In Quiet Defense of Anthem
"How come you don't hate this guy? He's everything you taught us not to trust."
"I can't hate him. He is so transparent in his self-interest that I kind of respect him."
- The Big Short
Making fun of Ayn Rand has been a popular spectator sport since she began publishing books. As such, it is impossible to tell whether the curious, blurry inclusion of Anthem on the bookshelf behind Steve Carell’s head in The Big Short (see 7:29 in the clip above) was meant by the filmmakers to be an honour or an insult. It may be a subtle jab at Rand for being the literary darling of vampire squids all over America. Or it may be a quiet salute to Mark Baum’s wisdom, in acknowledging the reality of human selfishness as a powerful motivator and a valuable source of information.
There may not be another author so simultaneously loved and hated in America as Rand. Throwing fuel on the fire is the fact that many of her detractors have never actually read her work in its entirety. There are plenty of reasons why it may be worth your time to do so. Ray Dalio, for example, recommended her literature as an introduction to the Trump administration’s economic mindset. But an even stronger reason is this: on issues which cause such division and vitriol, and in a world where hearsay passes for journalism, it is good to engage first-hand with divisive topics and formulate an independent opinion. Life is not a last minute college essay: the CliffsNotes do not suffice.
A better alternative: the under-appreciated, 123-page novella of Anthem.
If Atlas Shrugged were a 32oz Moscow Mule, then Anthem is a straight vodka shot: a to-the-point distillation which can be consumed and appraised quickly, without sacrificing nuance, style, or the author’s intent. A popular criticism of her two most famous works, clocking in at over 1000 pages apiece, is that they are tedious and impossible to finish. Never mind that this argument is usually insufficient for scorning other things which are difficult to finish (i.e. War and Peace, New Year’s resolutions, or high school). At a meager 123 pages, Anthem is manageable in a single evening. If something isn’t worth taking an evening to engage with, it probably isn’t worth hating either.
Most people politely refrain from showing obvious disdain for a stranger’s actions, even if it causes some sort of direct harm or inconvenience. Children can wail and throw food in a restaurant, and the other patrons will, at most, tut-tut or quietly ask the maître-d to intervene. Folks will elbow each other for the middle armrest on an airplane and stew in passive-aggression without ever saying a single word out loud. We are, by and large, a conflict-averse society when we are face-to-face.
The notable exception to this rule is the act of purchasing a Rand book. On every such occasion, you can expect to receive a semi-serious jab from your shopping companion about how they will pretend to not know you as you approach the checkout counter. A judgmental look from the cashier usually accompanies. At the extreme, a bookshop staff member once stated, as I was paying for The Fountainhead, that they hated the book I was about to purchase. (Imagine buying a raisin bun at a bakery and being told that raisin buns are disgusting as you hand over your cash.)
Rand stands not only as a beloved source of inspiration for some, but also as a cherished punching bag for college students, The New Yorker, and self-professed decent human beings everywhere. It is curious that an author could incite such lasting adoration and vitriol in a world where most simply see their work met with indifference. The vast majority of published books barely register a blip on the radar before they fade into the sands of time. The rare few that do not may be worth investigating, whether or not their worldview is to our liking.