Tuesday, May 1, 2012


I wrote this essay in 1998, and I published it independently on a bit of web space I was allotted by the first ISP I ever signed up with. Aside from rants on alt.movies.kubrick, it's the first thing I ever published online, and it was soon noticed by the influential proto-blog Suck.com, who liked it so much they devoted half a day's edition to it. I present it here, now as an archival curio that still holds up, if I do say so myself. Enjoy! - YOPJ
Reading Does a Body Good!

In early 1998, the Modern Library Association (a division of Random House) assembled a group of America's leading literary figures in order to compile a list of the "100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th century." Even though it was a marketing ploy obviously geared towards getting more Americans to peruse Random House's catalog of classic literary works, THE LIST was given major coverage by many international media outlets, including CNN and most of the various news-oriented magazines. For the first time in a long time, it seemed, books were "big news."

A Dry, White Reading List

Ultimately, THE LIST turned out to be a somewhat stodgy, predictable affair, populated by the stalwart giants of literary Modernism. No one was surprised, for instance, when James Joyce's Ulysses came out on top, with his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man coming in third, after the obligatory appearance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Likewise, anyone who's spent any amount of time in a university English class could have told you that Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner and Henry James would each see at least two of their works gracing THE LIST. The inclusion of such required-reading mainstays as 1984, Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, Animal Farm and Brave New World was also expected. It would have been difficult to engineer a less controversial, more mainstream list than the one compiled by the Modern Library Board. And yet...


Mere days after the Modern Library Association published it on their website, THE LIST began to cause a stir. Web-surfers were invited to vote for their own favorite novels in the on-line Reader's Choice poll and, if they so desired, leave comments about THE LIST on the website's public discussion forum. The Readers' Choice poll results, which were featured side-by-side with THE LIST, were instantaneously updated with every vote cast. Surprisingly, like some municipal election in a Louisiana back-water - or inner-city Chicago - there was no limit on the amount of times a single individual could vote.

The forum quickly transformed into an electronic complaints department. Some of the comments were as predictable as THE LIST itself... "Female novelists were given short shrift," some said. "Where are the novelists of color?" others asked. "Most of the books on this list were written by DEAD WHITE guys!" still more proclaimed. "What about Lord of the Rings? Dune? Stranger in a Strange Land? The Stand? The Autobiography of Malcolm X?" Never mind that many of the books people voted for simply didn't meet THE LIST's most basic criteria; people wanted to see their favorites up there in the Reader's Choice Top 100. Therefore, in the early days of the list (before the webmasters decided to step in and perform occasional clean-up duties), The Bible, Dianetics and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance all got hundreds of votes as being among the best English Language Novels of the 20th Century.

Like 'Anus' Without the 'Us' 

One group, however, was particularly incensed at their fave rave's omission from THE LIST. Fans and followers of the novelist, pseudo-philosopher and cult leader Ayn Rand flocked to the Modern Library website in droves. There, they spammed the Reader's Choice poll with multiple votes for her massive, rambling doorstop odes to the 'true' heroes and masters of the universe: union-busting industrialists, terrorism-prone architects and... bankers. Within hours, hordes of brainwashed Randroid sycophants, self-professed 'individualists' with a paradoxically intense desire for the status-quo validation to which such glorified popularity contests amount, had sent Atlas Shrugged rocketing to the top of the pops. The Fountainhead, We the Living and Anthem followed closely behind.

Not content with spoiling the Readers' Choice poll for anyone genuinely interested in the results such an exercise might yield, the Randroids proceeded to take over the public forum with their whining complaints, their accusations of rampant, conspiratorial political correctness on the Board's part, their denigration of great novelists for perceived obscurantism, and their proclamations of devotion to the revealed truths contained within the writings of the greatest political thinker of all time: Ayn Rand. One can only imagine the twisted wreckage of a brain that would produce statements of such gleeming, gem-like stupidity as the following...
"No single author has had a greater impact upon the political and economic direction of this country through her fiction than Ayn Rand. That claim will be ignored rather than refuted by the fearful leaders of this country, particularly those affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations, but none can deny the continuing popularity of her works despite the shunning of most reviewers for over 50 years."
This is the kind of deathless prose one might expect to find scrawled on the walls of a padded cell, in blue crayon, repeated over and over again in a tight, chicken-scratch script. And, sadly, it is indicative of the general calibre of literary criticism and insight offered by those Randroids who chose to grace the public forum with their illuminated views.

In reaction to the Randroid invasion, some people began to vote for such fake Rand novels as I Want to Blow Monkeys and Irony Defined. Yet another merry prankster got Anything Not Written by Ayn Rand on the list, and it recieved quite a few votes before being unceremoniously yanked by the powers that be. For a while, William Shatner's Tekwar was functioning as a de facto protest vote, even giving Atlas Shrugged a run for its money, before it, too, got yanked. Also, the public discussion forum began to smolder with anti-Rand sentiment and comments.

And so it was that, within hours of posting the results of their official list of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, the Modern Library website found itself hosting one of the most virulent, nastiest, most glorious flame-wars in the history of the Internet. 


Their Own Worst Enemies

Not unlike the virgin who, on the night of his deflowering, sees himself as being instantaneously transformed into a virtuoso lover of Casanovian proportions, so, too, the Randroid. For instance, upon first completing one of her longer novels, the average Randroid often feels a great sense of intellectual accomplishment. Simply because he managed to finish a REALLY BIG BOOK, the Randroid seems to feel qualified to hold forth on issues of literary merit. When his proclamations are shot down and his protests fall flat, the Randroid retreats into a paranoid rationalization. He blames a conspiratorial "elite," a statist, anti-individualist establishment which so fears the liberating truths contained within Rand's works that they have constructed a net of clever sophistry from which it is nigh impossible to extricate oneself.

The same goes for Rand's so-called "philosophical" books. For most fans of her novels, Rand's For the New Intellectual, An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and Philosophy; Who Needs It? are the first (and only) books on philosophy they will ever read. And, just as knowing nothing about literature doesn't stop a Randroid from making authoritative proclamations about what 'good' literature should aspire to be, a lack of even the most basic background in philosophy doesn't prevent him from declaring that we should discard all previous modes of thought as worthless and adopt Objectivism wholesale. Inevitably, the Randroid's arguments are shot down, and, invariably, the Randroid takes his defeats as further proof of both Objectivism's status as a persecuted ideology, as well as (paradoxically) its correctness. This, of course, is the modus operendi of zealotry.

Are Objectivists Fundamentalists?

It is ironic that Objectivism, an explicitly atheist philosophy, has much in common with religion. For instance, like most religions, Objectivism is a hermetically sealed, self-perpetuating construct. Arguments with Randroids invariably devolve into "it is so because Ayn Rand says it is so." So, what are some of the similarities between Objectivism and religious fundamentalism?

Both are essentially messianic, their doctrines dependant upon revealed truths offered up by authoritative figureheads. A perusal of various Randroid websites offers ample proof that, to the Objectivist, Ayn Rand serves as nothing less than a secular Christ (or, at the very least, a Zarathustra: bringer of thunder and lightening to the trembling, unworthy masses).

Both religious fundamentalists and Objectivists are convinced that the rest of us can't go on living without learning the undeniable, revealed truths endorsed by their masters. Thus, both are enthusiastically evangelical. At least Scientologists, despicable though they may be, have the decency to be so ashamed of their lunatic beliefs that they spend millions of dollars in lawsuits trying to keep them secret.

And, finally, both would have all of humanity bow down to their respective belief-systems, no matter what the democratic or legislative will of the people. 

 Is Objectivism a Cult? 

Here, for your perusal, is the final, official version of the Modern Library Readers' Choice Top Ten Novels of the 20th century...

1. ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand 
3. BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard 
4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien 
6. 1984 by George Orwell 
7. ANTHEM by Ayn Rand 
8. WE THE LIVING by Ayn Rand 
9. MISSION EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard 
10. FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard 

I suspect 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird sneak in there thanks to the fact that they are both extremely popular among high-school students, and frequently appear on academic required reading lists. As for Tolkien, his Lord of the Rings is merely ubiquitous, and its appearance not surprising. Hubbard and Rand's multiple placings, however, are another matter altogether. 

Hubbard was the founder of Scientology, one of the most controversial scam religious movements of all time. Even in death, he holds authoritarian sway over his worshipers, therefore cultish mass-spamming by his devotees is to be expected. Rand, on the other hand, founded a philosophy which was supposedly based on extreme individualism and personal freedom of thought. I can't imagine anything more amusingly ironic than the idea of hundreds upon thousands of self-declared free-thinkers and individualists, huddled in monastic intensity over their keyboards, voting for Rand's novels again and again and again, desperately questing for the collectivist accolades that come with winning a glorified online popularity contest.

The fact that they succeeded is doubly ironic.

The End of All Things

In his essay The Unlikeliest Cult in History, Michael Shermer provides us with perhaps the most succinct and eloquent explanation of why Rand's philosophy flourishes only in society's dark and lonely corners, unable to withstand the light of day.
"As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can become more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up to be the final moral arbiter of other people's actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it is the beginning of the end of tolerance and thus, reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group, dangerous to individual freedom. This was (and is) the biggest flaw in Ayn Rand's Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history. The historical development and ultimate destruction of her group and philosophy is the empirical evidence to support this logical analysis."
 What About THE LIST?

Ultimately, as regards both THE LIST and the Reader's Choice poll, one may be forced to side with the editors of The New York Times, who state: "The streets will be littered with lists like this when the millennium comes, and when the millennium goes they will be swept into heaps and forgotten."

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