Novels to live by
The classic novel, for me, should stand alongside the likes of the wheel, the engine and medicine as one of the most important creations of mankind. The most powerful of novels have the ability to make you understand not just a great deal more about the world we live in, but also a far greater insight into the true nature of this human species that we happen to be the latest editions of. Most importantly, the best novels make you recognise so much more about your own inner self and your own life. The purpose of this piece, if there is one, is to pay homage to the two authors who have influenced me more than others, and to recommend five novels. The authors in question are Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ayn Rand, oddly enough both Russian. Those damn Russians, right?
These novels aren’t for everyone. For the most part they’re intense, long door stoppers which take a great deal of effort and time commitment to enjoy. This puts people off immediately, but as we know the things of most value take the most work. These aren’t frivolous crime ‘thriller’ paperbacks which you read to know the outcome of the storyline and subsequently forget that you even read the book a week later. You always know you’ve read something profound and great when you’re still thinking about it months and years down the line, or when you find yourself paging through it again to find some spot you’d like to read again either to understand it better or just because it was so impactful.
This is probably why I love the classic novel in all its glory. This is the playground of great ideas, where great minds breath their philosophical inner debates and views into their characters. Where authors have the ability to influence generations of the future from within the written pages, and no authors have affected me more in this regard than these two. Of course, this isn’t my ultimate list of the ‘Top five books of all time’, but three or four of these novels would probably make that list.
The sad thing about the world is that if I ever do encounter someone who’s read one of the five books mentioned below, I’d be genuinely surprised. Shocked would probably be a better word. A while ago I wrote a post on how the world was being dumbed down. A major contributor to that is, in my opinion, that people have lost the ability to read great books. A major reason for this is of course time. I myself have continually struggled in finding time to consume lengthy books. I’ll admit that spending around two hours in traffic every day over the past 5 years as well the discovery of Amazon’s Audible (their audiobook online retail store) has allowed me to consume large parts of two of the below novels in audio format. This is something I’d highly recommend. We’re living in an era when access to great books and great informational content is far easier than it’s been in the history of the world. Yet how many of us are taking advantage of this? We’ve also become a society so obsessed with instant gratification, convenience and dumbed down culture that I fear the great novel may struggle to survive in years to come. Time will tell.
There is perhaps another way of looking at this. On the one hand these books are personal treasures to me, conveying ideas and thoughts that nobody else I know has been exposed to. These lessons and insights are therefore mine and mine alone in my microsphere, and the selfish part of me thinks this is just fantastic. But on the contrary I’m also immensely saddened by this. Not by the fact that I’m a complete nerd, which I am, but that this fact intensifies my sense of isolation to the world.
These two authors were not middle class, Princeton educated privileged Jodie Picoults of the world who lived comfortable lives of luxury. I often think that a troublesome past filled with difficulty and hardship is often the strongest tonic for later creativity. In some it fuels a psychological energy later on which his channelled out creatively. It reminds me of Johnny Cash’s final albums, when he knew he was dying, which was a prime example of this. A man who had stared into the abyss and come back again. This was a man who knew what life was about, and you sensed the depth of feeling of every word.
Ayn Rand was only around 12 when the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia confiscated her father’s business and evicted the family from where it was. She spent years in poverty, witnessing the disintegration of her country and family before fleeing to America. She recalled that she never forgot the look of helplessness and loss on her father’s face as he lost everything he had worked for. I think this pain was probably a driving force in her in later years. The other thing that always amazes me about Rand, other than the immensity of the work, is that she wrote 600 – 1000 page novels in her second language. Her second language.
Dostoevsky’s story is even an even more arduous one, and never ceases to amaze me. Arrested for reading and circulating banned material at the age of 28, he was subsequently sentenced to death by firing squad. As he and others were standing in front of the guns, a letter was brought to the commander, amending the sentence to five years of hard labour in Siberia. Due to being seen as a ‘dangerous criminal’ Dostoevsky was shackled at the hands and feet for the entire period in the camps. He described it like this.
“In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall … We were packed like herrings in a barrel … There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs … Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel.”
Five years of this torture. He was also a continual sufferer of epileptic attacks throughout his life, including his time in the prison labour camp. After being released, he got married a few years later, but a few years after this, both his wife and brother died in the same year. He re-married after a couple of years, and had his first child with his second wife. The child died after 3 months with pneumonia. As if this wasn’t all bad enough, he suffered from a gambling addiction his entire life. An addiction that would see him bankrupt himself on more than one occasion.
Yet despite all this – a gambling addiction, epilepsy and continual seizures, losing a child and years of torment in frozen labour camps, he still wrote some of the most famous novels of all time. If anyone knew about pain, suffering, good and evil, it was Dostoevsky. Only someone with his background would be able to confidently comprehend the inner battles within the minds of men, and understand the nature of the human mind.
The two authors aren’t alike in their ideas and philosophies at all. In many regards they are actually antidotes to each other, and I’ve loved these differences of ideas. In fact, in the case of Ayn Rand, I would even go as far as arguing that her two most famous novels weren’t novels at all, but philosophical manifestos. Her main character in these novels were her own versions of the Ubermensch. Hank Rearden and Howard Roark. Characters so faultless that they enraptured everything about her philosophy in their words and actions. They were her ideal.
Dostoevsky by contrast often spoke through characters who were the worst of society. The misfits. The downtrodden. Characters that were at odds with the society around them. And most impressively, often characters that Dostoevsky himself would most likely have fiercely disagreed with, or even been appalled by.
How sorely this is being missed today. This willingness to go deep into the psyche, motivations and outlook of our opponents, both political and philosophical.
While Rand glorified the individual, Dostoevsky believed that the meaning of life was the idea of ‘love thy neighbour’. While Rand was atheist, Dostoevsky was a staunch Orthodox Christian. While Rand’s heroes were supremely confident prototypes of the ideal, Dostoevsky’s were tortured souls filled with inner conflicts and doubts. While Dostoevsky was definitely the better novelist, Rand was the better at inspiring a clear philosophical ideal. While Rand’s forthright philosophical bias is clearly demonstrated, Dostoevsky had a gift for making both sides of philosophical ideas look equally strong. Nowhere is this better represented than the debates between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov – pieces that every human should read. If Rand made your chest swell and head soar above the clouds, Dostoevsky kept your feet firmly on the ground.
But they did have their commonalities, particularly in their characters worship of life itself. Although the characters of Rand and Dostoevsky differed on life’s meaning, they both saw life as something to be lived, loved and cherished. While one foresaw and warned of the danger of violent revolutionary Communists, the other had to live through it and warn subsequent generations. Dosteoevky in fact seemed to confidently predict the destruction and danger of Stalin 50 years before it happened. His novel Demons tells its story around the roots of this movement. Luckily for him he never had to witness how correct he was.
If someone could take the best elements of Rand and Dostoevsky and apply it to their own lives, you’d have an exceptionally well rounded person. There is a great deal to learn from both of them. In my controversial opinion, these five novels would teach you more about life than a decade of high school and university education. Without explaining what each is about, perhaps I could explain what each of them did for me.
- We The Living – Ayn Rand
“It’s a rare gift, you know, to feel reverence for your own life and to want the best, the greatest, the highest possible, here, now, for your very own. To imagine a heaven and then not to dream of it, but to demand it.”
“Every man worth calling a man lives for himself. The one who doesn’t – doesn’t live at all”
I feel like I’ve become a little obsessed with Marxism and the dangers Communism presents to the world going forward. Probably because I’ve read first hand the kind of end result, and this book was a major part of that.
While We The Living was fiction, it was based entirely on reality, Ayn Rand’s own observations living in the system and the struggles of the ordinary people of the time. It’s heartbreaking at times, and the only book that brought me to tears in parts. It led me to even more disturbing non-fiction books on this, such as The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
I fear the world has not learned from these mistakes. If people read these books we wouldn’t have people marching on the streets of London and New York with Soviet hammer and sickle flags calling for the end of Capitalism. I fear the 21st century is destined to repeat the same mistakes as the 20th. Humans never learn.
- The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoevsky
“I think the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”
“I love mankind, but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
The book that both Einstein and Sigmund Freud called the greatest novel of all time. Kurt Vonnegut stated that everything you need to know is in the pages of this book. It’s hard to disagree with that. The book that led Nietzsche to proclaim Dostoevsky as the only psychologist from who he could learn.
Before reading this book I only had a vague idea of a novel I’d like to write. After encountering the character Ivan Karamazov I was convinced I needed to write my novel, even if nobody ended up reading it. Perhaps in my deepest heart I wanted to create my own, modern version of Ivan. Of course, it wouldn’t be anywhere near this level, but that’s just the point – sometimes you read things so great they create a burning envy in you to do something similar.
This extremely lengthy novel has everything (Einstein wasn’t far off) – humanity, the essence of life, freedom, control, spirituality, virtue, good, evil all within the simple premise of a murder mystery. Even Jesus Christ and The Devil are characters in some shape or form. The consecutive chapters ‘Rebellion’ and ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ are probably the two greatest chapters of all time. They left me thinking long afterward about the relationship between Man and religion. I’d even say that 150 years after the writing of this novel, it gives a dark understanding of the control of mankind and the current world. The concept of religion gets a bad rap from many in the current world, but such is the complexity of this novel that it makes you see the value of religion in the world, while at the same time increasing your scepticism of the institution of the Church. As Ivan Karamazov states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”. There are many angles to view this idea from, and the novel goes considerably deep into all of them.
- The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
“The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”
The way Rand grasped the true nature of the world, even back in the 1930’s when this was written, is astounding. At the two extremes of the novel are the protagonist Howard Rourke and the antagonist Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey is possibly the most disturbing character I’ve read about, primarily because he’s everything I’ve come to despise and mistrust in the world. I see Tooheys in different shapes and forms all over the world today. A character who preached selflessness, equality and virtue whilst harbouring dark intentions of control over people. Worst of all, he was universally liked by almost everyone, just as they are in the real world. Towards the end of the novel, Toohey does a long monologue on destroying souls where his true nature and thinking comes out. A speech that made me shake my head in wonder at how accurate it was in relation to the current world.
The central theme of the novel is the battle between individualism and the collective within the realm of architecture. In a societal sense this is a battle that has existed since the beginning of time, but the novel gives the perfect rationale behind the idea of individualism and living for yourself. There are so many great ideas and conversations in this novel that it’s impossible to single out a single one. The hero Howard Rourke’s philosophy can be seen as quite extreme by some, but the novel presents the ideas in a way that was hard to argue with. Such as the idea that your own happiness comes first, not society’s. That the happiness and fulfilment you look for in the world can only truly be found in yourself. That it’s perfectly okay to follow your own path, to swim against the current, even to be seen as the outcast. That the great pioneers of the world were often ostracised and seen as outsiders. That the world can be divided between those who think for themselves versus those who think through others. Howard Rourke was also completely and utterly uninterested in what anyone thought of him or his work, and in is own way reminded me of how much energy we devote in worrying about opinions of ourselves or our work.
This novel could well be my favourite of all time, but I tend to put Atlas Shrugged on a higher pedestal due to how much more influential Atlas was to me at the time.
- Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
A book that sucks you into the clammy, dirty streets of 1800’s St Petersburg and won’t let go, long after you put the book down. Perhaps this particular book should skip my hypothetical idea of giving it to high school kids for their education. You’d end up distorting their young minds into oblivion. It also made me feel as depressed and detached as the lead character for weeks afterwards.
I remember reading once about George Guidall, who’s narration of this novel is, for me, unparalleled. At certain points during the narration recording project, his wife started getting worried about him. He came home slouching, mumbling and looking terrible. Apparently the darkness of the story and Raskolnikov was affecting him deeply.
The way this novel was so deeply disturbing on a few levels. The main protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov uses an axe to murder two old women in cold blood. That wasn’t the disturbing part. The disturbing part was how Dosteoevsky made me completely relate to him. I suspect this is true of hundreds of thousands of readers of this book over the last century and a half. This dirty, detached, miserable student who killed two women in cold blood, and you find yourself completely behind him. Viewed through a modern, personal lens, Raskolnikov is a painful reminder of the alienation that society can cause. A reminder that Raskolnikovs exist now to this day in every city, in every country.
In classic Dostoevsky style it left me pondering some deep issues for months afterward – the danger of those who think they are above others, the nature of crime, people and power, and in classic Dostoevsky style, it’s a battle of good and evil within the hearts of men.
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists, it is real, it is possible… it’s yours.”
Since its publishing date, only the Bible has sold more copies than this novel. In contrast to her large devoted support, in wide circles across society Ayn Rand is hated, primarily because of this thousand page epic of a book. Not just from one side either. She’s quite a divisive figure. Hated by the Left for her political and economic views, she was hated by the Right for her religious views. Rand’s critics are usually pour most of their scorn on her Objectivist philosophy revolving largely around the idea of ‘selfishness’, which I think is terribly misunderstood. I suspect most of her critics haven’t even made it through one of her books, let alone this one.
What did this book teach me? What didn’t this book teach me. This isn’t just the best book in this selection. It’s the best book I’ve ever read. People talk about the ‘red pill’ and the ‘blue pill’ in today’s society. i.e. Take the red pill and understand the hard truths of the world and be an outsider, or take the blue pill and remain in a state of blissful ignorance along with everyone else. I’ve had about three or four red pill moments in the last decade, but I think when it comes to politics and economics, Atlas Shrugged was my first major red pill. Just like The Fountainhead, the novel demonstrates Rand’s clear, unapologetic sense of how the world works. Just when I thought the novel couldn’t get any better, John Galt’s 57 page speech cemented this book as something far greater than a mere novel.
At the heart of the book is a businessman’s battle against the powers who control the world. Where this book is truly great is beyond the political and philosophical ideas. It’s how it inspires. For a long time after reading this book ten years ago I wanted to be the main character Hank Rearden. Perhaps I still do. In Rearden I think Rand was finally avenging her father, if only in her own mind. Just like her own father, the brilliant, innovative Rearden faces the controlling government intent to stop him. Except Rearden, with the help of John Galt gets the better of them. For me Rearden wasn’t just a great character, he was some sort of manifesto on how to live.
Where Orwell’s dystopian world of 1984 is something which may still happen, Rand’s world of Atlas Shrugged has actually happened. I’ve lived in it in South Africa. The producers and achievers, the ones who add value are being crowded out by the corrupt looters and money grabbers who’ve never done a day of productive work in their lives. Where talented business people are placed behind increasingly higher hurdles and squeezed for every drop to the point of disillusionment. Where the fight is not against the competition, but against the system. The novel poses a timeless question of what would happen to society if the producers, creative thinkers, innovators and problem solvers withdrew themselves. Where would the millions and millions of leaches in society turn to and how would it survive? i.e. What if Atlas, the god who held the world on his shoulders, were to Shrug?
It’s easy nowadays to lose faith in the world, and to feel a sense of disillusion. When I do feel this, it helps to remember my favourite line in all of literature:
“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. . . “
Read the book and you’ll understand.
You’ll understand everything.