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.
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.
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.