When it is one of those days when you just sit by the window with a cup of tea and a book, curled up, in your most comfortable T-shirt and Pajamas, life seems worthwhile! And when on such days you pick up a book that makes you look at everything and everyone in a different manner, inspires you in a manner that had always had a hazy form in your head but not the crisp outline you needed, makes you take notice of your abilities and constraints and of those around you, you know that reading is a privilege.
The Fountainhead has been one such book for me. I read it for the first time in the year 2006. It was recommended by a college friend, with a claim that I will be a changed person after I am done reading it. And the claim wasn’t empty. I finished the book in one sitting, unable to contain my excitement at the very ideas unfolding which I had always wanted to spell out but never had the words for. That was my first reading, and since then, I have picked up this book many times, when I was down, when I was exhilarated; when I doubted myself, when I was confident; when I was dejected, and when I was jubilant. Every single time, I just opened the book, at whichever page, that didn’t matter, and I felt alive. It is difficult to explain how a mere collection of words can do that to someone, but to know, you have to dive deep in that world.
The Fountainhead is set in the first half of the twentieth century in the land of opportunities, ‘The United States of America’. The book, in four parts, presents four characters and their lives, thoughts, ideologies, actions, a sketch of their being, if you may, to let the reader grasp the different personalities and their impacts on the world overall. It seems to offer the reader an entrance to the passage of understanding the philosophy of objectivism. The beauty lies in the fact that nowhere does the book explicitly mentions about the philosophy. The reader forms his/ her own opinion about the characters which influences his/ her understanding of the underlying philosophy guiding their behavior.
The Fountainhead starts with the protagonist, Howard Roark, contemplating on his options after having being expelled from his architecture school for not being a conformist. He is shown to be a man of strong ideals and vision, who knows what he wants to do with his life, and is ready to do so despite all obstacles.
Roark’s sternness is made sharper in contrast by the pliability of his colleague, Peter Keating, who lives his life as dictated by the societal norms and familial obligations. He seeks approval in all he does, unsure of the merit and worth of his own work. Both of them want to be architects, even though for completely different reasons. While Keating has topped his graduating class and Roark has been expelled from the same, it is bewildering to see the confusion of the former and the certainty of the latter. They go separate ways to start their careers. One goes to work with the best known of the profession while the other apprentices with a ‘good for nothing’, long forgotten architect, already being known as a man of the ‘past’. The story tracks their lives, achievements, failures, leanings, companions, employers and content.
After describing Keating in great detail, covering all aspects of his life including his romantic interest, Ms. Rand takes us to the next part of the book and the next ‘stereotype’ in her list of people, Ellsworth M. Toohey. Toohey is someone who holds nothing dear but the soul of a man. He can make or break people, societies and ideologies through his persuasive powers. He writes a newspaper column and contributes to various committees. He seeks neither money nor appreciation and yet seems to get both in abundance. His actions seem to suggest that he would spare no pain in helping someone achieve their dreams. But is that what he really is doing is a question the reader seems to be grappling with throughout this part of the book.
Leaving the readers in such state of mind, Ms. Rand goes on to introduce them to her next major character, Gail Wynand. Wynand believes in power. He seeks control and authority which can be derived through lucre. He runs a paper, the one Toohey writes a column in, and through a strange turn of events, comes to befriend Roark.
The interactions among these ‘classes’ of people, made fruitful and intriguing by various other characters such as the employers, love interests of Roark and Keating, friends and families, weaves the story together beautifully, all the while making readers think hard on what they have read so far, and concludes with the fourth and final section of the book, on ‘Howard Roark’ himself. Whether he stands out or not, whether his ideologies are any better, whether they turn out to be practicable, and how does his relationships with the physical world and people within turns out, is for the reader to find out by devouring on the gem of this book.
Ms. Ayn Rand has given a peek into her thoughts and ideologies through her hero ‘Howard Roark’ and presented herself to be an ardent supporter of capitalism, admirer of capability and individualistic to the core. At the same time she has expressed her dislike of the ‘Peter Keatings’, fear of the ‘Ellsworth Tooheys’ and pity of the ‘Gail Wynands’ of the world. Though her views seem extreme, black and white of the fiction as opposed to the grey of the reality, there is truth in them. One is forced to categorize self and others in one of the four quadrants she has demarcated by the four parts of her book, though in reality there are major overlaps and transitions from one to the other. Having said that, one cannot deny that she has accomplished by this work of hers, what very few can, expressing the abstract, maybe crudely by simplification, but in words which can be read, understood and shared by many.
I had not read many books in this genre by then and so I couldn’t appropriately comment on the merit of the book in comparison with others of its kind. After reading ‘The Fountainhead’ though, I decided to expand my horizon by reading more non fiction and particularly more of Ms. Rand’s works. ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and ‘We the Living’ were the next obvious choices. I enjoyed those books a lot as well. However, in my opinion, biased as it may be in light of the fact that I am fairly individualistic in nature, ‘The Fountainhead’ still tops my list of books you MUST read at least once before you die.
I had promised myself not to get into the specifics of the content, but I can’t help but post this picture I found on the internet, from a movie loosely based on this book (and which by the way, I absolutely DO NOT recommend anyone to watch). This picture represents one of my favorite parts of the book in an indescribable beautiful way and my imagery of the hero, Howard Roark.