The Three Worlds of Ayn Rand

Anne C. Heller's new biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made accomplishes something unique, providing a compelling portrait of Ayn Rand that suffers neither from cynicism nor inappropriate adulation.
Kurt-keefner

Ayn Rand and the World She Made is a good biography of Ayn Rand by someone who admires her but who came to her as an adult and is not blinded to her faults by hero worship.

Anne C. Heller is a journalist and did meticulous research for this book. She had a team of Russian researchers comb through 100-year-old archives to find out things about Rand’s family life and education. She tracked down just about everyone who ever knew Rand who was still alive, including Rand’s aged sister and her housekeeper.

Heller didn’t get access to the official Ayn Rand Institute documents — apparently she didn’t pass some ideological test — but that doesn’t seem to have mattered. Jennifer Burns did get such access when researching her book about Rand, Goddess of the Market, and Heller still did a far better job. This is a fascinating account of all 77 years of Rand’s life.

One thing I really liked about this book is that Heller sees Rand’s triumphs among the tragedies of the later years.

Like Barbara Branden in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Heller always sees the life force stirring in Rand, even in moments of adversity.

I’ve been reading Rand and books about Rand for over 30 years, but this one still made me think. How is it that Rand could be such a great writer and so problematic a person?

Well, consider just what it is that makes someone world-class great at something. I mean great on the order of Beethoven or Frank Lloyd Wright.

It presumably takes high intelligence and raw talent, but it must also take a certain way of living. You must be awesomely concentrated, superhumanly independent, and ferociously self-confident. Many such people make their own world and live in it rather than sharing the common frame of reference, which to them would be discouraging and a distraction.

Although she never lists them explicitly, Heller suggests that Ayn Rand made not just one world but three. Two of these were worlds that Rand herself lived in. First was the world of her novels. Rand said she wrote to have someone to look up to, a world she could bear.

Has anyone ever pointed out that there’s something wrong with this? Imagining an alternative world and furnishing it with admirable characters does not make up for the deficits of the real world. But it does encourage one to live among one’s fantasies. And it does tend to keep one from discovering good people and things in reality.

For example, And Rand was a contemporary with many great people whom she could have looked up to but whom she mostly ignored, including Daniel Chester French, Albert Einstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, Jonas Salk, Nicola Tesla, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, etc., etc. They did not look like Rand heroes (for Rand appearance was very important) and they certainly weren’t ideologically pure, but they were great nonetheless. It seems clear that Rand would settle for nothing short of the perfection of her fantasy, especially her fantasy male.

The second kind of world that Heller chronicles is the personal world Rand made. Instances of Rand’s personal world-making abound throughout the book. Easy examples include her conjuring a heroic identity for her husband and a genius identity for her young fan Nathaniel Branden. Branden is certainly a brilliant man, but not on the level of Rand herself, yet Rand thought he was a genius when she first met him at the age of 19.

A more complex example of her personal world-making would be how she replaced genuine feelings of rejection and loss with feelings of indignation and righteous wrath that depended on an excessively moralistic worldview. Apparently some kinds of negative feelings were unbearable to her, so she denied them and projected wrong-doing or inadequacy upon others.

This sounds a bit like narcissism, in the sense of the personality disorder, and indeed Heller suggests at several points, starting on p. 70, that Rand was a narcissist. From what I’ve read about narcissism online, I’d say it’s a plausible suggestion, but Heller fails us by not following through: If there is a well-understood psychological problem that would have explained much of her subject’s behavior, Heller should have called on a few experts and settled the matter. It’s not good to bring up something like that and then drop it. Neither is it fair to Rand.

Rand said that “psychologizing,” as she called it, is immoral. However, I don’t think it would have been unfair to Rand for a psychologist to make a psychological assessment of her based on her wide trail of letters, journals, novels, and interviews, plus the testimony of many people who knew her. That is not “psychologizing” but is legitimate psycho-biography. It’s not like saying Barry Goldwater is neurotic because you don’t like his politics.

I have my own theory about Rand, not a psychological one per se, but a philosophical one. She would have preferred that approach, although perhaps not applied to herself. I am writing a book on the mind-body relation in which I say that some people believe themselves to be minds that happen to have bodies, not integrated wholes.

I believe Rand was such a person. Look at some of the evidence: She obviously lived among her thoughts and fantasies a great deal. She took terrible care of her body, never getting enough exercise, for example, as if she didn’t enjoy being a physical being. Her drugs of choice — nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines — all hype up the mind. Heller quotes Rand saying in her journal (p. 71) that she must become pure will and be a writing machine. On p. 261 Heller quotes Branden’s account of how Rand said that before their affair she was just a mind.

This all suggests that Rand not only thought of herself as a mind, but identified primarily with the faculty of will. Rand seems to have subjected the people around her to that will, but also seems to have subjected herself. In her journal she said that she would send everything but her writing to hell. Well, she did damn a lot of people. She made herself miserable. She gave herself cancer through her smoking, which she rationalized for years. Apparently she was true to her word. Not everything else, but many things in her life did go to hell. Without patronizing Rand or minimizing her achievements, Heller makes this point perfectly clear.

So what is the third world that Ayn Rand made? It’s one that Rand did not get to live in. It’s the one we live in: the one where communism was defeated, where capitalism is celebrated, where self-esteem is regarded as a crucial part of a healthy personality, where people protest a president they don’t like by buying copies of Atlas Shrugged.

Rand played a major role in making this world, just as she did for the other two. Could she have borne to live in this third, real world? Sad to say, I doubt it, because even though she helped make it vastly better, it still falls far short of perfection. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use what she said to better live in it ourselves.

Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher who has been published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies and Philosophy Now Magazine. He is currently working on a book about mind-body wholism. He lives near Washington, DC, with his wife, the author Stephanie Allen.

19 comments from readers  

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It's hard to judge a review when one hasn't actually read the book. However, the review, for me, presents the book as perhaps the most complete depiction of Ayn Rand to date.

For those of us that "loved the message" but "hated the messenger" this book seems to have something to offer in terms of a deeper understanding of Ayn Rand the person. Something other than the superficial description of a "cult figure".
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Very good article, especially the idea about a psychological profile. I hope some qualified but disinterested psychologist might undertake this task, and soon. The Brandens and most of the others of their generation are in their eighties or close to it.
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Mr. Keefner makes me wonder what world HE is living in when he says that we're living in a world "where communism was defeated, where capitalism is celebrated"...
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Seems like a well thought out review, I wonder though if the author is aware of just how far America is from being a Capitalist Nation?
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Mr. Keefner: I'm not a psychologist, but I always thought that Rand was a split personality. There was her writing and thinking and her ideas, and then there was her daily life, she was a loony toon! She sucked her husband dry, and left him an empty shell. She created in him the man she wanted, but he wasn't in reality that man. Why did he not simply leave her? He didn't have the strength or the courage. Branden is nuts also. I've been an objectivist since the early 60's. She should have been a Roark or a Galt, she was neither, how's that for a contradiction? She did awful things to those who were her friends. Towards the end of her life she was completely out of control. She died alone. I read Branden's confessions, and part of Barbara's. I am not so much interested in Rand the person as in her ideas. She certainly had that right. Look at America today, how could the American People do that to themselves? Everybody should Read Anthem, because that's what is coming.
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It is my experience that a person's stated values, per se, are no indication of that person's state of mind or well being.

Personally, the search for perfection in the world and in myself can be painful.

Nevertheless I obtain a degree of comfort and peace of mind from Rand's, and consequently my own, moral certainty. I'm sure she did also.
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Sounds like a wonderful book. I enjoyed your summary of it, and your ideas about Ms.Rand and her attitudes towards life.

What I have always loved about Ayn Rand, is that she created her own reality. She used her mind to create her world. The ugliness of the real world, she dismissed, discarded, and ridiculed. Personally, I think that was brilliant. Because of her, I live my life every day, by creating my own reality too. She's my hero. She said:

"Manâ??s unique reward, however, is that while animals survive by adjusting themselves to their background, man survives by adjusting his background to himself."
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This is a brilliant in-depth objective analysis of Ayn Rand. I've come to some of these same insights and conclusions about Ayn Rand over the years but Kurt Keefner put them into words for me.

Trying to understand the PERSON Ayn Rand in no way diminishes her philosophy that celebrates individualism and the freedom to develop to our fullest potential without falling victim to or exploiting anyone else.

Eccentricities abound in geniuses. I just read the latest biography of Einstein; he was full of them! Ayn Rand was a powerful enigmatic thinker. Her mind almost consumed her; her body was just a vehicle. Another talented genius of this high order was the late Glenn Gould, Canadian pianist.

These type of people are just not that balanced; they transcend the mundane, and in doing so, raise us all to greater heights. Kurt Keefner did a great job on this essay!
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THE REVIEWER RESPONDS

First of all, let me thank the members who have written in so far for their kind comments. I'm glad if I could help shed some light on Rand the person. Read Heller's book for much, much more.

A couple of member questioned my comment that capitalism is (in the wake of Rand's work) celebrated. I didn't say that it was universally celebrated or that we live in a pure capitalist society.

What I meant was that compared to the late 50s and early 60s when Rand did most of her writing on the subject, capitalism is much more taken to be the norm and a creative powerhouse. In Rand's time a mixed economy with a slow slide toward socialism was taken for granted. No longer. There are writers on the right who are already talking about repealing health care "reform." No politician since Barry Goldwater has talked that way.

Another member considered Rand to have achieved something brilliant in creating her own world. I certainly agree that The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are wonderful worlds to live in from time to time.

But we also create a world by surrounding ourselves with art and people and places and cuisine that we can love. Rand does not seem to have been very good at that. We have to cut her some slack because she lived in the time of the modernist movement in art and literature and there's not much for an Objectivist to love there.

But Rand made it harder on herself by dismissing artists and musicians that she could have derived some benefit from. I have in mind Beethoven, who in my opinion had a sense of life quite similar to that of Atlas Shrugged, and impressionism, which if you look at it correctly creates a reality you can walk into. These instances could easily be multiplied. (Examples: Bach, Vivaldi!, Mozart, Brahms, Swing, The Beatles in music. Canaletti, Dore, Eakins, Hugh Feriss in art. And I'm not even trying that hard) Rand seems to have needlessly alienated herself.

My mother calls Rand's philosophy "Objectionism" because it seems so critical. Well, there is a lot outside of our rationally luminous living rooms that deserves criticism. But there is also more good stuff in the world than any one person could possibly consume.

Well, thanks for bearing with me while I rambled on. Hope it helps. By the way I gave my review 4 stars not out of modesty, but because I'm not really entitled to rate it and 4 stars was the average it had earned so far.
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This article surely strikes the right chord. It achieves the right evaluation of Rand's persona - that was terribly flawed, her philosophical goodness notwithstanding.

When I read Rand "the Fountainhead" in 1989 for the first time, I liked her. I re-read her when I could perceive that she was a fanatic living in a world of fantasy. And fantasy makes good fairy tales - but since it is separated from reality - people who can't step out of their fantasy world raises doubt on their emotional maturity and stability.

Sexual fantasy and people hooked to pornography is one fine example of that sort. For them the world revolves around the genital organs.

Another one that seems kind of puerile to me is the importance of appearance in evaluating a person. Surely! :).

Taken all things together, the goodness of her philosophy of romantic idealism has an intrinsic value. In its ability to inspire people to do a whole good. And for this value alone, Rand is still read and studied.
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You missed the point of her life and philosophy introducing this funny parallel worlds to describe it. How on earth you connected her smoking to basic principles of her philosophy? What is the definition of this hell and how does it connect to her life and everybody else's lives who live in paradise? What would be the definition of a paradise? I think you and everybody here reading this article would be glad to go through all that hell and achieve as much as she did and live your life as she did it.
Paul K
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Mr. Keefnerâ??s review is a confused and self-contradictory piece, and I was thoroughly disappointed to read it on Atlasphere. The review discusses Mr. Keefnerâ??s own philosophical predilections more than it does the virtues and vices of Ms. Hellerâ??s work. With regard to Mr. Keefnerâ??s â??philosophy,â? there are two points I would like to address in particular, but these are just a sample:

What is this â??common frame of referenceâ? to which Mr. Keefner refers? A central premise of Objectivist thought is that value is subjective. Objectivism recognizes that there are facts independent of a particular Mind, but that these facts are insufficient to fully describe life. We need value as well to fully understand the world in which we live. Therefore, there is no â??common frame of referenceâ? capable of fully guiding our lives. As there is no common frame of reference, Ms. Rand can hardly be faulted for refusing to â??shareâ? in it. All people are complex beings, who live in many worlds simultaneously, and yet Mr. Keefner sees this characteristic in Ms. Rand as a fault.

"[S]ome people believe themselves to be minds that happen to have bodies, not integrated wholes." If this is the central thesis of Mr. Keefnerâ??s work, I would advise him to cease publication of such bromidic thoughts. The theoretical assertion and subsequent diagnosis of Ms. Rand are trite and sterile. Mr. Keefner accuses Ms. Rand of improperly living in a fantasy world while he analyzes not Ms. Rand herself, but a shadow of Ms. Rand, constructed by intermediaries and by Mr. Keefner himself. Psychological diagnoses are useful to the extent they can treat a patient, and the use of such methods detached from the purpose of treating a patient becomes an exercise in speculation and self-gratification.
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Excellent balanced column, one of the few that are on this site.
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"Not blinded to her faults by hero worship". This in the beginning paragraph lets us know right away where this writer is coming from. Having read several of the reviews of these biographies I can detect the "I used to admire Ayn Rand but now that I am more knowledgeable, adult, wise, you name it, I now know that she or her ideas are not as great as I once thought they were." How asinine.

I am an admirer of Ayn Rand. That is what attracted me to this site. Why is this site being used to further the opinions of those who want to point out that she is "not as great as some think she is"? At a time when Ayn Rand and her ideas are needed more every day, we allow this filth on this site of "Ayn Rand Admirers". Every example of her "dual personality" that I have researched has been a result of someone who was disgruntled with her because she wouldn't accept their "better ideas". Consider the sources and as she would have wanted you to do....look at reality.
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Before I venture into this unfortunately misguided review, I'll note that Paul's criticism of this review is nearly spot-on. Here are a few corrections on Paul's comments.

Values are not subjective; they are personal or general. (Big difference). Some values are general, objective and apply to everyone seeking happiness (friendship, health, work, purpose, self-esteem, reason) and some values are personally optional (cleanliness, recreation, kids, wealth, avocations, etc.)

Now, for Mr. Keefner. He explores many red herrings.

(1) Rand was not necessarily attracted to genius, per se (Einstein and the bunch); she was attracted to *moral* genius, clarity of thought, strength of character, vision.

(2) Rand explored friendships voraciously. She even held her own big group meetings and talked until the sun rose scores of times in her life. Is this not someone seeking companionship and connection? Rand excluded people in her life (as we all have) who she felt were or became dishonest to a level that was not acceptable. She cannot be criticized for doing so without an enormous amount of facts that all of us are simply not privvy to (that would be pychologizing).

(3) Rand cannot be properly criticized for living momentarily in the fictional worlds she created in her novels because that is how *all* work is experienced. Whether an architect or librarian or home-builder, you are living your ideal, immersing yourself in your work, drawing just satisfaction in your momentary universe (that is the beauty and necessity of work).

(4) We do not have enough facts to make unequivocal comments about Rand's relationship with her husband. As anyone knows who has been an Objectivist for a while or studied Rand's life, there simply is not a lot of information about Frank. He does seem a bit of a shrinking violet, but most artists that I've known come across that way in public while expressing vehemence and tenacity in private conversation.

(5) Rand seemed to carry no dichotomy of mind and body. She adored and lavished things on her house pets; she reveled in the tangible joy of smoking; she relished good conversation; she cooked; she wrote (instead of typed) her novels; she worried that her body was not feminine enough (especially her legs); she was careful about her clothes; she worshipped great structures and the geniuses behind them; she sent gentle and thoughtful missives to those she cared about and those who corresponded with her; she said lovely things about those she felt deserved it; she desired certain furniture and certain decor.

As an Objectivist for 20 years, I've come to the tentative conclusion that Rand did not handle her bitterness entirely well concerning the irrationality of everyone around her, but I have sympathy for her in this regard. She was an utter genius, a person whose mind was so lucid, so clear, so demonstrably present that any mind coming into contact with it seemed second-rate. She had to deal with that as the first person in human history with such moral clarity. How difficult that must've been can be understood only by degrees by those of us who are now Objecivists and who have to deal with hoi polloi daily but who have *other* Objectivists to commiserate with and enjoy the full faculties of our minds.

I thank Mr. Keefner for his review, for I now have another book I need not spend my hard-earned money on. For all of this book's ostensive failings, the mere mention that Rand was a Narcissist would put any studier of Rand and her comments on notice of a "meticulous" simpleton at best, or ulterior motives at worst.

(I do agree with Mr. Keefner that Rand was wrong about Beethoven and some other artists, but drawing firm conclusions about that error are dubious.)
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This article says very little, and was apparently written to let the readers know a little about what Mr. Keefner thinks about Rand.

I don't care what he thinks.
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THE REVIEWER RESPONDS, ROUND 2

Well, this has gotten a little ugly. In private notes I have called a nihilist and a collectivist. I expected something like this.

There are a few points I'd like to make:

1. Several people have assumed that because I recognize that Rand had personal problems, I must not think much of her achievements. This is a complete non sequitur.

Rand was obviously a genius who made incalculable contributions to literature and philosophy. But unless a lot of people who knew her and her own journals are lying, she also had some fairly serious personal problems. What I tried to say is that one may have contributed to the other, as is often the case with great people.

2. Hero worship, as opposed to the admiration of great people, is a trap. Rand seems to have been a perfectionist who had a lot of trouble admitting she ever made a mistake (other than trusting others too much). She had to be a hero.

Many of her followers also want Rand to be a hero. They put her up on a pedestal and don't allow her to be a human being. They overreact to perceived criticism of their idol. Go back and re-read my review. I never said Rand was immoral. I never "accused" her of anything. I simply went along with Heller, who may actually know more about Ayn Rand than any other person ever, in recognizing that Rand had personal problems.

I don't regard this as tearing her down, because I never put her up (on a pedestal) in the first place, not since I was 18 anyway. It seems to me that people who hero-worship, instead of merely admiring and appreciating, want to use their hero for their own purposes. I think many Objectivists need Rand the hero to give them hope in what they see as a world "where ignorant armies clash by night."

One definition of being a grown up is that you can look at your parents as peers, see them as who they are apart from their relationship with you, see them as people with their own dreams and problems. In a sense, Ayn Rand has been a parent to many of us, and some of us still need to grow up and let the woman have her humanity.

3. One member gave some interesting evidence that Rand did not embrace mind-body dualism. Some of this evidence was irrelevant to the issue, such as Rand's love of pets and big buildings. Some of it the reviewer was mistaken about. He spoke of Rand's "tangible joy" in smoking. Smoking makes your body feel bad and makes your mind feel good. So do Rand's other drugs of choice: caffeine and amphetimines. That's good, if not irrefutable, evidence of dualism.

This member also mentioned Rand's concern for her appearance and her interest in furniture. A dualist could actually care about surface appearances, but in fact Rand was frequently careless about her appearance, wearing torn stockings for example, and let her unneutered cat destroy her furniture. And I reiterate that Rand did not enjoy exercise. Not the behavior of an integrated person.

Another member wondered how I could make a connection between Rand's smoking and her philosophy. Wasn't it Rand who taught us that there is a connection between everything we do and our philosophy?

I have been an Objectivist for almost 30 years, and although I do not shrink from the irrationality of the world, I have found art and music and historical figures (some of them "moral geniuses" such as Abraham Lincoln) to enjoy and admire. Rand and the fictional worlds she created are part of my private world, but they are not the whole thing. I don't need Rand to be something she wasn't, although I feel sorry for her in some ways. I am happy with her legacy, which is "more enduring than bronze."
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I'm afraid that Mr. Keefner has now dug his hole deeper with his latest fusillade against the "ugliness."

He has not educated himself on the full history of comments of those close to Rand, including those that have rebutted authors of books critical of Rand. What we have in all the comments about Rand boils down to he said/she said -- and, frankly, if a number of people I've known in my life chose to write books about me, the same would be true; I would be the subject of visceral dislike (hatred, I might say) and glorious tributes and everything in between from former friends.

Mr. Keefner also doesn't seem to understand the importance of values and integrity concerning mind/body dichotomies. Rand, by all accounts, pursued her values with single-mindedness and integrity, including the ones I mentioned in my previous letter yesterday. Mr. Keefner has not offered one piece of evidence to prove that Rand had a dichotomy, that she lacked integrity (the integration of fact and value and action in accordance with them).

I count myself perplexed by Mr. Keefner's belief that smoking and coffee cannot be "tangible joys." I have done both at one time or another in my life and can attest to the joy. Though I work out five days a week, I enjoy a good cigarette or cup of coffee or Whopper now and again and sometimes more often.

Mr. Keefner then equivocates on "hero worship," suggesting that it is actually different than intense admiration and the emotional reaction to finding the embodiment of great morality and courage. Heroes are our moral cousins. We worship them no more or less than we worship ourselves ("worship," of course, not being used mystically but figuratively) when we are integrated, and we worship them as ideals when we are on the path to integration. Mr. Keefner then takes it a step further by psychologizing (again) about the purpose of many Objectivists in their hero-worship, as if these Objectivists need to mature and become the equals of their parents. In his original review, I had thought Mr. Keefner capable of avoiding such ad hominem. I was mistaken.

Which brings me to Mr. Keefner's own judgment of moral character. He evidently believes that the worst president in U.S. history was a "moral genius." I refer, of course, to Abraham Lincoln, a man whose immoral attempt to violate states' rights in a *republic* rationalized grossly immoral and unconstitutional means, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, the imposition of a head tax, the imprisonment of the most vocal against the war, the enactment of conscription for the first time in our history, the inflation of the money supply with greenbacks and much more. Lincoln laid the groundword for the second worst president: FDR. Lincoln was a poet, not a genius or good president -- and certainly not a moral genius.

I'm glad Mr. Keefner doesn't need Rand to be something she wasn't. Now, perhaps, he will stop calling her something she wasn't.
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Really no comment needed. Any student of Objectivism or anyone interested in her ideas knows that this biography ignores her ideas, and that this writer (Heller) has no real understanding of her philosophy. This is why this reviewer gets a 1, because he thinks its a good biography based on Heller's lack of knowledge of the philosophy and her research of her personal life makes is acceptable. What made Rand influential was not her personal life, but her ground breaking ideas. She was influential based on the originality of her philosophy. Differences between her philosophy and her influences and opponents would have been meaningful in this biography. The lack of research towards Rand's ideas and her opponents makes this book just another biased attack on her personal life. I would recommend that anyone really interested in learning about the evolution of her ideas, and how they differed from her opponents throughout history, stay away from this book. This book deserves a lower rating than this review.
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