A few months before I graduated from high school, in 1966, my World Literature teacher assigned a book report that would change my life. We could read any book we desired, from any author, on any subject and write a report on it. The score on the report was a major part of our final grade for the period.
I chose to read Ayn Rand’s controversial novel, Atlas Shrugged. I had previously written a term paper about her novel, The Fountainhead, for my English class and I thought that Atlas Shrugged would be a fitting end to high school book reports.
…Man—every man—is an end in himself,
not the means to the ends of others. He
must exist for his own sake, neither
sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing
others to himself. The pursuit of his own
rational self-interest and of his own
happiness is the highest moral purpose
of his life.—Ayn Rand
Copyright © 1962 by Times-Mirror Co.
I went next door to my neighbor’s house (see related article, Life Before Google) and took his hard-backed, first edition copy home with me. Over the next week I read chapter after chapter of this book, making notes for my paper and marveling at the idea of Objectivism being put forth on the pages.
Objectivism was in direct conflict with the prevalent Christian tenets practiced by the majority of Southern families. For me, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Rational Self-interest was the spark that got me to think differently. I wasn’t ready to embrace the concepts that she put forth, but I was ready to start considering alternatives to the ideas that I grew up with.
One day I brought the book to the school library, intent on doing some research into this author and her works. I was met inside the door to the library by Miss B, School Librarian/Southern Belle.
“Young man, what are you doing with THAT book?”, she pointed at the copy of Atlas Shrugged on top of the stack of books under my arm.
“I am reading it for a book report, Ma’am.”
“Not in MY library, you aren’t.”
“THAT BOOK is not to be brought into THIS library.”
“But Ma’am, this library is full of books.”
“And THAT BOOK is not one of them. YOU are welcome to come into this library, but THAT BOOK must remain outside.”
An uncomfortable silence surrounded us at this point. Students and teachers passed by without making a sound. The only audible noise was the conversation between the two of us and it had stopped for far too long.
“There are bookshelves around the corner where YOU can leave THAT BOOK while you are in MY Library. YOU may come in, but the BOOK may not”, said Miss B.
This is the point where I decided to take action and to act in my own self-interest. I went around the corner and unzipped my notebook, inserted my copy of Atlas Shrugged inside, and re-zippered the notebook closed.
Miss B. was waiting for me at the door, both eyes locked on the stack of books under my arm. After a thorough glance confirmed that THE BOOK was no longer in the stack on top of my notebook, I was allowed to enter the Sanctuary of Dead Trees and make use of the knowledge inscribed therein.
I didn’t stay in the Library for very long that day. My presence inside was more of a F—k You Moment, knowing that I had smuggled THE BOOK inside the hallowed halls in direct defiance of the rules.
• If it was Miss B.’s intention to keep me from reading something as controversial as Atlas Shrugged, she failed. I finished the book and made my report.
• If it was Miss B.’s intention to shelter me from subversive ideas, she failed. Her actions only encouraged me to read more counter-culture books and seek out more new ideas.
• If it was Miss B.’s intention to maintain the Status Quo and insure that Rules were followed to the letter, she failed. I stopped having much respect for Authority in general and started doing things my way, come Hell or High Water, consequences-be-damned.
I don’t recommend my course of action to others because it has had its consequences over the years. Ms. Rand’s philosophy of looking out for one’s self and allowing others to succeed or fail on their own appealed to the naive 17 year-old that was me. I am an only child and doing things on my own is second nature to me. Distancing myself from others was simple, I had done it my whole life at that point.
This story illustrates the change in attitude over my lifetime:
“There were once two races of Penguins who huddled together during windstorms— one who stood still and another who constantly moved around. The race of Penguins who just stood there died. Only the race of Penguins who moved around survived.
The wind was cold, causing those on the outer rim of the huddle to freeze to death within minutes. In the race of Penguins that didn’t move, every time there was a storm they died from the outside in.
But the tribe of Penguins who moved around, who all shared their moments on the rim, then moved to the inside of the huddle to warm up, survived even the most extreme weather.”
—National Geographic, Vol. 189, #3, March 1996
What I have learned over time is that, like it or not, we are all in this life together. We are only as prosperous as the least-prosperous among us. It is by helping others that we help ourselves.
My view of Atlas Shrugged today is much different from what it was 46 years ago. Today I prefer to be in the pack of penguins who move around and help each other, rather than the pack of die-hard individualists who are dead-right.
And now, this: