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100 Voices

March 18th, 2011 by Myrhaf · 6 Comments · Book Reviews, Uncategorized

I thought 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand by Scott McConnell might be tedious. How many times can you read that Frank O’Connor didn’t say much? (About 100 times.) The book turned out to be fascinating. I could not put it down.

Ayn Rand lived a remarkable life, even though she mostly stayed at home. Her main pursuits were writing and intellectual conversation. What makes her life an adventure is that she lived consciously. She looked for the principles behind what people said and did.

She always looked to integrate new facts with the rest of her knowledge. I think you could say she lived an integrated life; concrete and principle, theory and practice, fact and value were all integrated. Thus many of the mundane facts of life people talk about in this book take on a greater interest because they reflect the philosophy by which she lived.

Ayn Rand also had a sense of drama and a knack for witty rejoinders that keep the book lively. When her Christian housekeeper met her as she was dying, she said, “This is not going to be a death-bed conversion!”

We learn many new things in this book. We’ve been told before she didn’t like facial hair on men, but now we know that she dealt with bearded men in a teasing way, not as some rude anti-facial hair fanatic. In fact, one of the themes that comes out, in interview after interview, is that she was the opposite of people’s preconception of her. She was well mannered and gracious, and there was not a speck of diva in her. She thought of herself as a middle class American, and acted like one.

The book starts on a negative note with the interviews of Ayn’s appalling sister Nora. Nora did not like America because there were too many brands of toothpaste and no one to dictate to her which one to buy. So she went back to her paradise, the Soviet Union, where she lived in security, knowing that the state would provide one kind of toothpaste and relieve her of the anxiety of choice. (I assume the toothpaste problem resumed when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Who told her what brand to buy then?)

Nora hated the book We the Living. She said of it, “I can’t admire this falsehood. Go ahead, judge me!”

Consider yourself judged, Nora.

There are many other fascinating interviews, from Objectivists to her Trotskyite editor at New American Library, Patrick O’Connor. O’Connor might have been an old leftist, but he was also an honest man who saw that Rand’s books kept NAL in existence. He was outraged that none of the other leftist editors would even read the books that paid their keep.

Cynthia Peikoff shows how Barbara Branden mischaracterized her last meeting with Ayn Rand. Books like this are an act of justice in that they correct the smears of Rand’s enemies.

The book has a climax of sorts. It ends with a 36-page interview with Harry Binswanger that looks at Ayn Rand’s character in more philosophical depth than most of the other interviews.

This is a book any fan of Ayn Rand will find entertaining and informative.

6 Comments so far ↓

  • North Bridge

    I received the book a few days ago and have started browsing it, and I am finding it utterly fascinating. There have been various testimonials through the years that sought to give a concrete sense of what Ayn Rand was like in person — each has given delightful glimpses into her personality, but somehow this book manages to convey the concrete reality much more powerfully.

    I don’t think it is just the book’s length or the number of new anecdotes. I think there is an epistemological value, in this case, to having the perspectives of so many different individuals: It makes it very easy to distinguish the reality from the personal perspectives of particular observers. You are not viewing her from the standpoint of one relationship, but seeing her in action across a hundred different relationships.

    Also, there is no narrator here to tell you what she was like and then illustrate with examples. You are in effect given an abundance of concrete material and left to draw your own abstractions. The approach here somewhat parallels her method in fiction of “showing” by means of concretes rather than “telling” by means of adjectives. That may not work equally well for all readers, but I found it very helpful. After reading this book an objective reader will be able to see straight through the claims of Ayn Rand’s detractors, not by virtue of being armed with polemics, but just by having a clear and compelling sense of what she was really like.

    In any event, my advice would be to not underrate the value of this book. It is much beyond just being a collection of anecdotes.

  • L-C

    I’ll definitely be getting this book. So far, each of Ayn Rand’s works that I’ve read confirms her amazing insightfulness. It is always a treat to watch her principles in action, and that is why I find books like Philosophy: Who Needs It, and I’m sure 100 Voices, fascinating.

    Rand’s integrity is what makes these anecdotes and stories so interesting, because they tie into her principles.

    More of this kind of thing is available here, as told by Mary Ann and Charles Sures who were friends of Ayn Rand and Frank O’Connor: http://facetsofaynrand.com/

  • Neil Parille

    I enjoyed the book, although it should be used critically. The substantial majority of the people who knew her best weren’t interviewed, or if they were interviewed their interviews weren’t included. I’d recommend Gordon Burkowski’s review on Amazon.

    I don’t find Cynthia Peikoff’s speculation very plausible about Rand’s meeting with Barbara Branden.

  • David Hayes

    The previous comment includes: “I don’t find Cynthia Peikoff’s speculation very plausible about Rand’s meeting with Barbara Branden.”

    I don’t see that the passage about Barbara Branden has Cynthia Peikoff’s speculation. Rather, it has Cynthia Peikoff’s report of what Ayn Rand speculated, based on the meeting between the two older women. (see “100 Voices,” pgs. 554-555)

  • David Hayes

    The 3rd comment mentions people who “weren’t interviewed, or if they were interviewed their interviews weren’t included.” The first page of the preface includes the interviewer’s remark, “I selected the interviews in this collection to cover a broad range of years, contexts, relationships and observations, and to supplement the limited number of reliable biographical sources available elsewhere. …” Implicit in the preceding statement is that some interview subjects did make the final cut. As it is, the 100 interview subjects which are in the book run from pages 3 to 611 — a substantial number. The index brings the page count to 638.

  • Neil Parille

    David,

    1. Re: Barbara Branden’s final meeting with Rand. I stated it the way I did because Cynthia Peikoff appears to agree with Rand’s speculation.

    2. No interviews with Alan Blumenthal, Joan Blumenthal, Bob Hessen, Henry and Erika Holzer, the Kalbermans, Alan Greenspan, John Hospers, etc. These are people who knew Rand in a context quite different from almost everyone else interviewed. If they were interviewed, why didn’t they make the final cut?

    If McConnel had time for Dorothy Gotthelf (who talked to Rand on the phone once) and Robert Stack (who apparently never met or talked to Rand) I don’t see why these other people should be ignored.