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Madeline Miller: ‘Reading Ayn Rand was like being dipped in slime’

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-03-11
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Madeline Miller: ‘Watership Down is my comfort read.’

My earliest reading memory

I was six years old, and sitting in class, as the teacher ground through each sentence of our class primer. I was so frustrated by how slow it was that I started reading ahead to myself, silently. I remember being stunned when I turned the last page. It felt like magic. I had started the day not reading at all, and ended it reading a whole book.

My favourite book growing up

The James Herriot books. I was originally drawn to them because I loved animals. I read them starting at age 10, over and over, despite – or maybe because of – the fact that I lived in a very different world from Herriot’s (modern-day New York City, with zero access to farm animals). I loved his warmth and self-deprecation. He made me want to be just like him: a veterinarian writer. Then I realised it was actually just the writing part I wanted.

The book that changed me as a teenager

I had so many positive formative reading experiences as a teenager. But one that stands out was actually a negative experience: reading The Fountainhead. At 15, I often chose books based on how thick they were – the thicker the better. And Ayn Rand’s doorstoppers were everywhere, so I picked one, and started reading. For maybe the first 50 pages, I was hooked by the story. But I began to feel a sort of visceral disgust – as if I were being submerged into a tub of slime. I realised that I hated the book – not the writing, but the ideas behind it. Before this I’d always read with an open heart. I saw authors as thoughtful and benevolent authorities. If it was written in a book, I thought, it must be true. The Fountainhead was my awakening about how crucial it is to read critically.

The writer who changed my mind

The Christians As the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Wilken. I read it when I was 20, for a college course, and it completely changed the way I thought about the early days of Christianity, turning inside out much of what I’d been taught as a child. It was a thrilling revelation, and I ended up becoming passionately interested in the intersection of the Roman world and Christianity.

Also, TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I read it first at 16. Before that, poems were largely irrelevant to me, either comic limericks or formal sonnets. But Prufrock changed all that: it was angsty love at first sight. I dove head-first into poetry and never looked back.

The book that made me want to be a writer

As I entered my teen years, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Both were a revelation in terms of how language could be used, how stories could be told – and what kinds of stories were worth telling. I remember hoping to one day write a novel that could have even a tenth of the power of those books.

The book or author I came back to

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it for school when I was 15. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t equipped to understand it in the least. I just reread it this past year, and was overwhelmed by how gripping it is, and what a work of subversive genius.

The book I reread

Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel. The first time I read the hilarious story of Mr Earbrass’s creative travails, I was 13, and I loved how funny and strange the book was. Once I started writing more seriously, I appreciated its satirical insightfulness into the writing journey. I have come back to Mr Earbrass often over the years: for a creative roadmap, for reassurance and, most of all, for laughs.

The book I could never read again

So many of the fantasy novels that I inhaled as a child. The women were scarcely even two-dimensional, it was always the same old Chosen One plot, and in retrospect, many of them also featured racist tropes. It was a pleasure to discover Octavia Butler as an older reader, I wish I had known about her then. Ditto The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K LeGuin.

The book I discovered later in life

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. By some accident, I never got assigned Dickens in school, and never picked him up on my own. Decades later, I began seeing that authors I loved had enjoyed reading him – in particular Min Jin Lee and Sarah Waters. So I decided it was time to catch up. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am eyeing Bleak House next.

The book I am currently reading

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. It’s terrific. I’m savouring every story in it, reading them once, then again.

My comfort read

Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s wonderfully epic, the characters feel like old friends, and I love the heart-pounding ending. In a totally different way, I also love rereading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It’s an incredibly powerful novel, with the lyrical intensity of a poem. It reminds me of what books can do at their best.

Comments / 218

Jeanne Reck
03-11

The reason for her dislike of Ayn Rand is because it hits to close to the truth ! She was spot on to her showing how corrupt government can be.

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Cypress47
03-11

Everyone should read Atlas Shrugged. Everyone. It is so eye opening and true. It is the best book I’ve ever read, hands down. It changed my world view. It lays bare the lies of the “progressives” so clearly, and shows the consequences of espousing socialist views. and it was written in the fifties.

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Lyle Montgomery
03-11

Ayn Rand was one of the most insightful writer/philosophers who ever lived. She has been dead on with her predictions of the life and politics we are living today. Too bad there is not a real John Galt.

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