Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why will "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" never go out of print?

 ** UPDATED DECEMBER 15, 2010 - (Originally posted on November 29, 2009). Editor's note: The controversial best-selling biography, ""Ayn Rand and the World She Made is now out in paperback.

** On October, 27, 2009, publisher Nan A. Talese (an imprint of Random House) released Anne C. Heller's new book, "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" – about the life of Russian-American author Ayn Rand (1905-1982) – whose 1957 classic, "Atlas Shrugged" – seems eerily clairvoyant today.

** "Atlas Shrugged" is a doomsday novel of heroes, villains, love triangles and politics – set against a backdrop of an American economy in collapse, e.g., gifted innovators disappear, industries merge and close, millions of people are thrown out of work – while the federal government tries to help by subsidizing, bailing out and taking over whole industries – issuing "greater good" directives which pushes the United States closer to socialism.

** Sound familiar?

** So who was Ayn Rand and why is she still relevant today?

** You don't have to be an Ayn Rand follower to get into Anne C. Heller's spectacular new book. You can even be a "cafeteria-fan" like I am - picking and choosing parts of her ideas that are compatible with your own – while still getting tremendous enjoyment reading about what made Rand a larger-than-life figure in American philosophy and literature.

** In my view, what's most impressive – and what makes "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" feel like a book that will never go out of print – is author Heller's even-handed (and easy-to-read) summaries of Rand's complex ideologies about American individualism, capitalism and democracy, along with synopses of ALL of Rand's books and lectures – explained in ways that are sometimes more lucid than Rand's original works, making them more accessible to mainstream readers.

** Don't believe what others say. While it's obvious the author is NOT a Ayn Rand disciple - (which she tells readers up-front) – it's ALSO clear that she is NOT a comprehensive hater of Ayn Rand. Anne C. Heller's book reads like a journalistic strike down the middle of the plate, with no political agendas or axes to grind.

** Ayn Rand's published works are brilliantly controversial – but to many readers, they're also riddled with mind-numbingly dense passages that require a level of concentration so intense – that you feel like your head might explode. Heller tackles this problem by simplifying what's impenetrable – while opening a window onto what Rand was like - as a flesh-and-blood person. The author's work has a story-telling momentum that's unusual compared to other biographies – in that her obligatory chapters about Rand's childhood – aren't those that you'll want to "skip over."

** With the help of researchers digging through archives in Russia and throughout the United States, Anne C. Heller brings Ayn Rand's childhood and adult years excitingly to life – making more clear to mainstream readers why Rand's experiences were critically important to understanding how her ideas against socialism and collectivism were formed – and how she refined them over time. The author further illustrates how Rand integrated these ideas into all of her novels, particularly "The Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) – and how she subsequently became world famous – while carrying a torch of stubborn dismissiveness toward her detractors, all the way to her death in 1982.

** "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" reads more credibly than all previous treatments of Rand's life to date – because author Heller approaches Rand as a critical admirer – and not as a blind-faith fan. Her ability to make Rand's ideas come alive demonstrates her admiration and respect of Rand's intellect. This "closed the sale" for me as a reader – and wipes out criticisms written by some of Rand's followers - who are obsessively parsing every word in Heller's book. Even Cliffs Notes versions of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" are somewhat tainted by being written by authors possessing an over-eager zealotry of her ideas. Not once did I feel Heller was presenting Rand - as being anything more than a tremendously intelligent, charismatic and charming figure - who could also be frighteningly eccentric, petty and cruel.

** Most reviews have been favorable. But while reading a few negative reviews, I detected an undercurrent of resistance to Ms. Heller's work from people, 1) who believe themselves to be more intellectually gifted than Heller to discuss Rand's life and work (hence are perhaps too biased), 2) who are horrified that lurid and less-than-flattering material about Rand's life is included (despite being too compelling to be ignored), 3) who are upset that they weren't contacted for inclusion – or if they were included – that their testimonies weren't published in full, 4) who take issue with the lack of cooperation from the Ayn Rand Institute and Leonard Peikoff, Rand's "intellectual heir," or 5) who hate Rand so much that they feel any book about her should be treated with contempt.

** In my view, these complaints are a by-product of Rand's fans or haters who are dissatisfied with the content and approach of Heller's book. Had the author included comprehensive interviews from peripheral supporters and detractors – "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" would have exceeded the page counts of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" combined. (Yet Heller's book is exhaustively researched, with 151-pages of notes and an index.) The author's positive summations of Rand's complex ideas – mixed with true tales which reflect poorly on her behavior and treatment of others – proves that Heller is neither a Rand follower nor a detractor. This obviously irks rabid fans and haters of Ayn Rand alike.

** The most important figures in Rand's inner circle are included in this book, e.g., those closest to Rand from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, arguably the most critical period of Ayn Rand's adult life. Hence as a reader, it's mildly bizarre to see people dismissing this book because it includes "ex-Rand-followers-who-left-the-fold," which infers their testimony carries no weight today. Nearly ALL the individuals interviewed by Heller – still express joy and sadness – while acknowledging their time with Ms. Rand was the most vigorously enriching and rewarding of their lives.

** Ayn Rand's key journal entries and letters have already been published worldwide and reside in several locations outside of the Ayn Rand Institute. Hence I don't believe there's much left waiting to be discovered that will be earth-shattering. Ms. Heller's success is consolidating Rand's ideas into a marvelously coherent single volume - and finding new, previously untapped sources to construct a more fully formed picture of Rand - that goes beyond what we already know.

** Leonard Peikoff's testimony from the Ayn Rand Institute, while useful had he agreed to cooperate - would have added little that's new – because he himself has already published numerous analyses about Rand's work. Peikoff's contributions to Rand's legacy HAVE been noted by Heller. But in fairness, Peikoff's testimony would have been only relevant, in my view, to those mainstream readers who would've wanted him to ADD to what Ms. Heller has already satisfactorily provided - about Ayn Rand's final months AFTER she stopped making public appearances - before eventually succumbing to cancer.

** In sum, this book is NOT aimed at Ayn Rand intellectuals, and this is NOT a criticism. (Though I believe they will still enjoy reading every page.) "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" feels aimed at mainstream readers seeking an unbiased, all-in-one-reference of Rand's ideas. I do NOT know Anne C. Heller personally, but I believe she has painted a superb image on an enormous canvas – of a controversial genius of titanic and electrifying importance – that will still feel relevant many years from now. If you doubt this, then why are people still talking about Ayn Rand today – nearly 30 years after her death – and more than 50 years after "Atlas Shrugged?"

(Original material © 2009-2012 by David Kusumoto Communications.)