I read Ayn Rand when I was in high school…and I liked her. If you haven’t read much, liking Ayn Rand is possible. The flatfooted prose, the dimness of her imagination, the thinness of her characters, and the plots which all so obviously push her agenda are not likely to alienate a kid who has read little and experienced less. And, if you grow into adulthood shielded from the world, cocooned by enough privilege to spare you exposure to less favored people, you’ll also be spared compassion for others. You can then join guys like Congressman Paul Ryan who divide people into Rand categories—the bold capitalist doers, and the rest of us parasites who drain away so much of what Rand heroes like John Galt or Howard Roark contribute to the world. These are heroic individualists, self-reliant and entrepreneurial, natural aristocrats burdened by those whiny hordes who want government to attend to every need. The Rand/Ryan world is divided into Godlike human creatures like Donald Trump, and worthless socialist n’er-do-wells like Barack Obama. It’s a simpleton’s blueprint. In Ayn Rand’s books we’re only responsible for Ol’ Number One, so it’s easy to see how such a philosophy would appeal to twerpy teens.

The same is true of the thin ideas found in On the Road, that other artifact of the literary 1950s. Kerouac, too, offers balm to adolescents who fear the onset of adult responsibility, telling his hordes of young readers that all they need do is to run for it, to hit the road whenever responsibility (or clinging women) start to impinge on their freedom. There’s another bitch down the road; there’s weed, whites, and wine, and a guy at the wheel who’s really good at conning freebies, so take the ride and you might outrun growing up, at least until you hit your 40s and alcoholism kills you after you’ve returned home where your mommy can take care of you while you drink yourself to death. Of course that last part ain’t in Kerouac’s book, nor is the fact that this King of the Road never learned to drive.

These books might appeal when your voice is changing, and you’re hoping the Clearasil will kick in before prom night. If, however, you’re still clinging to either of them as a guide to living after you attain the age where you have to shave every day, the chances are you’re lacking something essential in both the heart and the head.

Comments

  1. Murray Suid says:

    What a timely article, for me at least. I just started rereading On the Road. There are, I think, other ways to take Kerouac’s book.

    For example, a friend of mine said that On the Road taught her that she don’t need to stay in one place–I’m talking about a physical place, not an emotional place. The story encouraged to move from the East Coast to California, which was for her a chance move. Many people are rooted in the place where they were. That’s one viable option, but a book about hitting the road brings up another. Yes, Kerouac celebrates drugs and booze. But a thoughtful adult reader can strain out that stuff and learn the other message.

    Also, On the Road has a lot of clever–often very funny–prose riffs. While sometimes it’s repetitious, its moments of crazy drama are entertaining.