On Friendship

How do you know what a true friend is?

The introvert in me is very picky in who I spend my free time with. I’m even more picky with those who I call friends. I can probably count the number of people I consider to be good friends on one hand. My view on true friendship is one that not everyone would agree with. You should expect nothing from a true friend, and they should expect nothing from you. No obligations. Just voluntary respect, communication and shared experiences.

I’ve recently had two occasions where I’ve been able to briefly see old friends from my past. One from the not-too-distant past and the other one of my oldest mates. I hadn’t seen them in a while – in the one case it was over four years. What struck me afterwards on both occasions was this sense how we immediately just fell into how we always were as mates. No need for “Let’s catch up” or awkwardness in feeling obligated to ask all the right questions and acting interested. We just. . . were. Our comfortable old selves, like putting on your old favourite pair of shoes. It reminded me again that good friends don’t have to act interested in the other. They genuinely are.

How do you know if someone is a true friend? After contemplating this it’s fairly simple to me, they tick these three boxes:

  1. You can go a long period of time without getting in touch, or communicating at all – and that’s fine, it changes nothing.
  2. You can say no to them, and know they won’t be offended or take it personally.
  3. You’re always at complete ease in each other’s company and never trying to prove anything or be something you’re not.

Value your true friends. They are one of life’s essential elements.

The R24 West at 9pm

I was driving home from the airport at around 9pm recently, after being out of town. On the main highway from the airport I saw an array of red tail lights – cars that had come to a halt. A traffic jam at 9pm at night? Come on. I was looking forward to getting home as rapidly as possible. I quickly got that feeling that this was bad. Really bad. Enough time in traffic gives one a 6th sense about these things. As I approached, I saw some sort of steam rising. The incident had happened across the middle two of the four lanes, and the cars were edging around the sides of it. The steam turned out to be a fireman hosing down a motorcycle. The bike was smashed to oblivion. No sign of the bike rider, but I didn’t need to see a body to know that he or she was dead.

I had that sobering moment you sometimes get when passing scenes like this, where you know the other drivers around you are feeling the exact same emotion. A sort of sickness in your stomach and a horrible, dark gratitude that it wasn’t you. Not yet, anyway.

As I drove away from the scene I couldn’t shake it from my mind. Later that night some loved one was going to be getting a phone call or a knock at the door which would change their life. Some poor soul out there that didn’t know what was coming. One life lying dead on a highway and another soon to be devastated.

Life is a fragile little bird in your hands. Seemingly secure. Easily lost. The R24 West at 9pm that night reminded me of this.

Moving House – A Moving Experience

Untitled design (1)

I moved house on the weekend. It’s one of the worst tasks in the world, but not without its feelings of reward. Especially when everything is eventually settled on the other side, and you’re sipping your beer, noticing the muscle pain in your back and upper leg. I’ve moved five times in the last ten years, and while each move seems to be more taxing than the last, the same feelings seem to hit me each time.

A house is just a few walls on top of some flooring with a roof over it. How could we get all emotional about it? Yet we do. Some of the saddest moments of my life have been those moments when you do a final walk around your old house – now reduced to an empty shell that looks and sounds all different to the place you’d been inhabiting.

How can you not get emotional? This isn’t just bricks and mortar and a roof. This is the place you called home for the last few years. This was your safe haven. The place where you lived your life and spent the time that really mattered – with family. This time around my final walk was particularly melancholic. This was the place my daughter was born, and is the setting for what will be most of my memories of her for her first two years.

The other realisation that confronted me again, worse than normal this time, was just how much ‘stuff’ we have. We’re not a rich family by any stretch. We’ve lived humbly, in neat but smallish townhouse units. Yet the more things I was hauling from the old place to the new, the more I got a sense that there was a great deal I was carrying that we didn’t need. Yes, we keep a lot of stuff as we go from place to place, probably out of a sense of not wanting to one day have to spend to replace it, or thinking that there’s vague possibility that an item might be needed in the distant future.

As I was driving back and forth, I realised that very few of the things we possess really matter. That day I kept my laptop bag below the seat next to me, packed with essential documents, electronics and drives. That bag, along with a couple of boxes of my favourite books, were the only possessions that really mattered. If moving house reminded me of one thing it was simple – the things that really mattered in the new house that day were my wife, our daughter, and our one-eyed dog.

We move in and out of houses. Possessions come and go. It’s the people in our lives that can never be replaced.

Johannesburg – City of Contrasts

20170923_095058

Virtually any place in the world can be ‘home’ if you have your loved ones with you. Humans are incredibly adaptable in this regard. This week marks five years since I made the arduous move from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without some observations about my adopted city. Many have asked me whether I prefer Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg. This question always seems impossible to answer. It’s a bit like comparing a good steak to a scrumptious crème brûlée – you know you like both, but for very different reasons. After a baptism of fire involving vehicle theft, separation from family and much confusion, Johannesburg slowly started revealing itself in the months and years which followed. In that time the primary thing which has struck me about the city is that it’s a city of sharp contrasts. Contrasts which seem to be prevalent in all areas of life and living.

The first contrast that strikes one is the weather, which isn’t immune to this theme. Never in my life have I seen a complete 180 in weather conditions in the space of 15 minutes, from torrential downpour to calm sunshine. The short, intense bursts of rain itself is somewhat symbolic of the Johannesburg ethos of firm decisiveness, and getting the job done quickly and efficiently in a bold, no-nonsense approach. The general stillness and beauty of the weather always seems the perfect antidote to the buzzing, bustling and grinding city.

Before you know it, you start noticing other sharp contrasts, primarily economic ones. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than the neighbouring suburbs Hillbrow and Houghton. A mere couple of blocks separates one of the most affluent, status orientated residential areas from one of the more infamous suburbs on the continent. This always seems a little absurd to me. Drug lords and their subjects living literally a few football fields’ distance away from CEO’s and directors in their mansions.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in Braamfontein, basically an area which is an extension of the old CBD, which has gone through something of an urban renewal over the past few years. I say fortunate, because it’s allowed me to understand this place so much more, and dare I say it, become more cultured in the process. Here the Johannesburg contrasts confront you even more intently. There have been many times when I’ve walked past sleeping bodies on the pavement outside coffee shops where hipsters sip R35 Cappuccinos and where suits and ties discuss profits and bottom lines. R45 craft beers are drunk in sidewalk cafés while beggars roam looking for the next slice of bread or handful of change.

The contrasts go deeper than the surface. I think the loneliest, most isolated moments I’ve ever felt in my life were in the throngs of Joburg people or traffic. I’ve realised that even in the middle of one of the world’s biggest sprawling masses of people, it’s still difficult to find like minded individuals you can relate to. In a city connected to everything, human connection is still elusive. It’s still difficult to find the ‘real’. A bigger city has made people in general even more of a mystery to me. The more I see of society, the less I tend to like it. I see more from people here that I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try. Perhaps big cities aren’t conducive to uncovering humanity’s big questions.

Then there’s the South African question. Nowhere else in the country will you see the good and bad quite this clearly. You see what South Africa is capable of – The Gautrain, the business innovations or the cutting edge architecture of Central Sandton are prime examples. You unfortunately see all the problems with the country, accentuated and more in your face than anywhere else. A great example is when drive on the N3 northbound, at one point you can look to your left and see the towers and brilliance of Sandton glittering on the hill, while closer to you in the foreground are the shacks of Alexandra. More importantly, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how the media and politicians are have distorted and misrepresented the racial moods situation in the country. Johannesburg has shown me that South Africans are generally very good at just getting on with each other and getting on with it. The average Johannesburg person is just here to make a living, support his/her family and live a little. This is such a hotbed of cultures and ethnicities that I think the average Johannesburg person doesn’t even notice ethnicity that much anymore. There are of course unfortunate exceptions.

One thing the Eastern Cape does have firmly in its favour is an ease of access to natural beauty. You can drive for an hour and be as the most picturesque beach or game reserve far away from anything. An hour’s drive in Johannesburg merely gets you to the outskirts of the city. Other than the Parks suburbs of Johannesburg and the Eastern regions of Pretoria, most of the urban area of Gauteng is unattractive, to say the least. The outlying areas of the city are largely industrialised, dusty expanses you just want to get through as quickly as you can. When you combine this with the continual concern over crime that seems to seep under your skin, you sometimes wonder what exactly you’re doing here. Are you part of the problem? But there is a positive to all of this. Things that I might have taken for granted in the past are now a great deal more special. I appreciate life more. Living for today is now far more sacred to me than it was five years ago. Beaches are that much more majestic. Open space and quiet are things of beauty. Mountains are more alluring and mysterious. Wide open vistas are like some form of instant medication. Quiet, open roads are cherished beyond words.

What Johannesburg unquestionably makes you feel is this sense of being in the midst what’s happening and at the centre of a melting pot. Even if you’re not concert-going or shopping at retail flagships every weekend, you do get the feeling that you’re connected to the essence of SA society. But linked to this, there’s an evil ugliness bubbling under the surface of this city, and I’m not referring to crime. I’m referring to the ugly side of normal people. One example of this is people’s conduct in traffic. You didn’t think I’d write a post about Johannesburg without going into traffic, did you? Traffic has become an ongoing social observation for me. I’ve learned that in the hours of big city traffic boredom (and moments of panic), so much can be explained about human nature. On the one hand, when simple traffic rules are ignored with gay abandon, what does it say about that society? When laws are broken and lives are put at risk in order to get ahead of some cars and save a minute, what does that say about people’s attitude to law and order? What does that say about our attitudes to each other? For me, this is a small, but significant symptom of a society going morally bankrupt.

More perplexing is the irresponsible recklessness that I observe. This element I see on the roads cannot be explained in simple terms. If I do approach it too simply I come to the quick conclusion that people are stupid, which although partly true, isn’t the answer. Henry Thoreau once said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. This quote explains what I see in traffic perfectly. What I see are people so highly strung, wired and filled with tension from pursuing career, status and money, often with their backs to the wall. They’ve learned how to make money and grow their career. They’ve learned how to ‘hustle’. But they haven’t learned to reflect, switch off or let out energy. The result is that all the anger, rage and pent up frustration is forced out when behind the wheel of a car, whether it’s reckless speeding or screaming and shouting, this is their only channel for that energy release, but they don’t know this. In amongst all this you can’t help but confront your own ugliness, question your own views and face your own demons, and while humanity continues to mystify me, the past five years have given me a far greater understanding and acceptance of myself. I also tend to think there’s something about the anonymity of a big city and the sheer volumes of people that leads one to care so much less about what others think of you. I’m far less bothered about how others perceive me than I was five years ago, to the point of indifference. That’s a big city effect.

The contrasts you witness aren’t constrained to within Johannesburg itself. In the times that I’ve traveled out of Johannesburg across the country over the past five years, I’ve taken particular interest in small towns and their surroundings.  What I notice more than anything is this sense of decay and abandonment. While Johannesburg is endlessly filled with construction, building, upgrading  or renovating, the small towns by contrast are blatantly being neglected and deserted.   Driving over the endless plains of the Free State and Eastern Cape Karoo recently gave me the feeling that a great deal of careless disregard had been taking place here, as was evident from what was visible from the road. Countless farmhouses gone to decay, old outbuildings which hadn’t been lived in for years, overgrown football fields with the goals missing and small towns where, other than a couple establishments newly maintained, were generally going to rust and ruin. An image still sticks in my mind from a drive to PE in April this year. About 60km north of Uitenhage, on the outskirts of a small village, I spotted a broken swing, lopsidedly hanging by one rope attached to a rusted structure that was leaning miserably to one side. A symbol of hopelessness and decay – something that was once new and once brought joy.

All of this makes me wonder, does progress and success require the ugly urban sprawl and all the contrasts that go with it? As we move further into the 21st century, will we see more and more of this urbanisation, as rural communities move further and further behind, losing their sense of place, purpose and value? This seems inevitable. Since 2011 Gauteng has seen an influx of about 1,2 million people. To put that into perspective, that’s 240 000 people per year making their way into the urban mass. That’s 20 000 new people every month. According to the United Nations (UN), 54% of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, a statistic set to increase to 66% by 2050.

Perhaps what doesn’t need to be as inevitable is this disregard of simplicity of life. When out of Johannesburg I’ve also found myself marveling at times at the homes and lives of small town or rural dwellers. As I drive past houses where chickens run around vegetable patches in yards free from high walls and electric fences, I think Have we got it all wrong? Was there a more pure way of living that we’re forgetting? Maybe. Have we come to measure individual progress as solely money and career related, at the expense of quality of life? The complex seems to have triumphed over the simple.

So while Johannesburg remains my home for the foreseeable future, my love-hate relationship with it will undoubtedly remain. I’m sure the city will continue to serve me with conflicting visions and ideas. I have no doubt that all contrasts around and within me are a good thing. How else do we come to understand the world, and ourselves?

The Disturbing Power of Google

An employee by the name of James Damore was fired by Google last week after writing an internal memo criticising their diversity policy. He wasn’t being anti-diversity at all. In my view he was simply providing an extremely rational and reasonable response. His memo basically stated that there are inherent biological differences between men and women which go a long way to explaining the workforce disparities in the tech industry, and that ultimately people should be treated as individuals rather than placing them in tribal groups. He was a Harvard biology graduate no less, and the memo was rooted in science and fact. That didn’t stop Google. Ironically Google fired him after stating that they valued differences of opinion. If you want to read more about it, Google it (irony intended) and read through the whole story. The memo sparked controversy and a huge debate from all sides. As usual most of the reactions were completely hysterical, which probably contributed to his dismissal. Within the repercussions were grown men exclaiming that they were ‘shaken to the core’ by this. You can read his memo here: https://diversitymemo.com/.

I always try to see both sides of the story but in this case it was clear to me – Google were 100% wrong, and so were the people hysterically defending Google’s decision to fire the employee. His memo didn’t contain any sexism or hate speech at all in my opinion, he was simply asking the employer to consider a different point of view. I didn’t agree with all of it, but it was well researched and written, and based on fact and reason. No matter what your political views are, we should all be highly concerned when the views of a large group are hounded and shut down. What was even more disturbing was seeing senior Google managers stating (actually bragging) about how they keep an internal spreadsheet blacklists based on spying on employee emails. Radical left wing ideology and censorship has taken over universities and much of the entertainment industry. Is the corporate sector the next to go?

As much as people complain though, Google is a company operating in the private sector. They can do what they like, and the purpose of this post is not to delve into the actual story, but raise the bigger issue that I see. There’s something much more disturbing about Google, and it dawned on me after I angrily declared that I was boycotting them in favour of Bing or DuckDuckGo. Someone asked me if it meant I was going to stop using Youtube (Owned by Google). What about Google Maps? Gmail? Google Drive? Google Playstore? Chrome?

How could you boycott Google? In this day and age is it even possible? If something Pick n Pay does upsets you, you can just go shop at Spar or Checkers. However, Google has ingrained itself within our lives like some part of our DNA.

A few decades ago, The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison famously quoted that “He who controls the media controls the mind.” Very true, but in the time since that quote, I don’t think any single force has actually controlled the media. The power of the internet is changing that. In the history of mankind, no media has wielded more power than Google. They have by far the largest search platform, the largest email platform and the biggest entertainment platform. When people search for something, Google has the power to feed them not necessarily the top results, but rather the results that Google sees fit. Indeed they’re already under investigation for this sort of behaviour. When people watch Youtube, Google has the power to suggest the right videos Google wants you to watch next. Google has the power to de-fund channels and entertainers that don’t suit their narrative, ensuring that millions of people never even get exposed to them. Google have the power to control the conversation and public discourse. I’m no I.T. expert, but as I understand it, Google already knows pretty much all of your online habits and probably a scary amount about your general life. Who knows how far this rabbit hole goes? While Google has a monopoly over search, video and email, Facebook have an equally large monopoly over social media and messaging – controlling Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. A few months ago I saw a photo of Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg sitting next to his laptop. The camera and sound receiver both had black tape over them. Not disturbing at all.

With this in mind Google have the power to alter public opinion, heavily influence political elections or drive ideological agenda – and I’m pretty sure they’re doing this already, to an extent. Still think you’re coming to your own informed decisions and opinions? It’s worth remaining very very vigilant. As someone who’s read 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, this all seems a little too familiar. When reasoned dialogue and speech is being shut down and owners of the media have this much control and power, we should be extremely concerned. So now we have the precarious position where the monopoly holders of social media, the internet, mainstream media, academia and Hollywood all have the same political outlook, and all seem hell bent on telling you what to think. 1984 here we come.

But I don’t think of you

One of the most profound lines I’ve come across in literature is a remarkably simple one – “But I don’t think of you.”

About half way through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, our ‘hero’ and antagonist, by chance, eventually come face to face for the first time outside a building at night.

Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist we’ve come to distrust immensely by this point, is a scheming media personality who’s developed fame and a large, positive reputation through his writings and teachings of selflessness, brotherhood and altruism. He teaches that happiness can only be found in serving others, and seems hell bent on control over people. He goes to great lengths to destroy individuals and professionals who think differently or show real ability against the grain. He is ultimately a bully whose goal is dominance, yet is loved by all as some sort of saintly figure of virtue.

Howard Roarke, the protagonist of the novel is a contrast to Toohey.  Roarke is an achiever who finds meaning and fulfilment in his work and doing what he loves. His happiness is found in serving his own purpose first and foremost. He’s utterly uninterested in any negative public opinion of him. A man who refuses to bow down to what was popular or the fashion of the time. He isn’t afraid to be different and never compromises on his own values. He lives his life and crafts his work the way he sees fit, not by the demands of society.

When they eventually come across each other and exchange words, Toohey finally asks Roark “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

Roark replies “But I don’t think of you.”

And so the conversation ends. I stand corrected, but I recall it being the only conversation between the two in the book.

I’m fairly familiar with the essential themes of the philosophies of Stoicism, Zen and Objectivity. All three have very useful lessons and ideas to incorporate into modern life. Of course, they all differ from each other and none of the three are perfect. Yet in this single short response – But I don’t think about you – Roarke had, in my opinion, expressed the best aspect of all three philosophies and successfully found the sweet spot where all three meet.

At the cornerstone of these philosophies is this idea that your happiness can be derived from no other place than within yourself. They just express this a little differently. In simple layman’s terms:

Stoicism – control what you can control – don’t stress about the rest

Zen – be mindful of the current moment and what you are doing and feeling now – nothing else matters

Objectivism – pursue your own happiness as your highest purpose and moral aim

Toohey had slandered Roarke in the press and actively worked against him for years, yet Roarke found no reason to waste time thinking about him. Roarke was too busy pursuing his own goals and devoting himself to the things he loved. How many of us look for happiness from external influences rather from within ourselves? How many of us spend ages thinking about people we don’t like – even enjoying the feelings of anger, jealousy or bitterness that arise? And what good does it do? How much time and thought do we devote to things that are not essential to our happiness or the achievement of our purposes in life?

I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to falling into these traps of the mind, and I’m still figuring life and living out as I go. I’ve made a habit of continually asking myself the simple question “Is this worth my time and thought?” You’ll be surprised at how often my answer is “No” and how much clutter I can throw out of my life and mind. I’m still learning.

Maybe one day I too can stand in front of everything I oppose and say “But I don’t think of you.”

 

THOSE DAMN RUSSIANS

Novels To Live By

96610c96-f063-4398-9a69-33358e351815

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 reverence 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 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. The best novels have characters who seem to seep into your soul and sit on your shoulder as you move through life.

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 feeding a dumbed down culture that I fear the great novel may struggle to survive in years to come. Time will tell.

I have mixed feelings about not knowing anyone else who has read these books. On the one hand these books are like 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 with 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. As a side note, Johnny Cash’s final albums, when he knew he was dying, were 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 couple of years after this, both his wife and brother died in the same year. He re-married, 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 life.

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. 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 these characters 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. 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.

  1. 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, dramatising 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. I speak about this in more detail in my previous post. (https://jaredlouw.com/2017/07/12/the-futility-of-the-political-rabbit-hole/)

  1. 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.

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 reads it. Whether I eventually finish writing it or not is debatable. Perhaps in my deepest heart I want 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 and 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.

  1. 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 1940’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 fictional 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. 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 outcast. 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.

  1. 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.

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 was a dirty, detatched, 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. Was this Dostoevsky’s warning that the world would increasingly alienate the deeper, thoughtful introverts because of the increasingly material nature of modern societies?

Even though this novel didn’t show me or teach me anything specific, in classic Dostoevsky style it left me pondering some deep issues for months afterward – 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.

  1. 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 many 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 gets the better of them. For me Rearden wasn’t just a great character, he was some sort of manifesto on how to live.

There was also this dark, disturbing element about the novel that felt a little too close to home. Where Orwell’s dystopian world of 1984 is something which may still happen, Rand’s world of Atlas Shrugged has actually happened. I’m living in it right here in my own South Africa. The producers, innovators 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 providing welfare for an alarming portion of the population has become more important than supporting the people who create employment and newer, better methods and ideas. Where men and women who do actually create value are despised. 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 holds 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 these timeless words:

“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.

 

 

* As a footnote I must pay thanks to Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Ontario. Peterson is one of the most intelligent, impressive people to emerge on Youtube and Social Media in the past couple of years. It was Peterson’s suggestions that convinced me to get Dostoevsky off the shelf again. Beyond this, Peterson’s general life advice has been timely and extremely relevant. I’d recommend following him on Facebook or Twitter.