Two years ago I saw an episode of the Daily Show and uncharacteristically stuck around to watch the interview. It was with a woman named Jennifer Burns, who had just written a biography about Ayn Rand with the particular focus of answering the questions “why is she popular now” and “why is the American right claiming her as their champion?” I was sufficiently interested in this to read Rand’s most famous works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as well as The Virtue of Selfishness. I had found myself oddly captivated by Rand, but now, I finally got to read the last piece of the puzzle, the original book that led me to her in the first place.
I won’t chat too much about Rand’s Objectivist philosophy – I’ve done that in great detail in the past. But what I am interested in talking about is what separates this book from others about Rand. Here, the gist is that it’s the story of her life from someone who isn’t an Objectivist but also doesn’t have the instant hatred for Rand that I have seen across the internets. I think this reflex-like-hatred is interesting enough to warrant its own discussion, as it seems like a case of “find the person on the opposite side of you politically and despise them no matter what”. The left seems to hate her in the same way that the right comically hates Communists and the like.
The Communist reference nicely ties us back to the book at hand: it’s somewhat interesting in Rand’s life story, but I guess makes it obvious as to why she turned out the way she did. The more interesting thing seems to be the crystallization of the time period (here, the Cold War). Growing up in the 90’s has led me to take for granted the presence of the Christian Right, but this book showed me that it wasn’t always there, and how it came to be. The Family is a bit more detailed on this particular point, but Goddess of the Market is much more interesting. It’s a lot more personal, and there’s many less characters over a shorter period of time.
A conflict I was intrigued by was that between the various factions that exist and continue to exist in today’s political world: between every combination of the Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. Rand herself seems to shift around, sometimes supporting the Republicans, sometimes supporting the Libertarians, but most of the time to the right of both parties (and attacking them from her position). I see a similar analogue to the infighting that seems to show up between the various religious groups over history: no matter how similar they are, if they aren’t exactly the same, the smallest differences blow up and become critical factors. The example I have in mind is between the Catholics and Protestants, especially in the 16th century, but again, there’s enough here to explore at a later time in more detail.
So this book was definitely worth the wait and a joy to read on my Kindle. I’d definitely recommend it to those who have the visceral negative reaction to her, in the same way that I’d recommend the book on Che Guevara (Che: A Revolutionary Life) to those on the opposing political spectrum. There’s enough going on to mix it up and keep it interesting but not too much to make it really disjointed, as it always follows Rand’s life and those around her.