortunately. Even turned off the movie! Yikes.

  6. You know, I devoured The Fountainhead pretty quickly. But there wasn’t a single character I liked! I guess even having a philosophy on life I find personally repellent doesn’t matter if you can tell an interesting story!

Leave a Reply