Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed by Lisa Duggan, 136 pgs.

Sep 27, 2019

I didn’t read Ayn Rand’s massive novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged prior to realizing I’m going to die someday, and so missed my window. I’ve read The Virtue of Selfishness, a book of essays by her and a boyfriend about her philosophy of Objectivism—they really phone in the “virtue” part—or maybe I’m just a virtue-signaler. (I’m waiting for the vocabulary assassins of the Twitter Right to target the phrase “good deeds.”) I’d thought my knowledge of Rand was adequate—or at least, I didn’t think I’d put any work into expanding it.

Then came NYU Professor Lisa Duggan’s Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed. It’s part of the University of California Press’s American Studies Now series, which Duggan describes as “short, timely, accessible books for activists as well as students.”

We learn about Rand’s childhood in pre- and post-revolutionary St. Petersburg—no one with her childhood was going to grow up to be too far left of center—and how with impressive effort for a young woman in Soviet Russia in 1926, she made it to America. Making a presumably accidental point in favor of Objectivism, Duggan writes Rand had a “rather uncanny ability to get what she wanted.”

We then read very welcome summaries of her novels and their ideas, with insight into events from her life that influenced the novels. I needed Mean Girl and didn’t know it.

The book is accessibly written, though it refers frequently to the ideology of “neoliberalism”—which Duggan’s glossary says is about redistributing resources upward—as though everyone is familiar with it, and I’d never come across the term before.

The Fountainhead is, as Duggan writes, “a fat novel, full of long didactic speeches.” But it’s sold more than six and a half million copies and paved a significant stretch of the road that got us to Trump’s America. How the hell did that happen? Duggan sheds a lot of light and only needed 136 pages to do it. –Jim Woster (University of California Press,