Wheeler: Ayn Rand made me think

“Life altering” is how I described, in an email to a friend, the experience of reading Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

Given that I was already in my 40s, this was a book forced upon me not by an educational institution but by my own gnawing need to fertilize what so often can feel like a too-long fallow mind.

I would be hard-pressed to explain the books I read – and the number of times I’ve felt compelled to reread some of them:

Seven sittings of all seven Harry Potter books. Escapism?

Three poolside undertakings of Tolstoy’s 800-plus-page “Anna Karenina.” Insanity?

Innumerable trips to Tralfamadore with Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” What can I say? I find the book oddly comforting when my own life feels disjointed and out of my control. And so it goes.

A book that lingers in your consciousness acts as sandpaper, either removing rusty ideas or finely honing the ones worth keeping. There is nothing to fear in exploring new notions.

In 2009, I picked up “The Fountainhead” because a news story mentioned the Ayn Rand Institute, and I realized I knew nothing about the author. Debating Rand and her ideas has become the new national sport since U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan became Mitt Romney’s running mate. Ryan has admired Rand’s philosophies on limited government and free-market capitalism.

One reading of one book does not an expert make. I researched nothing before or after regarding Rand. What left me rattled was realizing that there really were people in the world whose gods were themselves. Goodbye, naïveté!

Seeing how it fits

In the email to my friend, who has quite happily managed to live without reading Rand, I said:

“Maybe true integrity really is refusing to hold up your end of maintaining civilization’s thin veneer, refusing to make concessions to ‘get along’ that end up debasing the essence of who you are. Maybe the only integrity is being true to yourself, although for some people, maybe being true to themselves is caring about others more.”

Any book that makes you try on some “maybes” – even if they ultimately find themselves in the discard pile – is a worthwhile one.

I remember, too, revisiting conversations with another friend about altruism, which Rand rejects as any sort of guiding principle in her self-first world.

I’m not sure, I had said to my friend – always too glowing about good deeds he ascribed to me – that true altruism even exists. As long as we get any measure of satisfaction from the act of giving, we can’t let other people consider us “good” because of it.

This remains a riddle for me, but I relished ruminating on whether I could fit my own views inside Rand’s: See, altruism is selfish, it is in my own self-interest, because in giving, I get.

So we shouldn’t be scandalized if a charitable foundation awards grants to our universities, as The N&O reported Saturday, to support teaching capitalism in the Rand tradition. Let people hand out all of the copies of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” they want to. Investigation is not indoctrination.

“What you want for students is to expose them to new ideas so that they can evaluate them, and compare them with competing views, to arguments on both sides, come up with a reasoned judgment and defend it,” said Douglas Pearce, an N.C. State economics professor who won the school a $200,000 grant. “We’re trying to get students to think.”

Who can be opposed to that?

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