Towards the end of 2016, while exploring different books for Leiden’s Book Club reading list, it quickly became apparent to me that a true Leiden reading list should reflect the literary taste of our contributors. And so, At Leiden’s Christmas party, speaking to other contributors about their favourite books, browsing our editor’s bookshelves in between conversations to gather courage for the next (as any introvert would, of course): that is how The Fountainhead came to be on our Book Club reading list; a novel much loved by fellow contributor, Miriam Walsh.
I had not previously heard of Ayn Rand (go on, gasp with shock) and had no expectations of The Fountainhead. It was a bit of an ‘oh, crap’ moment when all 704 pages of fine print landed on my doorstep earlier this month. At the time of writing, I have not finished the novel, but feel I have read enough to sum up an opinion.
The Fountainhead tells the story of Howard Roark, a progressive genius architect whose career is thwarted before it even begins by his expulsion from a prestigious school of architecture. The course of events that ensue reflects Rand’s world view; her philosophy of objectivism. In short, Rand’s philosophy places man or woman or their own heroic being where their own happiness is the moral purpose of their lives; productive achievement is their most noble activity and reason is their only absolute. Howard seeks happiness through creation that speaks to him and the natural world; that is, he finds true happiness through creating buildings that serve their purpose and blend in with their surroundings both functionally and seamlessly. And he does so without compromise. As you get to know Howard, you come to understand that for him, compromising his buildings ― his art ― is a compromise of his own integrity. Something which he refuses to stand for.
To be so uncompromising in a world where our values and opinions are pre-written and handed to us by our culture (whether traditional or popular), family, society, etc. is, quite frankly, difficult. Most of us are generally taught from an early age that to be successful in life we must complete school, obtain a qualification (preferably at the tertiary level) and land a respectable and steady job. And in our downtime, we should search for the perfect spouse to marry and have children with to fill the three or four bedroom suburban home you have purchased together. Because this picture is ‘success’, by default, we should also be happy. Don’t get me wrong, all of these things are success and reaching any of these things is an achievement. But is the success and achievement yours? What I like most about Howard is that although he is aloof in his uncompromising egoism, he defines his own success ― his own happiness ― and will not accept anything less.
The Fountainhead is a life lesson delivered in 704 pages. Read every word of it. You will see yourself in all of its characters. And at the end of it, you will decide which version of yourself you want to be.
1. “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
Is it possible to live an objectivist life – whether purely or partially – in our modern world? Why?
2. Why does Rand sanction Roark’s egoism, but not Toohey’s?
3. Personal or professional success; which is more valuable?
4. What are your thoughts on the portrayal of women in The Fountainhead? Discuss in relation to Dominque, Catherine and Mrs. Keating.