All posts by M Sheffner

Why are Ayn Rand’s novels selling so well?

Quote from novelist Ayn Rand.
Image via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how well Ayn Rand’s books are selling, and some possible reasons.

I found several articles on the Internet on this topic. Here is one which quoted a Wall Street Journal article, which gave 3 reasons for the growing popularity of Atlas Shrugged,

  1. Atlas Shrugged depicted a future in which America descends into economic chaos due to ever-increasing government regulations. … The result is a downward spiral that nearly destroys America. Many Americans are finding Rand’s predictions uncomfortably close to real-life events.
  2. Another reason for Rand’s appeal is her emphasis on the moral dimension. One of her themes was that no country can survive when its government constantly punishes good men for their virtues and rewards bad men for their vices. Americans correctly recognize that it is unjust for the government to take money from those who have lived frugally to bail out those who have lived beyond their means. Honest men should not be forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.
  3. Finally, Atlas Shrugged resonates with many Americans because they recognize that our current crisis is not just about bailouts and budget deficits. It’s also about a more fundamental issue — the proper scope of government.

Today, I found another article about Atlas Shrugged and how it is relevant to what is happening in the US today: Rand’s Atlas is Shrugging with a Growing Load.

“Atlas Shrugged” is becoming a political “Harry Potter” because Rand shone a spotlight on a problem that still exists: Not pre-1989 Soviet communism, but 2009-style state capitalism. Rand depicted government and companies colluding in the name of economic rescue at the expense of the entrepreneur. That entrepreneur is like the titan Atlas who carries the rest of the world on his shoulders — until he doesn’t.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #9, June 3rd, 2009: The novel of ideas

Atlas Shrugged
Image by Rodrigo Paoletti via Flickr

Today, we read another excerpt from Ayn Rand‘s novel Atlas Shrugged. We read the scene where Hank Rearden‘s mother comes to his office to persuade him to give his younger brother, Philip, a job.

The participant who borrowed my Japanese translation of Atlas Shrugged last week, brought it back today: she had finished reading it. All 1,200 pages! She gave us some useful background information about the story. Another participant promptly borrowed the book.

We had a wide-ranging discussion which included the following:

  1. Why is Atlas Shrugged so popular today in the US?
  2. What is capitalism (and free-market economics)?
  3. What is socialism?
  4. What was the New Deal?
  5. What is the meaning of Karl Marx‘ dictum  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need“?

Ayn Rand was a supporter of capitalism, of individualism, of free-market economics, of libertarianism (自由主義思想 ).

She believed that capitalism was losing popularity because many people did not fully understand the true meaning of capitalism and of socialism, nor did they understand the philosophical, economic, and moral basis for capitalism. She wrote her novels partly to educate people about these matters and partly to illustrate her philosophy “in action”.

We discussed the philosophies or principles underlying what Hank Rearden says and what his mother says.

One principle which we did not discuss directly, but which is closely connected to our discussion today, is the principle (sometimes called the “axiom”) of non-aggression: that anything is permitted except the use of force or aggression against other people. People can use force or violence to defend themselves or their property, but may not initiate violence or aggression against other people to make them do things they do not want to do.

Ayn Rand believed in the power of philosophy. Philosophy – who needs it? is a good essay to read to understand why she thought philosophy was so important. Click  here for a Japanese translation).

For more information in Japanese about Ayn Rand, visit 藤森かよこの日本アイン・ランド研究会

Although she wrote about capitalism, Ayn Rand was not an economist. If you want to learn more about free-market economics, I recommend an easy-to-read book  Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt (I cannot find a Japanese translation of this; if you know of one, or – even better – a good Japanese book on free-market economics, please tell me).

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #8, May 27th, 2009: The novel of ideas

August-12-2008-01
Image by morgret via Flickr

Today’s session began with a summary from one of our participants of A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. We read an extract from this novel earlier this year in session #3. Although this story does not have a happy ending, it is still rather lighter in tone than later novels by Hardy.

This novel exists in Japanese translation, but it is out of print.

I recommend Far From the Madding Crowd by Hardy (Japanese title is 遥か群衆を離れて)

Then we read the selection for that day, which was a couple of segments from the first part of Ayn Rand‘s second blockbuster, Atlas Shrugged.

We discussed the meaning and some of the economic, geographical and philosophical background.

One participant borrowed my Japanese translation of Atlas Shrugged.

We will continue next week with another section of Atlas Shrugged.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Ayn Rand and the Novel of Ideas

Atlas Shrugged
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

According to this press release on the website of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, sales of Rand’s blockbuster Atlas Shrugged have greatly increased this year and last year:

Reports from trade sources indicate that consumer purchases of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged have tripled in the first four months of 2009 compared to the first four months of 2008…. “Annual sales of Atlas Shrugged have been increasing for decades to a level not seen in Ayn Rand’s lifetime. Sales of the U.S. paperback editions averaged 74,000 copies a year in the 1980s, 95,000 copies a year in the 1990s and 139,000 copies a year in the current decade. After reaching an all-time high during the novel’s 50th anniversary in 2007, another new high was reached in 2008 and an even higher mark is expected for 2009.”

More than 6,500,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date.

This short blog entry Ayn Rand and the Tea Party Protests gives 3 reasons why so many people are buying and reading Atlas Shrugged:

Stephen Moore identified one reason in his Wall Street Journal column, “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Atlas Shrugged depicted a future in which America descends into economic chaos due to ever-increasing government regulations. Each new problem spawns new government controls that merely deepen the crisis. The result is a downward spiral that nearly destroys America. Many Americans are finding Rand’s predictions uncomfortably close to real-life events.

Another reason for Rand’s appeal is her emphasis on the moral dimension. One of her themes was that no country can survive when its government constantly punishes good men for their virtues and rewards bad men for their vices. Americans correctly recognize that it is unjust for the government to take money from those who have lived frugally to bail out those who have lived beyond their means. Honest men should not be forced to pay for the irresponsibility of others.

Finally, Atlas Shrugged resonates with many Americans because they recognize that our current crisis is not just about bailouts and budget deficits. It’s also about a more fundamental issue — the proper scope of government.

Yaron Brook, Director of the Ayn Rand Center, writes on the Fox News website about a fundamental point of Atlas Shrugged:

“Atlas Shrugged” argues that ideas shape society. A society that values reason, the individual, and freedom creates the United States of America. A society that denounces the mind, preaches self-sacrifice, and worships the collective creates Nazi Germany. What “Atlas” shows is how our culture’s ideas–particularly its ideas about morality–are moving us step by step away from the Founding Fathers’ ideal.

Ayn Rand
Image via Wikipedia
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #7: Defamiliarization

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë
Image via Wikipedia

In today’s session, we read an extract from Charlotte Bronte‘s novel Villette. The scene is in an art museum. The heroine, Lucy Snowe, has been brought there by Dr. John Bretton, a handsome English doctor who has taken a brotherly interest in her. Dr. Bretton escorts her to various art museums but leaves her there to explore the paintings on her own. In the museum, Lucy finds herself facing a picture of a nude woman: she guesses her weight and estimates how much butcher’s meat it required to feed her up to that size, wonders why the young lady is lying down as it is broad daylight outside in the painting and the woman is clearly young and fit; expresses disapproval of the young lady’s scant attire, despite being surrounded bylots of material:

Out of abundance of material – seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery – she managed to make insufficient raiment.

The traditional still-life decorations in a painting such as this also receive short shrift:

Then for the wretched untidiness surrounding her there could be no excuse. Pots and pans – perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets – were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor.

Then the punchline:

On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name “Cleopatra“.

There followed a lively discussion about the concept of defamiliarization, which is the English translation of ostranenie (literally “making strange”), a term invented by a Russian and published in an essay of 1917 by Victor Shklovsky.

The next session will be in 1 month, May 27th, and the topic will be “The Novel of Ideas”. The text will be 2 extracts from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged. In the May 27th session, we will read the passages (one about people’s doubts about the John Galt Line, the other a scene between Hank Rearden and his mother who comes to plead with her son to give his brother a job), then discuss the ideas that lie behind the text.

In the following session, June 3rd, we will discuss Rand’s philosophy and the role that ideas and concepts play in daily life, especially the relation between some of her ideas and the financial crisis of today. Depending on interest, we may continue the topic into a 3rd session, and examine other novels of ideas, such as 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Image via Wikipedia
Depiction of the death of Cleopatra VII by Reg...
Image via Wikipedia
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #6: The Unreliable Narrator (and the epistolary novel) April 1st, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro (b.
Image via Wikipedia

In today’s session, we read an extract from Kazuo Ishiguro‘s novel The Remains of the Day, as an example of “the unreliable narrator” technique.

We also read an extract from Michael Frayn‘s The Trick of It (1989), as an example of the epistolary novel.

We had a long discussion about The Remains of the Day, with different opinions about Mr Steven’s character, personality, and morality.

The BBC interviewed Kazuo Ishiguro in November 2004, and you can listen to the interview here (in English only, and no text, unfortunately). There is a 2006 interview with Ishiguro published in Japanese here (no audio; text only).

A famous example of an exchange of letters which I referred to today was 84 Charing Cross Road (I believe I told you “85” and that was incorrect). This is not fiction, however, so it cannot accurately be called an epistolary novel. (It was made into a movie in 1987, which, like the movie Remains of the Day also starred Anthony Hopkins.)

The next session will be April 22nd, and the topic will be “Defamiliarization” (in Japanese 異化).

Once again, thanks for coming and for joining in and making it such a lively event.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #5: Names and naming

Charming My Name!
Image by jpellgen via Flickr

Session #5: Names and naming, March 17th, 2009

Texts for today’s session:

  1. How Far Can You Go? (1980) by David Lodge
  2. Nice Work (1988), by David Lodge
  3. City of Glass (1985), by Paul Auster. This is the first book in the New York Trilogy.

In session #4, we read an extract from Virginia Woolf‘s novel Mrs Dalloway. One participant pointed out that the movie The Hours (in Japanese here), which is a fictitious story about (the real) Virginia Woolf and (the fictitious) Mrs Dalloway, is being shown on the cable television channel Movie Plus on the 21st, 27th, and 29th of March, in case you are interested.

I haven’t seen the movie, or read the story, but I notice that the music for the movie was written by Philip Glass, an American whose ethereal, electronic music was quite popular in France in the 70s. (Glass also wrote the music for a new movie called the Watchmen).

There is a BBC interview with David Lodge talking about his book “Nice Work” here (audio only)

Thank you all for attending today. I hope you enjoyed it and felt “Hmmmm. Interesting!”

Session #6 will be on April 1st, and the topic will be “the unreliable narrator“.  I will email you the materials for that session in the next few days.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue

Cover of "Mrs. Dalloway"
Cover of Mrs. Dalloway

Session #4: Stream of Consciousness & Interior Monologue, March 4th, 2009

Two texts for today:

  1. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce

We read the first two paragraphs of “Mrs. Dalloway”, chosen to illustrate the “stream of consciousness“, and two short extracts from “Ulysses”, chosen to illustrate the “interior monologue” technique.

Both of these techniques allow the reader to “listen” directly to the thoughts of a character, without an intermediary explanation by an all-knowing narrator. The “stream of consciousness” is often mixed with the narrative voice, but the reader has to guess which is which.

The “stream of consciousness” technique was a development of an earlier technique called “free indirect style”, a technique used frequently by Jane Austen.

The “interior monologue” or “internal monologue” is more difficult to read: because there is no explanation or mediation by the narrator, and because the author is trying to give us the raw thoughts of a character. When we think, we know the context of our thoughts, we do not explain them. The lack of context makes it hard for the reader, though.

Here’s an extract from “Ulysses” to illustrate:

On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. In the trousers I left off. Must get it. Potato I have.

The first sentence is the narrator’s voice. From the second sentence onwards we are “listening” to the thoughts of the character (Leopold Bloom, the “Ulysses” of the title).  The verb is left out, as it often is in our own thoughts. The other sentences are also a kind of shorthand, but the reader can fill in the blanks. The final sentence, “Potato I have” is completely baffling, unless you know that Leopold habitually carries a potato in his pocket for good luck.

The second extract we read comes from later in the novel, and illustrates how one thought leads to another by a quick process of association. Stephen Dedalus watches two nuns/midwives walking on the beach. He recalls that one such midwife assisted at his own birth. He glimpses some knitting in her bag and imagines the strand of wool as a navel cord, and the knitting as a “misbirth” “hushed in ruddy wool”. The idea of a navel cord makes him think of the genetic links that connect all human beings, going back to our original “mother”, Eve. “Navel” reminds him of “navel gazing”, or meditation. His knowledge of Greek  tells him the Greek word for navel, “omphalos” Somehow, the “cord” or cable, together with the idea of monks meditating in order to connect with God, gives Dedalus the hilarious idea of telephoning Eden: “Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.”

Reading this kind of text is very hard work, and requires either a great deal of knowledge, particularly of other languages and literature, or some kind of reference guide.  But it can also be very satisfying.  Joyce did not use this technique throughout his novel “Ulysses”: that would have been too much, for both reader and author.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #3: Mystery & Suspense

Session #3, February 25th, 2009.

Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr
Suspense by excellent lunch on Flickr

Today’s themes were mystery and suspense.

To illustrate the various meanings of suspense, I chose a passage from Thomas Hardy‘s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). You can read the passage for yourself online. It is from Chapter 22 and begins “At first, when death appeared improbably because it had never visited him before…”. In order to understand the situation, you need to read Chapter 21.

Henry Knight, out on the cliffs of Dorset, slips down a slope above a cliff, as he tries to catch his hat blown off by a gust of wind. Before the eyes of his horrified companion, Elfride Swancourt, he finds himself unable to climb back up the grassy slope as it is now wet from a shower of rain. She tries to help him, but only succeeds in pushing him further down, and his legs slip over the edge of the cliff. He’s only hanging on by his arms.

A real “cliffhanger”! The word “suspense” originally means “hanging”, and still has this meaning in “suspension bridge”. From the meaning of “hanging” came the meaning of “waiting impatiently to know what happens next”. In this example, both meanings of “suspense” are illustrated.

In addition, the excerpt illustrates the meaning of a synonymouse phrase, “cliffhanger”, which refers to a story or movie full of suspense.  Hardy’s tale “A Pair of Blue Eyes” is considered the origin of this phrase, as the narrative leaves Henry Knight hanging over the edge of the cliff, holding on only by his arms, his feet over empty space and the sea “an eighth of a mile” below, gradually losing his strength. The narrative follows his thoughts and feelings as he becomes increasingly desperate.

To illustrate “mystery”, I chose an excerpt from another writer of suspense stories, Wilkie Collins‘ (Japanese here)  “The Moonstone” (1868).  T. S. Eliot called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It contains many elements that later became staples of the English detective story, for example in those by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers: a large number of suspects, red herrings, an English country house, investigation by talented amateurs, and two police officers who represent the ‘local bungler’ and the skilled, professional, Scotland Yard detective.

Although I did not realize it at the time, other novels by Collins also offer examples of the “cliffhanger”:  “Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?” “Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don’t forget; a woman in white. Drive on.” (The Woman in White).

“The Moonstone” is also an example of a novel which is told in the form of letters written by various characters; such novels are called epistolary novels (Japanese here), and have a long history in English literature. Jane Austen originally intended “Pride and Prejudice” to be in this form, but later abandoned the idea.

Epistolary novels often contain letters by different characters which describe the same event from different points of view. This leads naturally to another technique of fiction, the unreliable narrator: as we read different accounts of the same event, doubt appears – which character is telling the truth? Which narrator can we rely on? This fascinating development is made possible by the use of letters; it is much more difficult to throw doubt on the reliability of a narrator when there is only one narrator. The reader’s natural impulse is to take the narrator’s version as the truth, at least until some evidence appears to contradict it.

Difficult though it is to throw doubt when only a single narrator is used, this was accomplished with remarkable success by Kazuo Ishiguro (Japanese here) in his novel about an English butler in a large country house, “The Remains of the Day” (Japanese here).  Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that the feat was accomplished even in the movie version of this novel.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Session #2: Author and narrator

Into the Woods Narrator
Image by P Wood via Flickr

Session #2, February 4th, 2009.

The texts used today were:

  1. The first paragraph of Adam Bede (1859)  by George Eliot
  2. an excerpt from “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent” (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne,
  3. an excerpt from How Far Can You Go?? (1980) by David Lodge, and
  4. an excerpt from Nice Work (1988), also by David Lodge.

In “Adam Bede”, George Eliot uses an intrusive narrator’s voice:

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far‐reaching visions of the past.  This is what I undertake to do for you,  reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of our Lord, 1799.

In “Tristram Shandy”, Laurence Sterne actually berates an imaginary reader with whom he has a conversation: he orders the inattentive reader to go back and read the last few pages again.  While she is “gone”, he then talks directly to the “remaining” reader, with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness or cruelty, but from the best of motives… ‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself, – of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infalliby impart with them.”

In the David Lodge extracts, we again have a narrator who  talks directly to the reader: “a girl you have not yet been introduced to…” and “I like the connotations of Violet – shrinking, penitential, melancholy…” The second extract provides a similar example: “And there, for the time being, let us leave Vic Wilcox, while we travel back an hour or two in time, a few miles in space, to meet a very different character.”

All of these examples also illustrate another technique of fiction called “breaking frame”. This expression originates from a sociologist called Erving Goffman (Japanese here) who created a concept called frame analysis or framing. A “frame” means a set of rules, expectations or stereotypes about a particular situation.

In the movies, one of the rules is that the actors should never look at the camera: this maintains the fiction that there is no camera, that we are watching something actually happening. This fiction is a pretence that everyone agrees to, a rule that everyone agrees to play by.  If a character looks straight at the camera, it reminds the viewers that the whole thing is a fiction, that everybody in front of the camera is playing FOR the camera. This is called “breaking frame”.

In literature, one of the “rules” is that the narrator refers only to the story being told, and not to the relationship between the narrator and the reader, for example, by addressing the reader directly. If the narrator addresses the reader directly, as Laurence Sterne does, it “breaks” the “frame”: it reminds us that there is no “action”, there are no real characters; everything is invented out of the author’s imagination, including the narrator!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]