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Atlas Shrugged

I finished reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged this weekend. It is such a big book (according to Wikipedia, bigger than Les Miserables or that archetypal great big book War And Peace) I almost feel like the fact of my having read it is more important than what I got out of it.

For those unfamiliar, Atlas Shrugged is a novel about a world where government regulation and confiscation are so severe that many of the most successful and productive capitalists decide to stop producing. They basically go on strike.In fact, Rand's original title for the novel was "The Strike". But the actual title is just as descriptive...it is meant to suggest what would happen if the giant who carried the world on his shoulders decided to shrug.

It is an enduring book. In 1991, 34 years after its publication, it was named in a Book-Of-The-Month poll the second most influential book ever written (The Bible was first).

It is also a polarizing book. While a lot of people consider it the greatest book ever written (as evidenced by it's placing first in a Modern Library poll on great novels), many others condemn it. Whittaker Chambers wrote a famously unfavorable review of it in National Review. Cultural critics Matt Stone and Trey Parker trashed it in the chicken lover episode of Southpark. The town policeman officer Barbrady, after overcoming adult illiteracy, read Atlas Shrugged and hated it so much he publically declared that "reading sucks ass" and vowed never to read again.

There are a few opinions in the middle. Mine is one of them. I obviously liked it enough to finish it, but I'm not going to swear fealty to Ayn Rand or take John Galt's oath. There's much to praise and much to pan, as you would probably expect from a 1168 page novel.

The first pan is that it really didn't have to be a 1168 page novel. It's horribly overwritten. Much has been made about all the speeches the characters give, but they didn't bother me so much.What did bother me were paragraphs like this one:

She sat straight, the planes of her face relaxed, the shape of her mouth softened by the faint, purposeful suggestions of a smile; it was the dangerous smile of an adversary, but her eyes were coldly brilliant and veiled at once, like the eyes of an adversary who fully intends to fight, but hopes to lose.

There are lots of similar passages , and if they had been eliminated or trimmed down, this book could have been a svelte 900 pages.

I am not in 100% in agreement with Rand's philosophy. I don't think altruism per se is a bad thing. Granted, these days there is lots of forced altruism (which is really a contradiction in terms) and ostentatious altruism (which makes me vomit) that give it a bad name.
But these cases aren't representative, or at least don't have to be. To be fair, Rand doesn't claim they are, although she uses a lot of ammunition on forced altruism (as she should!)

I am not an atheist and don't share her belief in a purely material universe. I don't think a purely material universe could have produced a great (albeit flawed) thinker like Ayn Rand. I have to admit though, John Galt's speech comes closer to justifying prescriptive truth without first positing a supreme being than any philosopher I have ever heard. (And not all of Rand's followers are completely hostile to religion, as can be seen from this essay.)

In spite of all the books flaws, I found myself compelled by it's story to keep reading. More than that, I found myself developing the same kind of affection for Dagny Taggart, John Galt and the novels other heroes that Tolkien fans have for Frodo Baggins and Tom Bombadil.
I share Rand's contempt for those who want a society run on Marxist, envy-based principles and cheered on those who wanted to put an end to such a regime.

The picture Rand paints of a society based entirely on sharing is a chilling one. In one of the novels derided long speeches, a former employee of 20th Century Motor named Jeff Allen describes how the company (and the town that depended on it) was destroyed when they instituted a policy of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. All the employees had an incentive to show themselves needy, and a disincentive to be productive. And the competition to be needy made people particularly nasty. In one disturbing section of the speech, an old woman needs expensive surgery and mysteriously dies before the surgery had to take place. No one wanted to produce more to pay for it.

Jeff Allen's story, along with an earlier description of Rome, Wisconsin is an excellent illustration of the perils of "compassionate" government. I found myself thinking of Stalin's Soviet Union and Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

This novel  illustrates that not all businessmen are devout capitalists. Many of the novels major villains are CEO's who want to tout their devotion to social justice. (Half of them could easily sit on the Charlotte Chamber Of Commerce). Rand has an interesting device for separating the true capitalist companies from the ones run by socialists. The good companies are named after people (e.g Rearden Steel,Taggart Transcontinental) and the ones run by socialists have very generic names (such as 20th Century Motor), emphasizing the importance capitalism places on the individual. (I am indebted to iatethecookie for this observation).

In contrast to Rome, Wisconsin the novel also describes a capitalist utopia where everyone is free to produce and no one is expected to involuntarily give up the fruits of their labor. This part of the book makes a lot of good economic points, such as the fact that wealth is something that is created, not a static quantity to be distributed, and the importance of sound money (gold standard advocates can get a lot of ammunition from this section of the book.)

There are lots of ideas explored in this book, many of which I haven't written about here. Some (about 75%) are good, some are not. But there's much to think about. Any reviewer who thoroughly explores them runs the risk of not being able to complain about Rand's verbosity without becoming a hypocrite.

I found much in here worth quoting, and it probably isn't fair that my only quote was an example of bad writing. Perhaps later I will make another post (or three) with some of my favorite passages. (Don't worry, I won't transcribe the entire John Galt speech).