Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reading The Fountainhead

Reading this book took me far longer than it should have, in more ways than one.

Although I started reading it in April (after receiving it as a Christmas gift), I didn't finish it until earlier this week. That's fairly unusual, as I generally read pretty quickly. I just didn't have a whole lot of time to dedicate to it when I started. As I went along, I definitely got more into it, and I was pounding the pages over the past couple of days. As I got toward the end, I just wanted to hurry up and finish.

More to the point, though, I'm a little surprised that I didn't read this book earlier in my life. In a way, I'm almost glad I didn't. If I had read it when I was younger, and maybe a little more impressionable, it's possible that I would have taken it a little too much to heart. The central theme of the novel is something that speaks to me anyway, and it's possible I could have gotten carried away if I had read it without the same perspective I have now.

I think it would have been good for me to read it when I was at least a little younger, though. It would have given a somewhat clearer definition to some of my own thoughts and feelings, which are generally outside the mainstream. For those of you who haven't read it, The Fountainhead centers on Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's "perfect man," an architect who relies only on his own talents and thoughts, refusing to compromise on anything. He does this despite the extreme difficulty it presents him throughout the course of his life and career. He lives up only to his own standards, refusing to accept mediocrity in any area of his life, and cares nothing for the thoughts, opinions, or feelings of others.

Of course, I find Roark to be an impossible extreme. Anyone behaving the same way would find themselves unable to function in society, as he himself nearly did. However, I still find a lot of validity in the philosophy that Rand presents through his character. I always have. I often find myself frustrated with those who are unduly concerned with the opinions of others, seemingly unable to form ideas of their own, or at least to apply them. In that sense, I liked very much the concepts of "selfishness" and "selflessness" Rand put forth, reversing the connotations--in this case, "selfishness" is the virtue, when a person has a strong sense of him/herself, and tries to live up to their own high standards in anything they do; whereas "selflessness" means having little or no sense of self, and only parroting popular or mass ideas or opinions. I have always, even before reading this book, freely admitted to being selfish, knowing that what I meant and what others heard was not exactly the same thing. The Fountainhead has helped me to clear up that distinction in my own mind.

As much as I believe this concept of selfishness to be a virtue, though, it can definitely go too far. I think there's a fine line between this kind of selfishness and selfishness as it's commonly perceived. Unlike Rand's stance, I find altruism to be a virtue as well. Giving of yourself to others, with no thought of return for yourself, is a good thing, and something to be striven for. If done in the proper spirit, of course. Doing it because you truly want to help = good; doing it because you think you should (or, more to the point, because you think other people think you should) = ...well, I don't want to say "bad," because the end result is still the same, but I definitely wouldn't say it's good in the same way. On a personal level, at least.

Also, I think there's absolutely nothing wrong with compromise and collaboration, if done in the right way. After all, no one is perfect in the way Howard Roark is. Taking input from others can help to refine your own ideas. That's something you learn very quickly in creative writing workshops. You just have to use some sense about the process--in terms of a creative process, you have to be able to recognize when your own intentions are being amplified, and when they're being overridden. If nothing else, this is where it comes in handy that I didn't read this novel until I was 30 years old--had I read it before my college years, I can easily see how it could have made me an insufferable bastard in workshops.

This is a book that I'm sure I'll read again (and probably again, and again, and...) as time goes on. Especially since my first reading was so slow and fractured, I'm sure it has even more to offer than what I got out of it. I'm also interested to read Atlas Shrugged, which I also received for Christmas. I just hope it doesn't take me four months to get through that one.

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