Length: 694 pages
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Howard Roark is a visionary architect in a city where individuality is unappreciated. He is brilliant in a time when the world is not ready for it. But he doesn’t care for anything other than his work. Roark refuses to compromise, refuses to bend under the will of society. And society has no choice but to destroy him because he’s too different.
The Fountainhead tells the story of Roark, and of his trials and tribulations. It tells the story of Peter Keating, a man who considered Roark his greatest enemy and attempted to defeat him at every turn. It tells the story of Dominique Francon, a woman who loved Roark passionately but did everything she could to destroy him just so that the world wouldn’t. And it tells the story of Gail Wynand, the epitome of the society against which Roark was pitted. The Fountainhead is Ayn Rand’s epic about a traditional world and the man who challenged the very conventions of which it was comprised.
The Bottom Line:
The Fountainhead is a sometimes cumbersome, always emotional, rollercoaster ride that people need to get on today more than ever before.
If you try to read existing reviews of Ayn Rand’s epic, you’d generally find them polarising – people either love or hate it. I felt a bit of both these emotions. It took me around 40 days to read the book, which is a really long time (for me); the main reason is that there were days when I just didn’t want to pick it up and read. But there were also days when I couldn’t put it down.
So, I’m going to break down this review into a few different parts, addressing different elements of the entire reading experience that I had with The Fountainhead. Hopefully, that will help you determine whether you want to read this famous classic or not, and what to expect should you choose to read it.
First, the story. The basic story of The Fountainhead is not really complicated or philosophical. It’s a slightly different take on ‘good guy versus bad guy’. At its very essence, it is the story of the struggles of a good man against the unyielding principles of a bad one. The only difference is that the bad guy is not one, but many – it’s society.
What bothered me the most about the story (not the philosophy) is that it is very limited in scope. While there are a lot of things happening, the events seem too fantastical. What I mean is that for such events to even happen, the world would have to have a maximum of maybe a hundred people. More than that, and the very basis of society on which the story moves forward would change, rendering the story pretty impossible.
Another thing that was really annoying was the abstractness of the narrative and dialog. There were times when things could have been said a lot more clearly and simply, but there was an abstract element factored in; it may have been intended to make the reader think, but it only served to make points a lot less effective. This book was definitely written to make a reader think, but I’d rather have focused on the philosophical side of it than exert even more energy just understanding basic dialog that is only meant to move the story forward.
Characterization. There is no denying that the characters in The Fountainhead are ones that will probably stick with you for years. But some characters are unbelievably annoying. I mean, sure, you need to make characters a certain way, but why add so much to them that they become downright infuriating? The fact of the matter is that no one is that extreme. Even when a person is built to be more of a ‘passion or nothing’ character, they are not that insane. At times it felt like Rand should have stopped just a step or two before she did to keep her characters human. What is worse though is that these characters, who are the epitome of belief, strength, and principles, randomly change without explanation. For a book that is based on the evolution of certain characters over long periods of time, this change should have been much better explained.
Another thing that was a bit much to take was the length of the book. While the first 150 pages and the last 150 pages have you hooked, the middle 400 just don’t. There were parts that were just unnecessary and, personally, I don’t think it would have lost much if it had been cut down by about 100 pages at least. Also, some parts of the book were just too much of an onslaught on the senses.
Yet, in spite of all those negative points, I can vehemently say that everyone should read this book. Because, here’s the thing: we live in a world where our identities are not determined by us, but by those around us. We rise not on our ability, but by comparing ourselves against others. We live in a time where social acceptance is the most coveted factor that drives almost all our actions (think social media likes and personas which may be so very different than reality). We create a reality for others to see, and we judge our successes, losses, achievements, and failures by comparing them against the reality that others create for us to see.
When, in reality, what we should do is determine our identities only by ourselves, by what we see looking back at us from a mirror. We should compete only with ourselves and rise above where we were the day before, every day. The only one whose acceptance we should need is that of ourself. And the only reality we should concern ourselves with is the one we live in, not the one that we create only to compete against those that others create.
In the rat race that the world has become, everyone gets caught up in living the ideal life. Except, what is that ideal life? We tend to obsess over the ideal we’re missing when we see others living it – generally through social media – even if that’s not really the ideal meant for you. The only ideal that matters is the one you reach when you feel internally happy. And you are the only one capable of making yourself happy.
Having aspirations, goals, and dreams is not wrong. But let them be your own aspirations, your own goals, and your own dreams. Let them be something you meet, achieve, and fulfill for the sense of completion, not because someone else did it and you want to do it better. At first glance, you may feel that this is nothing but selfishness.
But it is those very concepts of ego, selfishness, and selflessness that The Fountainhead redefines. And in doing so, it forces you to look at the world differently. It doesn’t just make you think, it changes your point of view – a perspective that you may have simply ingrained because you need to be a part of, and yet better than (or at least equal to), all those around you. And gaining that perspective is worth all the hours, days, and patience that the book takes to read.
We have gotten caught up in a race in which we’ve never had to run. And we’ve forgotten the race that matters. The Fountainhead changes that. In spite of the many limitations of its story, its philosophy is spot-on and very valid even in today’s day and age. It has universal applicability and the ability to change lives.
I’m an overthinker. Always have been. I’ve even known when I need to stop obsessing about certain things such as past events that I keep revisiting in my head or the massive hesitation before doing something new. Yet, I’ve never been able to let things go. But since I started reading The Fountainhead, I have found myself pausing at such times and asking myself one question.
“What would Howard Roark do?”
And things seem a lot simpler. So, just for that, I’d say that everyone needs to read this book. It may feel incredibly cumbersome at times. But if you can take away the perspective that’s at its core, it’ll be well worth the effort.
In closing, I’d just like to say that the negative points I’ve highlighted may compel some people to say, “It was – and is – brilliant, considering the time in which it was written.” There is no doubt about the brilliance of the vision that drove this book. But as far as thinking of it from a ‘period’ perspective is concerned – the fact is that anyone reading this book is reading it today. Which means that they need to like, love, dislike, or hate it, today. I’ve put this review together keeping in mind that fact and actually not putting too much weight on when it was written. I will always say that it was probably visionary for its time. But that is, and will remain, an opinion that does not influence the way I felt about the book, its characters, its story, and its philosophy.