Sunday, July 7, 2013

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

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 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.


Jeff Waters said...

Rand informed a lot of my thinking as a teenager. I think Atlas is well suited to capturing the young, idealistic spirit. She doesn't stand up so well to people who have a few more decades of real life experience under their wings, though.

I've grown to think she offers a lot of great advice and philosophy. Just be careful to know the difference between baby and bathwater.

I would recommend that you go ahead and read Fountainhead. Atlas is Objectivism with some story frosting. Fountainhead is a story cake with Objectivist frosting.

John said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jeff. I've been told that Atlas is about the relationship of man to the external world where Fountainhead is about man's relationship with himself. Or something like that.

Francis Shivone said...

John, i enjoyed your review. I have never read the book and doubt that I will. I have many difficulties with her objectivism even though, like you, i'm on board with just about anything that gets the feds off our back.

John said...

Like most ideologies, objectivism relies on projecting one's own motives on others. For example, I assume that because I'm motivated by achievement others are too. We see this flaw in lots of areas like international relation - If people just had more food they'd stop killing their neighbor. No, they're killing their neighbor because there's a blood feud that's raged for several centuries.

I also laugh because she called it objectivism because existentialism was already taken. To be is to do, to do is to be, doo bee doo bee doo.

If I came over to the U.S. right after the Russian revolution I'd probably be lovin' capitalism too.