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A fine book about the important things in life

Books that try to convey important philosophical ideas can sometimes be a bit of a struggle to read. Much as I liked Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged for the sheer sweep of the novel and the way it tackled all manner of topics, I’ll be the first to concede that some folk out there will find that type of book a daunting read. But a shorter, and highly engaging, example of something rather similar has been out for a few months now: “Old Nick’s Guide To Happiness”, by Nicholas Dykes.

I will not give the plot away but to say that Mr Dykes’ novel is based in the wilds of Scotland, focusing on what happens when a young man, who is shortly to head off for Oxford as an undergraduate, gets lost and hurt during a hiking expedition in the Highlands, and how he falls in with a rather unusual couple living there. There are lots of discussions of philosophy and ideas along the way, but is done in such a charming way that the reader, whatever their views, will not feel they are being lectured at. Admittedly, if you are a religious fundamentalist, deep Green or hardline collectivist, then this book will drive you nuts.

I have known Mr Dykes for several years and he has been a regular writer for the Libertarian Alliance, among other places. I liked this book very much and I hope Mr Dykes tries his hand at another novel. As he realises, abstract treatises are all very well, but if you can convey ideas through the medium of fiction, with strong characters, a good plot and plenty of engaging detail, it can be far more effective. The Left, if I can be permitted to use that term has long understood this – it needs to be understood by those who work in the broadly classical liberal tradition, too. And the same point applies even more, perhaps, to the world of TV drama and films.

14 comments to A fine book about the important things in life

  • Hear, hear! I wish that Nick’s book were known more widely. I was privileged to read it in manuscript (twice!) and wrote a brief review of it here: https://stpeter.im/index.php/2008/08/24/old-nicks-guide-to-happiness/

  • Novus

    I apologise in advance if this kicks off another of Samizdata’s interminable Rand threads, but I would just like to speak up for those of us who have never finished Atlas Shrugged. Well, me, at any rate. It’s not that the book is daunting. I’ve read longer books, I’ve read denser books. I’ve clubbed my way through all kinds of archaic language which is difficult to read fluently because no-one speaks that way any more. I gave up on Atlas Shrugged because, whilst Rand certainly had lost of interesting and meritorious ideas, the woman couldn’t write fiction for toffee. Portentous, self-important, turgid and pompous, Atlas Shrugged is unreadable not because it’s too challenging but because it’s very badly written, which is a great shame, because the ideas she aimed to express with it are very powerful.

  • Laird

    “Portentous, self-important, turgid and pompous”

    All true. I love the book anyway! To each his own.

  • Laird

    Back to the main issue: thanks, JP, for the reference to this book, which I hadn’t heard of before. And thanks also, Peter, for the link to your review and especially to the author’s excerpts. I look forward to reading the book.

  • Robert Speirs

    I love Atlas Shrugged. It’s real and it tells a real story. Anyone who thinks they could get the points across that Rand conveys in AS should try writing as influential and honest a book using less “portentous, turgid, pompous and self-important” language. It hasn’t been done in 52 years. By the way, her “self” is and was “important”. And she was a very good writer. The only reason to dumb AS down would be to appease ignorant TV-addicted butterfly-brains who need to be spoon-fed conventional wisdom.

  • lukas

    Thank you, Novus. I guess her style just doesn’t “work” on some people, for some reason.

  • Paul Marks

    Ayn Rand’s fiction “works” for me. I think it is good.

  • Novus

    Robert Speirs, you are quite right about “self-important”. Perhaps “self-regarding” would have been better. There is, after all, a difference between valuing the self and being a bit too impressed by it.

    The difficulty of getting the points across in such a book was exactly my point. A work of fiction will inevitable be compromised as such if it is so comprehensively hijacked in order to set out a philosophy. If Ransd had written a 500 page book covering exactly the same intellectual ground I have no doubt it would have been superb. As a work of fiction the same arguments just come off as strident.

  • “if you can convey ideas through the medium of fiction, with strong characters, a good plot and plenty of engaging detail, it can be far more effective…”

    Truer words – several years ago I turned to writing historical novels about the 19th century American frontier; I had become gripped by the conviction that I had to do something to tell people who didn’t know much history about what a grand and daring experiment a government by the people and for the people was. I wanted to tell people that our ancestors (real and metaphorical) were decent, courageous and idealistic people, and claim back our history from those who prefer to paint them as crude and bungling racists. So I wrote a tale about an early wagon-train party, and followed it up with a lengthy trilogy about the German settlements in Texas. Stories – even genre fiction stories – have a worth. And sadly, most people who learn any history at all learn it first through the medium of historical fiction.

  • Argggh! Just went to Amazon US. Not published in the USA. One used copy available for $52.50. Johnathan, do you know whether there are plans to publish in the US any time soon? If not, I’ll order from the UK.

  • Tony Suruda

    I live in Colorado and just ordered the book from Laissez Faire Books. It’s $19.95 plus shipping. Unlike Amazon, this bookseller site did not indicate whether the book was in stock but I hope their e-mail confirmation will include a shipping date.

  • Thanks Tony!. I’ll look them up.

  • Richard Garner

    I, like other readers apparently, have never made it through Atlas Shrugged, finding it dry. But Nick Dyke’s book is an excellent account of her ideas, taken to the proper anarchist conclusions.

    I also enjoy libertarianism promoted by fiction, an avid reader of the works of L Neil Smith.

  • Tony S, I ordered the book and as it turns out, LFB is less than 10 minutes from where I live. How’s that for a small world? The proprieter says he has a new shipment coming in this week.