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Book #6: The Fountainhead November 29, 2010

Posted by pittsburghmike in Uncategorized.
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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.

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