10 January 2015

Aren't You Glad He Didn't Call It "Dagny Taggart"?

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves Orcs. --John Rogers

It’s been a while since I’ve read either of the books Rogers mentions. I know I read both—at what age, I don’t remember, but I’m sure at a time before my cerebral cortex was fully formed. Actually, now that I think of it, I read them about the same time I started taking bike rides of more than a few miles, which fits into Rogers’ timeline.

To tell you the truth, I don’t think either changed my life significantly. The funny thing is that, even at the tender age I was when I read it, I thought The Lord of the Rings had more developed, more believable characters than Atlas Shrugged.  Saying that J.R.R. Tolkien was a better writer than Ayn Rand is a bit like saying that a Mercian is better than a Murray:  In other words, it almost doesn’t need to be said.  But I simply never have been able to get myself terribly interested in fantasy or science fiction.  It’s not snobbery on my part, as an old partner of mine (whom I accompanied to see a film version of Rings) alleged.  I’m just not interested in science fiction or fantasy in much the same way that I’m not interested in, say, skateboarding: I don’t look down on anyone who loves it, but have no wish to participate in it myself.

On the other hand, for a time in my life, I considered myself a Libertarian. Actually, I still do, at least my opposition to the death penalty and wars other than those purely for defensive purposes—and in my beliefs about individual liberty.  As an example of the latter, while I urge cyclists to wear helmets, I oppose laws mandating the practice.  But I never became one of those people who participated in “Who is John Galt?” discussions because, frankly, I always thought Atlas was a book of shallow thinking and shoddy writing, not worthy of discussion.

I would guess that if a cyclist were to be influenced by—or simply enjoy—either book, it would most likely be Tolkien’s.  One of the best things about his writing is the “journey” aspect:  It’s found, not only in the narrative arc of the story, but in the cadences of the language itself.  Even though I have never developed a taste for the type of stories he wrote, I can imagine reading Rings or The Hobbit again for the writing.  Plus, somehow, I can imagine sharing a cup of tea or even an evening with Tolkien:  He seems like that learned, urbane and friendly prof you liked in college.  Judging from her writings and comments—and some things I’ve learned about her life—I can’t imagine spending such time with Ms. Rand.

I don’t know whether Grant Petersen, the founder of Rivendell Bicycle Works, ever read Atlas or anything else Ayn Rand wrote.  But, of course, we all know he has long been a fan of Tolkien’s tales.  I don’t know when in his life he first read them, but I would guess it was, if not in high school, then in college, especially considering that Tolkien first gained his readership in the US with college students during the 1960s.  Anyway, whatever else I’ve said about him or the stuff his company sells, I’m glad he was influenced by the Oxford oracle.  Think about it:  Wouldn’t you rather ride a bike called “Bombadil” than “Galt”?

Aren't you glad this isn't called a "Dagny Taggart"?

Also, I’ve noticed that fans of Tolkien tend to be more interested than Rand acolytes in literature generally.  Petersen, apparently, as also read, in addition to Tolkien, some of my favorite poets, such as William Wordsworth.  I’m glad:  After all, even though I probably won’t buy one, I’m happy to see one of his bikes named for Betty Foy rather than Dagny Taggart!    


  1. I tried to read the Fountainhead around my senior year, mostly because I was enticed by a scholarship essay contest that the Randians were doing. I think I got maybe halfway through it and couldn't go beyond that.

  2. Urban--In my opinion, there's absolutely no shame in not finishing "The Fountainhead", or any other book by Alyssa Rosenbaum (her birth name). In fact, I think it's a point of honor.

    Her groupies still have the essay contest and scholarship. Most likely, they always will because, if nothing else, they won't lack for money: After all, what poor person would become or remain a Randian?