It takes many weeks of daily commutes to consume the 55 hours of Kate Reading's audiobook performance of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. But now that my listening is complete, it's time to jot down a few thoughts excesses and shortcomings.
In case you're not familiar with Atlas Shrugged, it's the tale of a dystopian future America where innovation, business, and capitalism are increasingly and then thoroughly squelched by the federal government. Mysteriously, all the leading industrialists begin to disappear while at the same time the economy goes down the tubes as the government meddles more and more in business. Railroad (yes, railroad) tycoon Dagny Taggart finds herself the last man standing but at the same time she's trying to hold her business and the economy together she's also trying to unravel the mystery of who is John Galt.
Rand, a Russian immigrant to the United States, wrote Atlas Shrugged in 1957 and considered it the pinnacle of her writing career. Atlas and another novel of hers, The Fountainhead, form the written fictional portrayals of Rand's philosophy of objectivisim. To quote Rand from Atlas, objectivism embodies the ideals of "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." Atlas is one of those books you first discover in high school English class and then, in my case at least, hear talked about from time to time in various contexts. The problem was, I never read Atlas. Until now.
From a literary standpoint, it was difficult for me to read Atlas as a novel rather than a philosophical or idealogical treatise. The book is way too long with the same ground (the oppression and pillage of the inventor, entrepreneur, businessman, capitalist) being repeated over and over again in slightly different contexts. I was reminded of James Cameron's quote about the director's cut of the movie Aliens: it's like 40 miles of bad road. The length might be excused except for the lack of subtlety. The language is often awkwardly quaint, like outtakes from an episode of Father Knows Best. The language might be excused except for the excessive repetition - which is exacerbated by the length. The famous John Galt speech clocks in at approximately two hours but does nothing except summarize statements and themes from elsewhere in the novel. At certain times I thought to myself "get on with it."
From a ideological perspective, it's hard to disagree with the core premise of the envisioned meritocracy, where what matters is achievement and the fair, capitalistic exchange of value for value. But objectivism as portrayed in Atlas lacks sufficient scope to be considered a true philosophy. Of course, the plot is fictional so the protagonists act ethically and the antagonists are caricatures of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. Don't get me wrong - let me do my thing and get the government out of my way and I'll be happy. None of this "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" business.
I guess what I'm saying is that while there's a lot to like in Atlas it wasn't a life changing experience. (Maybe that means I'm already living that life to some degree?) Also, it's not clear based on my experience with Atlas Shrugged whether I'll read The Fountainhead anytime soon. I don't regret reading it because now I have a little more exposure to objectivism and can understand certain references when they arise in real life.
Apparently someone has turned Atlas into a movie and you can read about it at http://www.atlasshruggedmovie.com/ and see the trailers on YouTube. According to IMDB, Part 1 seems to have broken even financially, Part 2 ended up well in the red, and Part 3 is scheduled for 2014. John Galt would probably tell them to not bother.