Jennifer Burns is an assistant professor of history who specializes in intellectual history. She wrote Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, published in October 2009 by Oxford University Press.
What book have you read over and over?
I love Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. On the surface it’s a story about the decline of the British aristocracy, but each time I read it a new theme comes to the fore, whether it is friendship, love, loss of innocence, sex, death, religion or addiction. After I’d read it several times I learned that it was also the favorite book of my grandfather, who died before I was born, so I feel some sort of family connection to it also.
What Ayn Rand book would you recommend readers start with?
Rand’s first novel, We the Living, is one of her best, and is a good choice for readers who prefer fiction over philosophy. It is set in Russia during the early days of the Soviet takeover and is the most autobiographical of Rand’s novels. You can find a flavor of her later ideas in here, but what stands out the most is her evocative description of Russia during a tumultuous moment in world history.
I also recommend The Fountainhead, particularly to anyone interested in self-exploration or self-discovery—it can be a very powerful tool of introspection.
For readers who want to dive right into the heart of Rand’s philosophy and understand why she is so popular today, Atlas Shrugged is the best choice. It tells the story of a future socialist America where the economy is in steep decline—a situation many readers say parallels today. Rand weaves her philosophy of Objectivism through the novel, so it is quite a challenging read.
What are you reading now?
Right now I’m in the middle of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s memoir, Colored People, which I may consider teaching someday, though for the time being I’m just enjoying the vivid picture he paints of growing up in a small town in West Virginia.
Is there a particular book that changed your life?
Two books I read in grade school taught me that reading can be more than entertainment: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I was fascinated by the idea that fiction could contain moral or historical lessons; this realization forever changed the way I read and what I wanted out of books. In retrospect, these books set me on the path to becoming a scholar.
What it is that you are looking for in the books that you love?
I read for many different reasons: knowledge, escape and enlightenment, but I suppose what I’m looking for in every case is a different perspective on myself or the world. Books take me out of myself and remind me of all the possibilities and potentials that are so easy to overlook in the rush of daily life.