Looking for the Fountainhead

I initially started drafting this post solely as a review of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, with the full intention of taking my time to read the next physical book in my reading list, Looking for Alaska by John Green before reviewing that book. But then something incredible happened: I ended up finishing Alaska in a matter of days. Crazy how I follow up a book that took me months to read with one that took me just three days of reading to finish (four days total, I took that Sunday off). So this post will instead compare and contrast my reading experiences with both books.

First, a little bit about each book.

The Fountainhead

It took me four and a half months and several fits and starts, but last month I finally managed to finish The Fountainhead. This was the second time I’ve read or studied an Ayn Rand work, the first being when my freshman English honors class studied Anthem, although frankly I don’t remember much about reading it back then, as was the case with a lot of books I remember studying for high school English. I remember touching upon how my experience with high school English classes affected my love of reading, in that it turned me off from reading books for several years into my twenties, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I started reading books again on a somewhat regular basis. (If you want to read about it, check out this post from 2017.) If I get the opportunity, though, I am considering revisiting Anthem, which is considerably shorter than The Fountainhead, and even possibly reading Atlas Shrugged, which is much longer. I figure, I might as well complete the Ayn Rand Trifecta.

So, first of all, what is The Fountainhead all about? And why is it called The Fountainhead anyway if there’s no mention whatsoever of anything to do with a fountain? First of all, the book’s title actually refers to the book’s protagonist, Howard Roark, and his role as the “source” (or “fountainhead”) of the ideas that Rand is trying to put forward in her novel. It’s important to note that Ayn Rand thought of herself as a philosopher more than anything else, and her books were her way of perpetuating her ideas, most specifically a philosophy called “Objectivism”, which basically says (among a bunch of other things) that the individual is superior to the collective and that one’s purpose in life is to pursue their own happiness, to which she felt laissez-faire capitalism was the best way to achieve that goal. (It is worth noting that Rand was born and raised in pre-Revolutionary Russia and her middle class family was greatly affected by the Revolution, at times nearly starving, and she was almost forced out of her university studies because of her family’s status as part of the bourgeoisie, so she saw the effects of communist rule firsthand before immigrating to the United States in the 1920s.) While much of Ayn Rand’s thinking and writing is heavily associated with the political (which was always a part of her personality, even going so far as to engage in political debates with her friend Olga Nabokova, sister of writer Vladimir Nabokov, at the age of ten), The Fountainhead is actually one of Rand’s least political works. It sows the seeds of what would become her philosophy of objectivism, but these ideas wouldn’t be fully expanded upon until the publication of her other most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.

The Fountainhead‘s plot spans nearly two decades, beginning with a 22-year-old Howard Roark being expelled from architectural school the same day his rival, Peter Keating, graduates with top honors…all because Howard dared to buck years, maybe even centuries of architectural tradition that claimed that Classical architecture 🏛 should be front and center of any building designed by any self-respecting architect. I could summarize the entire plot here, but it is so long and complex that it would fill up a ton of space here, and I mainly just want to talk about my experience reading it. This YouTube video actually does a really good job of summarizing the plot and is worth the view if you don’t want to read the book yourself.

Looking for Alaska

Unlike Ayn Rand, I had never read any of John Green’s books before tackling this one. I had known that a couple of his books were made into movies, but most of my knowledge of him came from what I had seen of him in his and his brother Hank’s Crash Course videos on YouTube. I later found out that the Green brothers had grown up in Florida, which was pretty cool. I have seen every single episode of Crash Course Literature released so far, and I must say that there are quite a few books John has covered on there that have made me go, “I so wanna read that now” (like Slaughterhouse-Five and One Hundred Years of Solitude, both of which have been added to my Book Bucket List).

Looking for Alaska tells the story from the point of view of a 16-year-old named Miles Halter (based on John Green himself at that same age) who transfers from a public high school in Florida to a private boarding school in Alabama (again, John Green did something very similar at that age). He meets a motley crew of people there that become his friends (including the title girl, Alaska Young), and they end up in a bunch of misadventures until a tragic accident halfway through the school year changes everything, leaving Miles (also known by his nickname, “Pudge”, given ironically because of his tall, skinny build) to question a lot of things spiritually and philosophically and wondering why what had happened, happened. There are no traditional chapters, but the book is divided into “___ days before” and “__ days after”, beginning 136 days before the accident, and ending 136 days after.

My Reading Experiences

So what can I say about my experience reading The Fountainhead? Well, it wasn’t an easy effort for sure. This novel’s genre is best defined as “philosophical fiction”. Many of the characters speak in very philosophical or intellectual terms and mannerisms (especially Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Ellsworth Toohey) and do not engage much in casual conversation. Conversations in this novel have a purpose and Ayn Rand does not waste time in getting her ideas across through her characters. (Think sort of like Ernest Hemingway, but writing a philosophical treatise instead of about masculine adventures.) While this novel is not quite as political in nature as her later work, Atlas Shrugged, there are still seeds of its relevance in political circles, especially in the book’s final part, titled “Howard Roark”. (Each part is titled after the central figure in that part’s plot: “Peter Keating”, “Ellsworth Toohey”, “Gail Wynand”, and “Howard Roark”.) Roark’s speech in his criminal trial after he blows up a housing project he had designed for Keating and whose design had been altered against Roark’s wishes lays the groundwork for the Objectivism philosophy that would be explored more in-depth in Atlas Shrugged (which, again, I have not read, but I am aware of its reputation and have some basic knowledge of the novel and its plot). The reading experience itself was a bit on the difficult side and often came in fits and starts. It was sometimes a test of patience that eventually paid off once I got to the final part of the book, but I did occasionally go weeks without reading it. Starting War and Peace at the start of 2019 was one reason, but at times the narrative seemed to progress so slowly that I had to back off from it for a little while. The third part, “Gail Wynand”, was the shortest part of the book, but it strangely took me the longest to read. And Wynand also seemed to be the most interesting character in the book because he came from such humble roots and probably understood Roark’s struggles the best out of any of them, but he ends up betraying Roark by allowing himself to bow to Roark’s enemies in the media (including Ellsworth Toohey), although Wynand does get some slight revenge on Toohey at the end. Rand’s characters are written very much in black and white terms of who they are and what they stand for. Nobody (save for maybe Wynand before he turns on Roark) has a moral gray area, they’re either treated as good (Roark, Dominique) or evil (Toohey). At times, War and Peace seemed more interesting and The Fountainhead ended up falling to the wayside, but earlier in March I made a determination to myself to finish it, which I eventually did.

In contrast, Looking for Alaska was a much smoother read and the conversations between characters are much more realistic and along the lines of what you’d expect from mischievous, somewhat geeky teenagers. Where Ayn Rand tries to expand upon ideas, John Green makes the reader invest themselves intellectually and emotionally into this coming-of-age story. He writes with an intention for the reader to empathize with and relate to his characters. He doesn’t waste much time on backstory or ideas and instead focuses on moving his story’s plot along. Green’s writing style is very much narrative, while Rand’s writing style attempts to give personification to ideas, almost like a sociopolitical Aesop’s fable, except she’s pointing us toward a philosophical concept rather than a moral.

The Takeaway

All in all, you couldn’t come across two more different styles of writing when it comes to comparing John Green and Ayn Rand. Then again, the two writers have two completely different motivations for why and how they write.

Ayn Rand saw her writing as a way of getting her personal ideas across to a more mainstream audience; she was a woman of ideas and saw her fiction writing as a way to personify those ideas and put them into action. Personally, I find her ideas too idealistic to ever work in the real world the way she intended them to (as hard as those politicians she influenced try to put them into action like they have for the last three or four decades). But she was a woman who believed strongly in what she believed in and made it her life’s work to spread her gospel as far and wide as possible (ironically, given the religious language I just used, Ayn Rand was a very staunch atheist and made her characters in The Fountainhead atheists as well; I have a feeling if she knew how much the politicians she inspired had completely kowtowed to the religious lobby in these last few decades, she’d absolutely be spinning in her grave).

John Green, on the other hand, is a storyteller. The overall purpose of his writing in Looking for Alaska is to tell a story, in this case how meeting and tragically losing a person emotionally, philosophically, and spiritually affects the character who narrates it, Miles Halter. He does not seek to put forth an idea or a philosophical stance, but rather explore the personal growth of a character or characters. The Fountainhead is narrative as well, exploring the growth of Howard Roark, but the story is seemingly secondary to Roark actually attaining his goal of attaining complete and total freedom as an architect (although the plot’s points contribute to his character growth). Roark’s attaining his goal is essentially a personification of Rand’s philosophy, her ideas put into action.

It took me about a month of on-and-off writing to come up with this post, as at times I had a difficult time figuring out how to translate my thoughts into something writable. But I think I’ve dived as thoroughly into these books as I can, and I hope you (the reader) at least find all of this interesting.

Game of Thrones: Not My Cup of Tea

So, this past Sunday, most of the country…actually, probably most of the world plunged into Game of Thrones mania with the premiere of the show’s eighth and final season.

I was not one of them. In fact, I spent most of the evening watching American Idol for the first time in about three weeks because it was the season’s first week of viewer voting. (Admittedly, the ABC version of the show hasn’t interested me as much as the original Fox version of the show, but that’s also because in the year the show spent away from television, Eurovision song selection season and the ensuing Contest ended up becoming my new music television obsession…and it’s one that has been around over six decades. Oh, the beauty of the Internet and YouTube. With the 2019 Contest coming up next month, perhaps I’ll write about my Eurovision obsession a bit more in detail as the Contest draws closer.) Once Idol wrapped up for the evening, I turned the channel to ESPN and watched the tail end of a game that one of my favorite teams, the Atlanta Braves, ended up winning over the New York Mets. I did not watch Game of Thrones, and I feel no less of a person for choosing not to watch.

In fact, I have something to admit: I have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, I have actually watched more episodes of Breaking Bad than I have of Game of Thrones (all of season 1, and the first four episodes of season 2, in fact, my dad recently discovered this show after his co-workers were raving about it, so I may return to watching Breaking Bad eventually). I have even had old friends beg me to watch it through Facebook…and I briefly considered it, but then I remembered the reasons why I didn’t care to watch it in the first place.

So, here are the various reasons why I have chosen not to watch Game of Thrones.

  1. For most of the show’s run, we did not have HBO. For many years, our house had satellite TV, and the cost of subscribing to premium cable channels like HBO (which broadcasts Game of Thrones) was way too much to justify subscribing to it in the first place. When we switched back to cable last year, the way the subscription packages were set up, HBO was included along with the sports and niche channels we like to watch, so we ended up getting HBO for the first time in about 6 years. I have nothing against HBO itself, in fact, I enjoy watching Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (It should come to no surprise that my politics are a bit left of center, which is one reason I find Maher entertaining, but he is also willing to call out fellow liberals when they screw up, too…not a lot of liberal people do that, and I find it refreshing.) The last time we had HBO, The Newsroom was airing and Veep and Girls had begun their runs, and I watched the first seasons of just about all of them. Then we dropped HBO, so I didn’t get into Game of Thrones in the first place.
  2. Fantasy has never been a favorite genre of mine to begin with. My Harry Potter fandom has been (much like the Mongols) the exception rather than the rule. One of my closest guy friends growing up loved reading fantasy novels that often had wizards and dragons on the covers, not far from the subject matter concerning the Song of Ice and Fire series (which is the book series Game of Thrones is adapted from, being named after the first book, A Game of Thrones). I haven’t seen him since our graduation day 14 years ago, but I imagine he would absolutely love the show because it would have been right up his alley in terms of what fiction he liked. Unfortunately, I was never really into that type of literature. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings bored me. Discovering Harry Potter at the age I did (about 11 or 12 years old) was unusual, but I think I got into it because Harry was about the same age I was when I first started reading the first book in the series. Age wise, he and his friends were characters I could relate to, not otherworldly characters like hobbits and dwarves and elves 🧝‍♀️. Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I have gotten exactly two fantasy novels: A Game of Thrones (whose issues I have with I will get to shortly) and Children of Blood and Bone (a more recent novel written by Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyeme that is set in West Africa, where her family is from, and combines elements of the fantasy genre with her family’s Yoruba culture; I plan on reading this one a little later in the year). Those of you reading probably have seen by now that I tend to go more for dystopian fiction, classics, and books that challenge me mentally. I don’t particularly stick to one genre when I read. In fact, in recent years I’ve adapted a mantra from food and travel expert Andrew Zimmern that sums up my reading philosophy perfectly: If it looks good, read it! (Andrew’s version goes, “If it looks good, eat it!”) I go by what interests me.
  3. Frankly, the content of A Game of Thrones disturbed me…really disturbed me. I did try to read the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, about three or four years ago. The format of the book confused me a bit, as there weren’t traditional chapters telling a linear story, but rather sections focusing on a different character, with multiple storylines that were hard to follow and difficult for a casual reader (who doesn’t read fantasy on a regular basis) to get into. What ended up absolutely disturbing me, though, was the amount of sexual content involving young teenagers, especially Daenarys/Dany, who is thirteen years old at the start of A Game of Thrones (I had no clue if her age was retconned to an older age for the TV series, but I imagined it was, as standards & practices at HBO would’ve likely had a problem with it had Dany remained 13 for the TV series; a quick googling confirmed this). For one, Dany is basically forced into being a child bride, getting married off to Khal Drogo to provide an army for Dany’s brother. Although married, the sex acts that Dany performs with her husband would frankly result in arrests, prison time, and having to register as a sex offender in our real world. It basically amounts to child rape, which is incredibly disgusting and incredibly illegal. Apparently in the series, she was aged up to 17 (which is still weird, but closer to a legal age of consent), but the fact that George R. R. Martin came up with these scenes involving a thirteen-year-old in these books, no matter how close to medieval culture or custom they might be, makes me seriously wonder what he was thinking when he wrote those scenes all those years ago. He could have easily aged up some of these characters in his books, but he didn’t. And that disturbs me. And it’s something I cannot clear from my mind. Needless to say, I never finished the book.

So, needless to say, I have no plans to watch the final season of Game of Thrones. And I have friends who absolutely love the series. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything by choosing not to watch it. I’ve always felt a little weird about expressing my opinions on a water cooler show like this, but sometimes you end up being that person who could care less about the water cooler show of the moment. I guess now is my time to be that person.