Book review of Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne Heller

By Carlos Lozada
Sunday, December 27, 2009


Ayn Rand and the American Right

By Jennifer Burns

Oxford Univ. 369 pp. $27.95


By Anne C. Heller

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 567 pp. $35

You can admit it now: Maybe in your teens, or in college, you experimented. Hiding in your dorm or your parents' basement, you took hit after hit. Your friends began wondering why you'd changed, but it was too late: Ayn Rand was in your bloodstream.

My own dealer was a libertarian teaching assistant who introduced me to "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" in graduate school; soon I was subscribing to Rand-inspired newsletters and quoting Howard Roark and John Galt -- Rand's two most famous creations -- on the virtues of selfishness and individualism. It took the better part of a year to get over it, but, like so many others, I eventually realized that architects shouldn't go around blowing up buildings and that, above all, you can't really divide all humans into capitalist geniuses and collectivist looters.

Now, two new beautifully timed Ayn Rand biographies -- appearing just as the financial crisis and Obamanomics have sparked interest in her defense of pure capitalism -- offer ammunition for fans and skeptics alike. As Jennifer Burns explains in "Goddess of the Market," critics of Rand's one-dimensional characters and overwrought prose miss her underlying political impact. "For over half a century," writes Burns, "Rand has been the ultimate gateway drug to a life on the right," a one-woman awakening for burgeoning conservatives. Yet while Anne C. Heller's "Ayn Rand and the World She Made" agrees that Rand has helped shape views on individual rights for three generations of Americans, both books end up revealing how hard it is to live out Rand's worldview -- a difficulty exemplified most painfully by the ultimate devotee: Rand herself.

In a life spanning most of the 20th century, Rand sought to live up to her own fictional characters, falling deeper into that world she made and farther from reality. The result was a sad existence, rife with the personal and intellectual contradictions she detested in others. She prized reason above all else yet was notoriously emotional; she claimed to live for no one's approval but agonized over every last critic; she lionized free markets but never invested in stocks; she praised independent thinkers yet demanded mindless loyalty from friends and associates. Not even Rand, it turns out, could be her own true believer.

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