Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead  

I begin by saying that I know The Fountainhead is some sort of holy icon to a lot of people. Even more than fifty years after its publication it is selling very well, and is quite popular. When I took my copy down to the shop here in Venice where I can trade in used books for credit toward other used books, the owner of the shop
was actually glad to see it. In spite of the reverence others have for the book, I did not like it.

For one thing, it is not Man Lit, as the book was written by a woman. It is close to Man Lit in its nature and style, but it is not Man Lit by definition. That, however, is not why I didn’t like the book.

The story is about a young architect named Howard Roark, who bucks the system, and refuses to conform to the standards of the day. These standards involve taking classical and renaissance architectural forms and using them in all buildings, whether houses or skyscrapers. His rebellion first results in his being kicked out of architectural school, and then in a long struggle for recognition as he works as an architect, during which time he gets very few commissions. His condition for any commission is that the building must be built exactly as he designs it–the customer will not be able to make any changes. This is a problem, of course, when dealing with committees and boards of directors, each member of which wants to stick his finger in the stew. This is a very broad summary of the plot. Anyone interested in a very detailed description of the plot and the characters can click here.

The book, then, is about how this uncompromising visionary and individualist struggles against those in the world who do not appreciate such qualities. The struggle is that of the individual against the collective mind. This is an expression of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. The working title was The Second-handers, which referred to people who took from and benefited from people like Howard Roark. The most glaring example in the book was his former classmate Peter Keating, who was the exact opposite of Roark. Whereas Howard did not care what other people thought, Peter was bound, gagged and tied by it. He was an approval seeker, in contrast to Howard who neither sought nor asked for it.

As I mentioned at the outset, I know that a lot of people love this book and have been greatly influenced by it. I even know a real estate title company named after it. I, however, did not find it so affecting. For one thing, although extremely well written, the language was not all that interesting. And I did not care about the characters. Most of the time I wanted to slap Howard Roark. I understand about having strict standards of quality in your work, and I understand that most people are idiots and have pedestrian tastes, and that there may be times when you have to dig in, but an absolute insistence on having your own way, particularly in a field like architecture, is self destructive. In architecture you are designing a space according the needs and desires of other people. You have to consider their tastes and opinions. You don’t want a horse designed by committee, but one can’t be absolutely rigid. Perhaps that’s why Rand chose that field for the hero of the book. It’s easy for a painter to paint a certain way and not take advice on it, and to say: “here it is, take it or leave it.” For the architect, however, that is monumentally difficult, and Roark nearly starved on account of it.

Another reason I didn’t like the book was that it was too long–well over seven hundred pages. It probably could have been done in three hundred. Most of us writing today do not have the luxury of writing things of that length, which forces us to keep to the story. Now, I know that this book is literary fiction, but it got bogged down in overly long and detailed descriptions and backgrounds of some of the other characters and events.

The book was designed to be a platform from which Ayn Rand could expound on her philosophy of Objectivism. She did this not with subtlety, but with a sledgehammer, beating us over the head with it repeatedly. When I had finished the book there was no doubt what she was trying to say (which is good), but have you ever had a conversation with a person who kept repeating what they were saying? The book was not that bad, but she certainly belabored the point (leading to seven hundred pages).

Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody’s a critic, but it could have been tightened up. But hey, look at me, I haven’t published anything through a mainstream publisher, and she is the author of two of the most important books of the 20th century.

So, here is the Literary Man’s dilemma: this is not the greatest book written, but it’s one of the most important. So, do we chug through its pages, see what it’s about, form our own opinion, and be able to say that we have read it? You bet. So, although I didn’t like it doesn’t mean that I regretted reading it, or that I am advising you not to read it. To the contrary. You must read it. It is not Man Lit, but it’s close enough. Anyone who wants to be called a Literary Man ought to read The Fountainhead.

Click here to purchase The Fountainhead from Amazon


  1. Yeah, you've given the book ("The Fountainhead") the review it deserves.

  2. Sometimes I think Rand is all about timing. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 22 and thought it was brilliant. I read Fountainhead when I was 42 and thought it was twaddle. If Rourke deserved to be slapped, Dominique deserved to be thrown off a bridge. The whole thing was repetitive and sooooooooooo loooooooooong.

    If I weren't a completist and hadn't been working my way through the Modern Library's Top 100 list at the time, I would have abandoned it.

  3. You're right about timing. I thought I had a review of "Atlas Shrugged," but I don't see it.

    I was much less annoyed by Dagney than I was Rourke. But I'm with you on completing these books. I had so much invested in "Atlas Shrugged" because I thought I bought the book, but turns out I bought the Spark Notes. Then I bought the paper back, but the print was too damn small, so I bought the hard cover. I had to read it by then. But I had to flog myself to do it. I wonder what these novels would have been if about 300 or 400 pages shorter.

    Thanks for the comment.