I was recently sent a message via Facebook from an old friend asking me about Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged. He noticed that I’d joined the FB group “Plug the BP Oil Leak With the Works of Ayn Rand.”
My friend, who I have known since we played little league baseball together, and were debate team partners in high school, describes himself as a conservative Republican. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’d describe myself as a liberal Democrat.
Before I responded with my thoughts on Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s writings it got me to thinking about writers I consider myself to have outgrown. Because Rand is a writer and thinker I consider myself to have outgrown. She’s not the only writer. I also consider myself to have outgrown Isaac Asimov, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac. All for different reasons.
Isaac Asimov – I read through (what was then) the Foundation Trilogy in high school. I also read many of his other works. He was an insanely prolific writer (he published in the neighborhood of something like 400 books). Later, I tried to reread the Foundation books. The ideas were interesting but the characters were flat and the conception of female characters was creepy (the teenage girl who goes against the Mule, and Seldon’s “wife” who turns out to be a robot).
Science fiction book I discovered in my youth that I still re-read and never tire: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a “wholly remarkable book.” 🙂
Ayn Rand – I went through an Ayn Rand phase in college where I read a number of her books, enthralled with her big ideas, including Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, Anthem, and one or two of her collections of essay.
Rand was a bold thinker, to say the least. The central plot point of Atlas Shrugged, that the smart people all go on strike is an intriguing idea, one that appealed to my own puffed up vanity at the age of 20. She treats these captains of industry (John Galt, Ragnar Daneskjold, Dagny Taggart, etc.) as artists endowed with the attributes of Nietzschean Supermen in their ability to remake the world for the betterment of people and society. But having worked with some successful entrepreneurs, I can tell you that she idealizes the captains of industry far too much. Rand seems incapable of seeing her industry captains as anything but saintly martyrs. If it were up to her there would be no government regulations at all save those that protect property rights. She is disdainful of workers and nature. Ultimately, I, like most people on the political left, find her philosophy of complete laissez-faire economics to be a fantasy and morally repugnant.
Note: One big gaping hole in Atlas Shrugged is that no true capitalist would ever just walk away and forgo the chance for profits. I don’t care who they are. They’ll incorporate offshore, they’ll undercut the competition, they’ll streamline their operations, they’ll move their factories overseas to a lower-cost labor market, or they’ll lobby the government to ease up on regulations and taxes. They have more tools at the ready for getting what they want. Workers often only have their labor as a tool.
Jack Kerouac – On the Road has brilliant prose. It made me, like so many other college students, want to travel back and forth across this country of ours in a car. But at heart (from my reading of it long ago), it’s a chronicle of aimlessness with the main character worshiping Dean Moriarity (real life: Neal Cassady) way too much, a guy who left a trail of untended children across the country. And I know that Cassady was credited with turning Kerouac away from his Tom Wolfe-style writing and toward something unique. He seems to have been a catalyst for both Kerouac and the poet Alan Ginsberg (not to mention lover).
During that phase I also read Ginsberg’s Howl (still love it and can recite a good portion of it), Cassady’s The First Third, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Junky, and Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. (I tried to read The Ticket That Exploded and found it incomprehensible other than the few scenes I could make out which, if I remember correctly, were descriptions of young boys engaged in anal sex…That’s Burroughs for you.)
The Dharma Bums bored me with its pointlessness. Then sometime later I started reading Dorothy Parker and I came across her review of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans…and it forever altered my perception of Kerouac and the Beats. Parker was well into her 60’s at this point in her life, but she was still a perceptive and sharp reader (she championed Nabokov’s Lolita). I’d quote from her review here, but I let a friend borrow my copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker awhile back and haven’t seen it since. There’s an excerpt here, and there’s another snippet in this bio of Parker here: (http://www.litkicks.com/DorothyParker)
I think as perhaps you have discerned, that if Mr. Kerouac and his followers did not think of themselves as so glorious, as intellectual as all hell and very Christlike, I should not be in such a bad humor.
Hunter S. Thompson – He was a writer I also discovered in college (like Rand and Kerouac, notice a pattern here?) that I no longer admire in the same way. I was pretty well obsessed with him, excited by his rabid opinions of the political process, Nixon, and other politicians, his hallucinatory prose and manic energy. I read everything by him, from Hell’s Angels to Better Than Sex. After 1974, his writing nose-dived. Other than the Nixon obituary in Rolling Stone magazine, there is little from post-1974 that is worth reading. I see him less now as an inspiration, than the head of a cult, whose followers see him as unable to do any wrong.
I still love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but I can’t muster the desire to reread anything else by him. It all seems overly-indulgent and incoherent.
There they are; the writers I feel I’ve outgrown. What do you think? Which writers, or artists, do you feel you’ve outgrown or can’t be bothered with who you once couldn’t get enough of?