Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

By | August 7, 2010

A two-week vacation in South West France should be memorable enough at the best of times but given it was my fourth in twelve years, I guess familiarity could have bred some complacency. So it was especially pleasing to have something to pin-point that vacation in years to come. It will forever connote the two weeks when I read this tour-de-force. Believe me, you need that long if you are going to read it properly and not skip bits. It is a roller-coaster of a novel, but like any roller-coaster there are spills along with the thrills and one needs determination and stamina to tackle the 1100+ pages.

Well I say ‘novel’, but it is really a vehicle for Ayn Rand to discourse on her philosophy of objectivism. Whether one agrees with her take on her belief that egoism is the true goal of man and that reason is the only anchor that the race should be weighted to is debatable, but there is no getting away from the fact she is an excellent story teller. Having said that, the 65 page soliloquy near the end of the book by the book’s main protagonist, John Galt, is a test of endurance. but, I stress, worth persisting through.

I guess the book can be read on two levels. Either a relatively simplistic tale of unwarranted greed from untalented bureaucrats on the make, milking the producers of wealth through taxes and legislation, and wrapped up with a romance between high powered industrialists – or a complex analysis of a dystopian society in which America collapses as the men of ideas and leaders of production withdraw their labour and brains from society in order to show the world that the grabbers and shysters cannot survive without them. The latter level involves a hefty slug of economics, philosophy and governance.

I read this book on recommendations from a number of friends and also from hearing it is regularly referenced in the US as one of the most influential books of the last century. Indeed, the Adobe President and CEO cited it as one of his favourite books of all time so I thought I had better check it out. Interestingly it isn’t well known on this side of the Atlantic. I don’t know why that is but I would hazard a guess that post-war Britain wasn’t ready for a right-wing, conservative eulogy on big business. Or maybe it was just too long and too complex for the British public. Not that we were without our novelists writing superlative prose whilst carrying a political or philosophical message wrapped within. Indeed, the dystopian society that Rand describes brought George Orwell at his best to mind. Animal Farm described the breakdown of orderly society ten years earlier than Rand and Nineteen-Eighty-Four described an extreme regime and its devastating effects on society. But whilst Orwell was deeply socialist and believed in the ‘common man’ (see Down and Out in London and Paris), Rand was a republican and had trenchant views on man’s role on earth to produce, and that from ideas flow products which make society richer and more fulfilled. Therefore to tax and curb those who have the ideas, those who invent, those who build great companies, is destructive for society as a whole.

I won’t give you a synopsis of the book – you can read cleverer people than me analyse Rand’s book, Rand’s philosophy and Rand’s place in the literary and philosophy worlds. You’ll find them all over the internet. What I will say is that it is a profound, disturbing, clever, beautifully-written, edgy, heroic novel. It has been described as her “Magnus Opus” and nothing suggests to me that such a sobriquet is unjustified – not just relating to her output but also to all 20th century novelists.

This is one book, along with most of Dickens output and some of Hardy’s works, that I wish I had read 30 years ago. If you have not taken the time I urge you to take two weeks off, find a beach somewhere and immerse yourself it. I now have to buy my own copy as I am sure I will be reading it again before the fullness of time.

Tangential Verdict: Deserves a place next to your copy of Lord of The Rings, War and Peace and Les Miserables, not just because it is in the top ten of longest novels published but because Ayn Rand should also be viewed alongside J.R.R Tolkein, Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo.

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