Growing Out of Packaged Ideals: John Oliver Got Me Thinking

We humans grow so much intellectually, or are supposed to, that concepts or thoughts that seemed so profound at 15 or 23 often seem trite and banal at 30 or 55. But then, we're always growing, aren't we?
10/01/2014 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

I'm a huge fan of John Oliver's HBO show, Last Week Tonight. It's brilliant. The guy kills it, week after week. I always come away with the feeling that I just had a class with a hilarious professor. I especially love the feature, "How is This Still a Thing?"

In it, Oliver has asked some questions I've always wondered -- "How is The Miss America Pageant Still a Thing?"-- and some I've never wondered, but did after watching his segment -- "How are the Commonwealth Games Still a Thing?"

On his Sept. 28 show he asked: "Ayn Rand: How is She Still a Thing?" The segment showed a few clips of Rand talking about classic Rand topics -- "Why is it good to want others to be happy?" -- followed by a clip of the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead, where an angst-filled Howard Roark, (Gary Cooper) erupts: "My work done my way! Nothing else matters to me!"
Rand's heroes, as the voiceover says, complain about how no one appreciates their true genius, adding: "And if that reminds you of anyone, it's probably someone like this."

Insert clip of a whining girl on My Super Sweet Sixteen.

Which is why, the voiceover says, "Ayn Rand has always been popular with teenagers. But she's something you're supposed to grow out of, like ska music, or handjobs."

Boom. Roasted.

"Rand's popularity persists among a certain type of adult," the voiceover says in the Oliver clip.
Cut to Mark Cuban. Cut to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) Many adult Rand fans are conservative politicians, as Oliver points out. People who need to point to a thick text and say, "See!" A quick Google search yields other "certain type of adults" -- mostly entitled Hollywood types -- who have talked about their love of Rand: Angelina Jolie. Sandra Bullock. Brad Pitt. Rob Lowe.

The Oliver clip got me thinking of the other books adults cling to for packaged ideals; books you're supposed to grow out of in your teen years. Like ska. Specifically, it got me thinking of Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. When I was 15, I thought this book was brilliant. I thought it said everything, spoke truth, and that I was brilliant for realizing it.

The summer before 10th grade, I was underlining, highlighting, writing "!!" in the corner of pages in Hesse's novel, discovering passages that we're showing me the true way -- if only the rest of the world could understand this! Of course, looking back at the book as an adult, it's almost cute; it's almost precious that I once held in such high regard what are clearly worn clichés.

The packaged morals, the banal platitudes, the overt preachiness -- I found it unbearably trite and overwhelmingly didactic. It read like an almost laughably cheesy made-for-TV movie:

"We find consolations, we learn tricks with which we deceive ourselves -- but the essential thing -- the way -- we do not find."

"Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden."

Hesse may as well have been writing from behind a pulpit, or writing for severely self-centered and depraved people -- the type of reader for whom "Your soul is the whole world" seemed like an original thought; something new to actually consider. In other words: teenagers.

Fully-grown Hesse fans also tend to be, as Oliver called it, "a certain type of adult." They tend to people who like to think of themselves as spiritual, and want others to think of them as spiritual -- but may not really don't know what true spirituality is. It's easier to point to a text and say: "See?"

We humans grow so much intellectually, or are supposed to, that concepts or thoughts that seemed so profound at 15 or 23 often seem trite and banal at 30 or 55.

What books do you hold in high regard now? I can tell you what books hold truth for me now, half a lifetime after Hesse.

Tinkers, by Paul Harding is one of the most beautiful and underrated books of the last decade. It speaks truth:

I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected he was whittling at my skull.

There is certainly truth in Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov:

"I shall be dumped where the weed decays. And the rest is rust and stardust."

For sure there's J.D. Salinger's For Esme, with Love and Squalor.

"Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions."

But then, we're always growing, aren't we? So, I suppose, who's to say I'll still think these passages profound at 64, after another lifetime of reading? Because as long as we're reading, we're learning, and as long as we're learning, we're changing, and as long as we're changing, we're thinking and rethinking.

At least, as Oliver pointed out, we're supposed to.

Watch Oliver's Ayn Rand segment here.

Lauren Daley is a freelance journalist and book columnist.