My name's Dave. I'm working on it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wrapped Up in Books

I am always reading a few books at once. It takes focus to fight the tendency to spread myself thin among too many, so the general rule of thumb is one work of fiction at any time. Books of philosophy on the side are acceptable.
For the last few months, my fiction of choice has been Atlas Shrugged. I chose it in part because my friend Nick cited it as one of his favorite books. It has been gathering dust on my shelves for years. His death seemed as fitting an occasion as any to pull it out, to become familiar with something that had touched him so greatly.
I knew going in that it was a book which provoked extremely mixed reactions, positive and negative. On two occasions now I've had friends who, after glimpsing the book in my hand, say "I'm sorry." As if it were an unfortunate twist of fate that found the book in my possession, a cruel sentence that I was forced to read it. I always blink when people say this. I know I am a very impressionable person: whatever I'm reading tends to affect me quite a bit; sometimes my mind succumbs to a more forceful one. Though those days are over, by and large, I'd be the first to admit that reading this book has, at times, put me in a very cold and inhuman way, much like the central characters. I've felt judgmental. I've felt robotic. Full of thoughts of motive power, etc. But I remain, still, quintessentially myself.
I can see Ms. Rand's ulterior motives in her writing (come on, subtlety is hardly the woman's strong suit. You can't really miss the subtext). But my fortitude is such that reading this book is not going to transform me into a Heartless Capitalist, who suddenly abandons all thoughts of compassion as gratuitous and irrelevant. And despite her obvious agenda and seriously heavy-handed writing style, there is a lot more to the story and the characters than the capitalist stance. And love her or hate her, her intelligence can hardly be disputed. And encountering an intelligent mind, even if you don't agree with it, is always worth doing. Perhaps especially if you don't agree with it. How dull would it be to go through life exposing ourselves only to those thinkers and artists who reinforced the ideas and philosophies we have already chosen for ourselves? It is precisely those who think differently from us that encourage us to grow. Anything else is just stagnating.
So what, then, is meant by their condolences?
I can interpret it as a statement of sympathy or pity, as I said above, but what is there to pity? The hours I spend reading this paperback tome which I'll never get back? Perhaps. If there is anything I consciously try to avoid, it is the wasting of time. And should I see others pursuing a course I felt was a waste of theirs, I might feel inclined to intervene. But is reading this book really an example of such a waste? Compare it, for instance, to the hours I spend nestled at my computer, idly letting my life slip away into the recesses of the internet. Or the hours I lose when I go out and get drunk and/or stoned, reducing my mind to a feeble, ineffectual state and probably consuming a good deal of fast food in the process. Is this not pitiable, from a different vantage point? Each person chooses their own standard by which to decide what is and what is not a waste of time. Is it not enough that I find it worthy of my time, to read this long and logorrheic book? Is it not enough that I learn from it?
So what can I say to them? The same answer I would give anyone questioning my motives: I entered into it, as I do all things, with a clear sense of purpose. I chose it because it will help me grow. And, to be sure, it will shape me in ways I can't foresee. If I am not strong enough to withstand a forceful mind, what other way for me to learn but to throw myself into it? How can I hope to grow if I don't experience the diversity of thoughts and opinions that exist outside of my head?
But ultimately, the real point is this: I've chosen it for myself. Every day I see people behaving in ways that seem absurd to me, and wonder why they live the way they do. Why they do things which, to me, are so foolish and wasteful. I both want to condemn them, and, at the same time, help to correct them. But who am I to do such a thing?
Everyone has to find their own way to live as they see fit.
I read on, and remember why I began it in the first place. I think of Nick reading it, and wish I could sit down with him and talk about it. I imagine our minds meeting on the page, and I realize how much of ourselves are left in the things we loved.
And that, if nothing else, is reason enough.


  1. Awwww . . .

    I would have said the same thing if I saw you packing a copy of the King James.

    It was more of a lazy way for me to say that I've explored those ideas and found them lacking for me. I found it boring,long-winded, pretentious and flawed and certainly wouldn't really go out and recommend the effort of exploring them to anyone else.

    But I still love you for your inquisitive brain.

    . . . mmmmmmm . . . braaaaaiiiiinnsssss . . .