Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review - Anthem

On a whim, I decided to read Anthem by Ayn Rand. I'd noticed it popping up on Middle School and High School reading lists in recent years. Since this book wasn't part of the reading curriculum in my school years I was curious to read it and see why it was being revisited now.

As I started reading I made a couple of early observations. First was the odd usage of point of view and pronouns. If you've read the synopsis or any brief outlines of the book you are aware that this book is set in a dystopia where individualism has been eradicated to the sense that the idea of "I" or "me" has been eliminated. Thus, while the book is written in "first person", it is written in first person "plural." That is, the narrator speaks and writes using "we" to narrate rather than "I." Even as he speaks of actions he did alone, he writes "we" rather than "I."

The other observation I made was that of simplicity. The sentence structure and the delivery of ideas and concepts was very blunt and matter of fact. While there were certainly a lot of nuances and details still left to be learned about this world and the people inhabiting it, the sentences and observations were very to the point. As such, Rand's messages quickly became very clear and often felt a little heavy handed and over the top.

As you might expect in a world without individualism, I found the characters and the world to lack in terms of depth. Our narrator (whose name was "Equality-7###") was the only character with any depth to him at all and that was presented as an abomination and subversive to society. Indeed, everyone and everything was expected to be precisely the same and completely equal.

The story of the book progresses as you might expect with the primary tension being because of the narrator's break from same-ness and the consequences of that break if, and when, it is discovered. With more than a century of dystopic fiction (and a recent resurgence in the past decade), it was fairly easy to predict how things might play out. As a result, the story and the plot obviously aren't the most compelling things about this book.

Rather, this book is more a book of philosophy. As the title suggests, this could be seen as a sort of celebration or eulogy. This book is meant as a way for readers to forge their own personal "anthem" in celebration of their individualism and rights to be their own person.

The philosophies presented by this book are natural expressions of the author's personal struggles in Russia and her opposition to Communism. But why might this novel be finding its way back onto school desks in America in the 21st century? Without getting too political, I can see a couple of reasons.

First, as I mentioned above there's been a recent growth in the popularity of dystopian fiction. Kids are latching onto this genre and devouring it. Schools can attempt to tap into this popularity by prescribing dystopian literature as part of the curriculum. But the schools will likely want to steer clear of work that is too violent or racy. As a result, we find a book like Anthem that contains almost no violence or anything else to push it beyond a "PG" rating.

Secondly, and I think this speaks somewhat to the popularity of dystopian novels now generally, people are more and more dissatisfied with the state of things and are seeking ways to analyze and overcome the problems they see within society. Studying this and other dystopian novels is a way to have a "safe" conversation about a fictional society and then to ponder the potential relation to the real world and our out thoughts and ideals.

Another thought occurred to me while of strong familiarity. As I read, I kept finding myself thinking of other novels, most particularly The Giver by Lois Lowry. Knowing that The Giver frequently shows up as school reading, I could see lesson plans reading both novels and then writing papers or doing presentations comparing and contrasting the two novels or perhaps writing their own short story dystopia.

Curious as to if Anthem had influenced The Giver, I did a few searches and found this post from Lois Lowry speaking in response to claims of similarities (or outright plagiarism) that she sometimes receives. As I've often pointed out to people, there are few stories/movies/etc. that I would call 100% original. Everything has similarities somewhere. And when you look within very specific genres you will likely find even more similarities. In my mind, these similarities don't suggest plagiarism but rather that two (or more) individuals had similar ideas that they presented in similar ways. Sometimes the timing and the similarities are uncanny (I remember discussions when the movies "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" were released so closely together...while high level ideas had similarities, there were plenty of differences). In cases where an author has experienced a previous work, there are sometimes even more similarities. I think an author should be aware of this but if the author has an idea they want to share in their own way, they should do so. That's my long-winded way of saying that you shouldn't shout " plagiarism" unless an author is blatantly and obviously copying something without paying homage or presenting their own ideas and concepts.

Overall, I found Anthem to be a thoughtful read. The story and characters were naturally flat but the ideas and concepts were interesting even if the author really beat you over the head with them. As to the relevance of this story in our modern era of personal freedoms, there is still plenty of space for improvement even in the most open societies. As a piece of literature and philosophy, we can learn from Anthem and use it to inspire conversations moving forward. While it's certainly not the most eloquent or profound piece of writing, it is a worthwhile read and gives good food for thought.

3 out of 5 stars

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