The Problem of Free Books
How The Fountainhead weaseled its way into the canon.
Recently, a plea appeared on my twitter stream: “I'm begging for book money again: We are trying to complete a classroom set of THE HUNGER GAMES. Please RT.” The tweet contained a link to DonorsChoose.com, a website that allows teachers to seek funding for school projects.
I love DonorsChoose, but I wish it didn't exist. Nothing breaks my heart like a public school teacher who can't afford a set of paperbacks for her students. Given all the noise about how kids don't read enough anymore, you would think school districts might prioritize paying for books. But the reality is that many teachers and schools simply can't afford a classroom set of paperbacks—which is where programs like DonorsChoice come in.
There is another option, though. Any teacher can request free books from a private foundation. The catch? You have to teach a novel by Ayn Rand. The Ayn Rand Institute will cheerfully send out classroom sets of The Fountainhead or Anthem to any teacher who requests them. Just send an email to the Foundation and receive a box in the mail. The Institute also provides teaching guides and lessons. The other catch? You have to teach the works of one of the most controversial and overhyped writers in American literary history.
Since the free-book program debuted, over 1 million copies of her novels have been sent to high school students. I have worked with high school teachers who assign her novels. They do so reluctantly, given Rand’s philosphy of radical individualism and laissez-faire government. But for teachers, being able to give each student a copy they can take home with them means an opportunity for healthy class discusion. (My teacher friends also tell me the novel teaches surprisingly well: Students cotton easily to Rand’s proto-Tea Party politics.)
You have to give it to the Ayn Rand Institute: They have figured out how to keep their author’s works alive. Are there any other such programs? None that I could find. Recently, Scholastic launched an initiative that promotes free books for kids through a Facebook campaign, where the books go to K.I.D.S., or Kids In Distressed Situations. But this and other similar worthy endeavors do not help public school teachers. And as kids become teens, programs become scarcer: It's easier to raise money for children’s books than it is for high school texts.
Meanwhile, many high school English teachers are forced to scrounge through the school’s storage room year after year to find 30 copies of To Kill A Mockingbird. Or they get the Rand novels. Why do you think so many young Americans consider The Fountainhead their favorite novel? Why do you think her works continue to sell so well? Because so many young American have had a chance to read it, take it home, and discuss it in a classroom of peers. How many other such novels have they had the chance to so read?
Still, I think the Rand institute is onto something. What if major publishers offered public high school teachers free paperback copies of other classic literary texts? What if every author of a well-written, public-domain novel had an Institute promoting her work just like Ayn Rand?
I know—that's crazy idealistic. That would cost, like, $300 per classroom. Better to have teachers hustle on charity auction sites, or teach the uber-individualist and capitalist lessons of Rand to yet another generation.
Photo (cc) by Flickr user Stuartjones