I have become active in a “Professional Women’s Network” on LinkedIn, and recently, one of the participants posed a question that attracted a huge number of responses (594 to date): “What is the most influential book you have read?”
It has been gratifying to read the outpouring of responses; thankfully, books still are popular and treasured in this age of technology, multi-tasking and 30-second soundbites.
The books mentioned included the standard classics; To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn seem to always be on such lists.
Another popular choice was the Bible. I must admit that I was not among this group – although without a doubt it offers some wonderfully wise parables from which to learn. I value critical thinking, and too many devotees of this ancient tome demand unquestioning fealty. In other words, “everything in the Bible is true because it says it is.”
Still another large group of women cited self-help and business books. One popular favorite was Who Moved My Cheese? One woman described why she likes it this way: “It taught me to drop any sense of entitlement and the importance of embracing change, not fearing it.” However, too often, it is used by corporate HR types who make it required reading by employees who are being moved around like chess pieces and are supposed to be happy about it. (I’m not so sure we should embrace every change without a fight.)
Many business-related and self-help books are excellent, of course, but too many business people – especially those of us in the communications field – need to re-discover the creative inspiration that can come from reading good novels, or nonfiction books on far-afield topics. A good place to start reading outside of your comfort zone (read “rut”) is the All_Nonfiction online reading group on Yahoo. When I have participated, I found myself reading books I never would have chosen otherwise, and I only found one to be a waste.
A surprising number of women cited children’s books. The most often mentioned was Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go. I hadn’t really thought of Dr. Seuss as a philosopher, but upon reviewing his words, I discovered that he was!
Consider this excerpt:
“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
Whew! It’s rather comforting to be reminded that “getting mixed up” is to be expected, and that those harassing individuals along the way are indeed “strange birds.” It can be easy to think you’re all alone.
Here’s another quotable quote:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”`
We all suffer from a lack of a personal sense of agency sometimes. It is so much easier to focus on what circumstances or other people have done to cause our bad luck, than to figure out what we can do now to change it.
My favorite Seuss quote, however, is this: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (Interestingly enough, there are some who question whether this bit of wisdom was actually authored by him. I will go with the majority, who say yes.) It speaks to the way I am striving to live my life now, by savoring the experiences instead of mourning the fact that they don’t last, or take a turn I didn’t dictate.
That’s the secret of the genius of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). He had the gift of being goofy and deep at the same time. Few people know that he first began using his middle name as his nom de guerre while in college. At Dartmouth, Geisel was caught drinking gin with nine friends in his room. As punishment, the dean insisted that he resign from all extracurricular activities, including the college humor magazine. To continue writing for the Jack-O-Lantern without the administration’s knowledge, Geisel began signing his work with the pen name “Seuss.” A man after my own heart….
Other children’s books cited by LinkedIn’s “professional women” as influential are Winnie the Pooh (I have to admit that there is one story about Eeyore, Piglet and Pooh that I reference all the time), Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.
The most surprising pattern among the book nominations, however, and a little shocking, was the number of women who are cheerleaders for Ayn Rand’s books, Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead. (BTW, how many of you know that her first name is pronounced “Eyn,” not “Ann”?) I read her books too, back in high school. And the brainiac, romance-hungry girl that I was (ok, and still am) loved the intense, passionate affairs that are woven through her intense stories, as well as the strong characters who conquer adversity to achieve their goals. It wasn’t until much later, as I became more broadly aware of the world around me and the many conflicting agendas, that I learned of (and began to really understand) Rand’s underlying philosophy and mission. It can be basically summed up as “individualism is good and laws that protect the collective good are bad.” Or rather, let the market rule. (We all saw how well that worked, and for whom, when the men who run the banks were allowed to run amok.)
John Nichols, political writer for The Nation and the author of Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, had this to say on a recent broadcast of Democracy Now: “She was a Russian immigrant—her family, dispossessed by the Russian revolution, came to the United States—and throughout her writing career was a militant opponent of what she called collectivism, but really what she meant was government, and beyond that, a critic even of helping your neighbor. She said that selfishness must be the central organizing precept of your life and that the most important thing was to take care of yourself, don’t worry about others.”
Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at Stanford and the author of Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,further explained her appeal to arch-conservatives, including Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, in a New York Times op-ed: “Rand’s anti-government argument rested on another binary opposition, between ‘producers’ who create wealth and ‘moochers’ who feed off them. This theme has endeared Rand, and Mr. Ryan, to the Tea Party, whose members believe they are the only ones who deserve government aid.” (Unlike other members of the Tea Party, however, Rand is true to her libertarian values on every issue, and also was an atheist who believed the church had no say in how people lived their private lives.)
When I asked the women in the LinkedIn group why they were so inspired by Rand, they replied:
- “If Rand could be boiled down to one essential point it’s that forced altruism by any collective (government, peer or religious) is bad due to its nature of sacrificing everything one has for others, but self-sufficiency, charity and compassion are good because of the conscious rational choice involved. I often think the perfect analogy for Ayn Rand is sitting on an airplane listening to the flight attendant telling us to put our own air mask on then help the person next to us.” [My response: That would be well and good if everyone who has enough money to live well immediately offered that kind of help to everyone else, and their largesse was distributed fairly. However, we only need to examine the many stories of titans such as Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and one of the wealthiest men in the world. He gives a lot of money away, to be sure – but mostly to conservative political causes (such as the election campaign of Mitt Romney and the creation of Jewish-only colonies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories) and not to medical care for the poor or more affordable transportation. Who will finance such services on a reliable, consistent basis, if not for the government?]
- “Rand never opposed charity, rather she opposed entitlements. Rand came from Russia, where she experienced firsthand the economic outcomes of a socialist government. Here is how Ayn Rand’s novels positively influenced my young life: I was born into a family/home/community ravaged by poverty, violence, depravity, mental illness and alcoholism. I was completely orphaned at age 7 and went on to live in a series of government-approved foster homes that were all abusive. Growing up, I heard that I would never amount to anything, that I would likely abuse my own children because I was abused, and that I wouldn’t fit in on a college campus. Ayn Rand was the first person to tell me otherwise. Her philosophy is, in fact, focused on positive ideas such as honesty, integrity, achievement, intellectual growth, responsibility and endless possibilities for success in life. Her suggestion that I am not doomed to the wretched circumstances of my youth provided me with a bridge to the understanding that my DNA, my birthright and my talents come from God, not from my earthly father.” [My response: I am in awe, reading this woman’s story, that she emerged unscathed and I applaud her for making it to the status of “professional woman.” And I totally agree that what shapes us is how we react to events in our lives; we are not doomed by the events themselves or the perpetrators. But it seems to me to be extreme over-reaction and rather tragic to oppose all collective action, including government, because some such institutions did not serve her well. I can offer many other stories illustrating how programs such as Medicare and unemployment insurance have saved lives and helped get people back on their feet.]
These women’s responses helped me better understand what had totally befuddled me before. In other words, what is the matter with Kansas???? Why do people as selfish and greedy as Romney and Ryan attract such a following? They’ve been conned into thinking that as a human race, we are unable to act together to protect and improve life for everyone. Their worldview sort of reminds me of the rules imposed by the Machiavellian creators of the Hunger Games. Save yourself, and forget the others. But think about it…why did Katniss Everdeen win at the end, in part by capturing the imagination and hearts of the audience? She never lost her sense of humanity (unlike most of her fellow captives) and used it to save who she could.