I’m sitting in a rocking chair, drinking iced tea, listening to the hum of the combine two fields away, and trying to remember what was on my mind when I was 28. What did I believe in so passionately that I wanted everyone else to know about? More specifically, what writer was so important, so inspiring, that I gave everyone copies of his or her books for Christmas?
Memory Lane is a bumpy road. In my late twenties, I was still in recovery from my immersion in the ideological swamps of the 1960s. I found solace in poetry. I read a lot of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, not exactly joy reading, but I also read Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Stevie Smith.
Although I frequently quoted Not Waving but Drowning, I never thrust copies of Smith’s poetry into hands saying: ‘You’ve got to read this!’ What’s got me thinking about the books that made me is Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin congressman and Republican vice-presidential nominee. Early in his congressional career (he was first elected aged 28), he gave copies of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents. He wanted to share his Capitalist heroine with others because she was ‘the reason I got into public service’.
I confess that, until Mitt Romney introduced him last week as ‘the next president of the United States’ without nary so much as an ‘uh-oh, let me rephrase that’, all I knew about the sinewy Mr Ryan was his role in opposing every piece of legislation that went before Congress during the Obama administration. Now I know more about Mr Ryan than I know about my own brothers-in-law. I know that he is a devout Catholic, that he catches catfish by hand (he grabs them by the mouth) and his body fat is below 8%.
I know he comes from hardworking stock: his great-granddaddy started out with a team of mules, got a job building a railroad embankment and ended up creating a firm that’s built some of the biggest infrastructure projects ever built with taxpayers’ money. (It’s a good story, but not half as good as Mr Romney’s: his great-granddaddy had five wives and became a fugitive hunted down by federal marshals for trying to establish polygamy in the south-west).
But my interest in Mr Ryan concerns his youthful taste in literature. Frankly, I think a man edging towards 30 who still admires Rand is either a slow developer or just plain weird. By then, she’d published her book For the New Intellectual, a distillation of her philosophy reduced to pithy sound bites such as: ‘It was the morality of altruism that undercut America and is now destroying her’; ‘The first right on Earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself.’ ‘To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you.’ Lord have mercy.
Even more weird is how Rand’s philosophy of One for One and None for All propelled this fellow into a life of public service. Did his early report cards say ‘does not understand what he reads’?
Still, I’m a tolerant soul, and I reckon we all edit out our book-shelves over the years. For Mr Ryan, it’s a case of political expediency. In his speeches he now speaks of Thomas Aquinas (probably not the ‘Beware of the person of one book’ quote), although politically he’s stayed faithful to his cranky old mentor who disliked taxes, hated the welfare state and believed altruism was the root of all evil.
Meanwhile, for the sake of research, I just called my sister to ask if she remembers the books I gave her back in the olden days when I was 30-something.
‘Two birthdays in a row you gave me Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The Christmas I married Tom you gave me The Female Eunuch.’
‘Gosh. Did you like them?’
‘Never read them. Your taste in books has always been weird.’
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