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Book #6: The Fountainhead November 29, 2010

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“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light…”

I began reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand with some trepidation. It is a well recognized book, but whenever I mentioned that I was reading it, the common statement was, “Oh, I know that one. I haven’t read it, but…” And at more than 700 pages, it would not be a light undertaking, particularly knowing there is a second 700 page Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, looming in the shadows.

I have to admit, I was initially bored with The Fountainhead. The story seemed to take forever to get moving and the lengthy architectural descriptions seemed to prevent the story from moving forward.

A brief synopsis: Howard Roark has just failed out of architecture school because he won’t accept that all good design has already been done. He believes in his own artistic and engineering abilities, refuses to just copy previous work from other architects and decides to move to New York to work for an architect of the same mindset. Peter Keating has just graduated at the top of his class from the same architecture school and is accepting a position at a top New York City firm. Peter follows all of the rules, and uses his personality to compensate for a lack of creativity and skill.

While Peter moves up in the architecture and social networks of New York, Howard struggles. After years of ups-and-downs for both, Peter needs Howard’s assistance with a major project that would bring Peter back up into the limelight. Howard’s requirements for helping Peter – that his work be kept secret, but the project must be completed exactly as designed. Peter agrees, and Howard provides the drawings and plans before leaving the city. While he is gone Peter fails – others step in and alter Howard’s plans.

When Howard returns to New York and sees the changes to his building, he decides to dynamite the entire building rather than see his work corrupted. The book ends with Howard’s criminal trial, essentially squaring off the concepts of individualism against collectivism.

The Fountainhead is a tremendous story and extremely relevant today. My favorite section of the book is a discussion of collectivism and how when collective thought is valued over creativity and accomplishment, experiencing success is actually a negative aspect of life. That the collective is celebrated and raised, the individual with actual achievements is seen as being anti-society. There are clear parallels with modern reality television. The cable channels are full of shows following the daily lives of people accomplishing nothing, providing nothing of benefit to society. The Kardashians and Jersey Shore morons provide no tangible benefit to society. All they do is celebrate mediocrity (if they would even qualify as mediocre) and draw attention away from those with true accomplishments. We all feel better about ourselves when all we discuss is going to the gym, doing laundry and tanning rather than consider our own lives in comparison to someone working to feed the hungry or save lives.

The greatest disservice provided to The Fountainhead was the lack of a good editor. There are long sections of the book for which a good editor would clear brush out of the writing and smooth some of the transitions. But at the same time, an heavy-handed editor would recommend exactly the impact on Rand’s creative work that Howard Roark rails against.

The Fountainhead is a not a book to pick up on a leisurely weekend. This is a book that once you begin, you have to finish, just to see how it ends. I highly recommend The Fountainhead and look forward to beginning Atlas Shrugged.

Oh, and by the way, there is a LOT I left out of the synopsis. The characters in The Fountainhead are so complex and intertwined, I couldn’t say more without giving away the best parts of the story.

Book #5 – Fahrenheit 451 November 13, 2010

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is easily one of my favorite books of all time. Taking place in a dystopian future in which firemen are now tasked with hunting down and burning books, the educated are outcasts or criminals and the society is in a state of constant war, Fahrenheit 451 follows fireman Guy Montag after he begins to question his role and society.

After watching a woman set herself on fire rather than see her library burned by the fireman, Montag begins to question what is in books that would inspire someone to give their own life for their protection.

When I originally saw the list of banned and challenged books earlier this year, it was this book on the list that gave me the idea for this project. In the story, it is individuals that have read all of the banned and prohibited books that hold the keys for rebuilding society. They individually may only remember portions of the books they have read, but together could piece back together the lessons and stories they had read.

As today’s society spends more and more time in front of the television and computer, particularly now that the television and computer have basically become the same machine, I am concerned that we are moving closer and closer to the world Bradbury saw in this book. While we are connected online via email and Facebook, interpersonal interaction decreases every day, turning real people into nothing more than avatars and online personalities. People blindly follow pundits or those who yell the loudest without questioning their motives or logic (or actual history, thank you Glenn Beck and your crazily inaccurate “history”.)

I want to know for certain that the thinkers that have challenged traditional thought are remembered, that even if their ideas fail in the marketplace, they are recognized for their willingness to voice a dissenting opinion. More important than a peaceful existence is the willingness and ability to question commonly held opinions.

I have read Fahrenheit 451 at least 10 times, and every time I finish the book, I look forward to reading it again.

Book #4 – Animal Farm November 13, 2010

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I am deep into The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and realized that if I did not read additional books at the same time, I would quickly fall behind on my goal of reading all 100 books in one year. So I delved into two of my favorite books – Animal Farm by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Let’s first review Animal Farm.

I first read Animal Farm in high school, and while I wasn’t aware of all of the details surrounding the rise of Soviet Communism, I quickly became aware of the allegory between the book and history. Written in the 1940s, Animal Farm captures the story of a group of animals rising up against their human master, seizing control of the farm, and establishing a utopian society, only to have some animals, particularly the pigs, seize control, eventually becoming indistinguishable form the previous human masters.

I have always been interested in the means by which political societies are formed, and Animal Farm captures the truth behind all societies – the best intentions are often waylaid by human nature’s tendency to fend for the individual over society. While the revolution and utopian society are established in the best interest of all of the animals, quickly the foundations of the revolution are forgotten as a select group of “leaders” takes control and milks the system to their own advantage.

If you have not read Animal Farm, it is a great read, particularly if you can separate the story from the Soviet Communism and read it more as a look at human nature in a political system. With the election results from the most recent election, with many conservative candidates pledging to eliminate earmarks (a term with roots in farm animal tagging) and remain a “Washington Outsider,” it will interesting to see if the newly elected officials follow the pigs, becoming enamored with the pleasures and opportunities provided to politicians and forget many of their campaign promises.

Book #3 – Atticus Finch; Role Model Father October 12, 2010

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If I become a father, I want to be like Atticus Finch. I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and while there are significant lessons to be learned from this book about honor, honesty and integrity, I came away with a very clear impression of the type of father I want to be.

To Kill a Mockingbird takes place three years after the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and is based on the town in which Lee grew up. The narrator, six-year-old Scout Finch, lives with her older brother Jem and their widowed father Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. While the story revolves around the adventures of Scout and Jem, the book comes to a head when Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell. In the deep south in 1935, racial tensions are high heading into the trial, with Atticus (with the help of Scout) preventing the lynching of Tom Robinson just prior to the trial. Despite evidence presented by Atticus during the trial, including evidence that Mayella and her drunkard father Bob Ewell lied about the attack, Tom Robinson is convicted and eventually is killed in prison.

During the trial, Atticus embarrasses the Ewells, leading to a threat of revenge from Bob Ewell. That attempted revenge comes late in the story when Bob Ewell attacks Scout and Jem, only for the neighborhood recluse Boo Radley to step in and save the children.

The storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird is fantastic, full of colorful characters described with the honesty only available to a six-year-old. But it was Atticus that most enthralled me throughout the book, not his integrity as an attorney committed to the truth, but as a father.

Atticus treats his children with respect, teaching and guiding them. His children love him, defending him when others impugn him and learning from Atticus the importance of honor and the truth. Atticus disciplines his children simply through their fear of his disappointment. Atticus sees it as his responsibility to defend Tom Robinson as fitfully as possible, not only because he believes in Tom’s innocence, but because he wants to make the world a better place for his children. Atticus acts always in the best interest of his children. I want to be the kind of father of which Atticus Finch would be proud.

Despite being awarded the Pulitzer Prize and being recognized as one of the most important American novels, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the ALA’s most challenged books. At a most basic level, the book has been challenged for its use of racial slurs. But it should be recognized that the language used in the novel is accurate for 1935 Alabama. At one point in the 1960s the book was challenged based on the issue that rape was a key plot point, then the overtly hostile racial issues within the story. But again, the racial prejudice displayed by so many of the characters is accurate for 1935 Alabama.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of great depth – I’m looking forward to completing this year of reading the ALA’s most banned and challenged books in order to rear this one again and discover more about Atticus Finch in the hope of becoming a father of his repute.

Book #2: The Catcher in the Rye October 4, 2010

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I have to admit, the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I thought Holden Caulfield was a dick. It was several years ago that I first read the book by J.D. Salinger, and I simply saw Holden as a self-righteous, pretentious rich kid that could get away with anything. This is the perfect example of how re-reading a book after years can completely change a reader’s experience.

Since I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I’ve experienced both loss and love in a way that only comes with age. I’m only 33 years old, so I’m not trying to sound like a great sage, but I’ve lost a close grandfather and a grandmother to whom I was very close but grew distant. I’ve witnessed my wife’s loss of her father at a young age and amazement as friends have brought new life into the world, include the little whirlwind that is my nephew.

Only now can I really understand that Holden Caulfield is not a teenage jackass, but just a boy that was never given the opportunity to grieve for his brother and was separated from his sister, the only other person that really cares about. But before I move further into my analysis of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist, a quick plotline.

While I generally avoid Wikipedia’s plot overviews, the site’s review of The Catcher in the Rye is actually fairly well-written and complete. In general, teenager Holden Caulfield has failed out of yet another boarding school in New England. Rather than returning home to New York City at the end of term, he leaves on a train in the middle of the night, tramping about the city, even hiring a prostitute. But when the young prostitute arrives at his cheap hotel room, all Holden wants to do is talk.

The key to his adventure in the city is a visit to the Natural History Museum, where he notes that the exhibits never change. Here is where we really get a view into Holden’s damaged psyche, where we can get just a glimpse of the deep loss he feels from the death of his brother. Eventually Holden sneaks into his parents’ apartment to see his younger sister Phoebe, where he talks of his fantasy of being the “Catcher in the Rye,” protecting innocent children from falling off a cliff.

Holden eventually returns home to face-up to his parents, and in the finale, after skirting around what has happened, he admits he was sick and spent time in a mental hospital and is about to go to another boarding school.

I now see Holden Caulfield very differently; he’s no longer a flat, misbehaving character that dismisses everyone else. He is damaged and sad and misunderstood. The worst thing that could have been done after the death of his brother was separating him from Phoebe, and his repeated successful efforts to fail out of boarding schools is simply in order to return home. Holden feels that with the death of his brother, he lost his childhood, and by imagining himself the “catcher in the rye,” he can protect others from the loss he experienced.

First published in 1951 for adults, The Catcher in the Rye has become required reading in many high school English classes. Unfortunately, this is a prime example of youth being wasted on the young – without life experience similar to Caulfield’s, teenagers can’t truly grasp Holden’s emotional rollercoaster.

The Catcher in the Rye should be given to every parent just as their kid is entering puberty. Holden experiences emotional highs and lows, pushes the boundaries as far as he can but steps back before going too far, and in general, acts like the teenager he is. And for any parent that has lost a child, Holden Caulfield is a window into the mind of a teenager following the death of a sibling.

While I enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby, re-reading The Catcher in the Rye really opened a new window for me into the characters and how well Salinger captures Holden’s grief. I hope I can remember Holden’s pain and better empathize with those who lose a love one.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the library this week, so I am jumping around the top 100 banned book list in order to read another two books I already have – Animal Farm by George Orwell (a key part of my education as a political science major in college) and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, home of one of the most noble characters in all of literature. I will be on the road the most of this week for work, so hopefully time in the evening will be available while hanging out in hotel rooms in Frostburg and York.

Book 1: The Great Gatsby September 27, 2010

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Fortunately for my endeavor to read the top 100 banned books in one year, I already have a copy of The Great Gatsby by F.  Scott Fitzgerald. After hunting for it on the bookshelves in our basement, I pulled out the rather well-beaten paperback. I have a habit of finding older books at the white elephant at the annual church picnic I attend with my wife’s family, and several years ago I purchased this 1953 paperback edition of The Great Gatsby for a dime.

I began reading immediately following yesterday’s Steelers’ game, and am proud to say I finished The Great Gatsby in one sitting. That’s right – one day into this venture and I have already finished the most banned book on my list.

Before you read any further I want to warn you – there will be spoilers in my book reviews.  I want my reviews to make you want to pick up a new book, but I can’t really give a good review, and my analysis as to why it has been banned, without discussing the entire book.

The Great Gatsby is a poignant story of lost love in the greatest tradition of Greek tragedies told through the recollections of WWI veteran Nick Carraway. A relatively rich young mid-western bachelor living on Long Island Sound and attempting to break into the bond business, Carraway finds himself in the opulent lifestyle of the rich and famous. But very soon he is drawn into the  messy lives of a distant cousin and her abusive, philandering husband, an odd female golfer and the mysterious Gatsby, his rich and somewhat eccentric neighbor.

The format of The Great Gatsby reminded me very much of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. A well-to-do outsider comes into a wealthy, eccentric community, is witness to a relationship that leads to the death of at least person involved, and finally ends with the death of the wealthy protagonist.

I was also struck by the similarities between the culture of the extremely wealthy in the roaring 20’s, as depicted by Nick’s distant cousin Daisy and husband Tom and the immense parties held at Gatsby’s mansion, and today’s celebrity culture. From simply lounging around their mansions and partying to the crazy rumors about Gatsby’s past perpetuated by the random attendees to Gatsby’s parties, the laissez faire attitude of the wealthy as depicted reminded me specifically of today’s culture where celebrity is determined not by actual accomplishments but an appearance of accomplishment.

Gatsby ends as only a classic Greek tragedy could – the death of the protagonist by the hand of a heartbroken man in a case of mistaken identity. Gatsby puts his entire life on hold in an attempt to reconnect with his past love, now in a loveless marriage, but in the end, following the death of Gatsby and Tom’s mistress and her husband, Daisy remains married to Tom. The book ends with Nick attempting to encourage any of Gatsby’s acquaintances to attend his funeral prior to moving back to the mid-west.

I was surprised at the end of the book as to why it would be so objectionable. Other than the infidelity and a snapshot of the fast-living of the wealthy during the 20’s, there’s limited offensive language aside from some racial comments from Tom, which only reinforce the distasteful character. I would encourage all high school students to read Gatsby and teachers to assist in putting the lifestyle of the characters in historical context.

Next up – Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger…another book of which I have a copy.

Banned Books Week 2010 September 26, 2010

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For nearly 30 years, the American Library Association has observed Banned Books Week, an annual tribute to the First Amendment and the “freedom to read.” This year’s just began; it runs throughout the coming week, Sept. 25 to Oct. 2.

Between 2001 and 2009, American libraries received 4,312 challenges to their providing books. According to the American Library Association’s definition, a challenge is a formal and written complaint requesting that a book be removed from shelves because of objectionable content.

The ALA categorizes these 4,312 challenges as follows: 1,413 for “sexually explicit” material, 1,125 due to “offensive language,” 897 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group,” 514 challenges due to “violence,” 344 challenges due to “homosexuality,” 109 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and 269 because of their “religious viewpoints.

One of the founding principles of the United States is the marketplace of ideas, the concept that the freedom of expression allows all ideas to be presented and evaluated without restriction. The sheer idea that libraries around the country are being restricted from serving a venues for the marketplace is absurd.

In honor of the authors who have had their works banned, and in recognition of the important role libraries play in ensuring the availability of banned books, over the next one year I will read and review the 100 most-often banned books, as determined by the ALA. I have already read some of these books, and will reread them in recognition of those that will not have the ease of access to these important books.

I will begin with the ALA’s #1 most banned or challenged book – The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I already have a copy of Gatsby, and will be attempting to access the rest of the books on the list over the year through the Pittsburgh Public Library system.

Check back often, or subscribe to my RSS feed, as I will be reviewing the books as I read through them, updating you on my status, my thoughts on the books and providing information on why each of them have been deemed objectionable.

I hope my reviews of the books will spark your interest in reading banned books and will eventually lead to a recognition that banning books only leads to a restriction on the free exchange of ideas.