Book Club Review: Atlas Shrugged

Oh. This book.

I hesitated to write a review because people have very strong feelings about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but I decided that anything I devoted six months of my life to deserves a little acknowledgement. That it took me half a year to read should be an indication of my complicated feelings regarding this book.

Our friend Travis (he did the bike tour with us) recommended Atlas Shrugged as one of his favorite books. Considering there are only three books (Love in the Time of Cholera, The Count of Monte Cristo and Life of Pi) that I would ever recommend to anyone, I take recommendations seriously, so I downloaded it on Kindle and got to work. The first thing you’ll notice, it’s a long, long book.

All signs indicated that I should have liked Atlas Shrugged. I liked the story and I liked the philosophy,  but I didn’t like them together. It’s a complex book, so I won’t try to explain the whole thing (if you want an in depth look at the book, go here), but I will give a brief overview in case you too have always heard this book mentioned but never really knew what it was about.

The Story:

Atlas Shrugged is set in an alternate version of the United States at an undefined point in time,  and the mood is not great. Big government is imposing lots of controls on the country, which are stifling innovation and hurting the economy; morale is low, and industrialists are disappearing left and right. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Who is John Galt?”

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I won’t tell you the answer to that. You’ll have to read the book, but the question is uttered as a response to a complicated question as a poor substitute for intellectual curiosity.

Dagny Taggart, the de facto head of her family’s railroad company, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, are the last remaining industrialists, and they are working, despite the best efforts of the government and their families to keep their companies (and industries) afloat and keep America moving. Dagny’s an awesome heroine. She’s strong, beautiful, smart and talented, and I very much enjoyed reading about her. Hank, too, is a compelling character, and their complicated relationship is captivating.

That’s the thing. The story is interesting. It makes you want to read more, but it’s so broken up by incredibly long winded inner (and outer) monologues given by the characters as a means to advance Rand’s theories. Every time I was sucked into the story, one of the characters would launch into a 1500 word speech to convey an argument that could have been made in  500 words. At that point, I would lose interest and put the book down, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a month.

It wasn’t that I hated the theory. I didn’t. I won’t reveal whether I agree or disagree with it; that’s too complicated. Still, it was interesting, just way too heavy handed.

The Philosophy:

I wouldn’t tell you who John Galt was, but I will let you know what the title of the book is all about (you know, so you can share it at literary parties and stuff). The function of the mythical Atlas is to literally support the weight of the world on his shoulders.

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Hank Rearden is asked by another pivotal character, Francisco D’Anconia, what he would say to Atlas as he watched the titan’s burden become unbearably heavier as the world demanded more of him.  Rearden is unable to answer, so he throws the question back to D’Anconia who responds simply with, “To shrug.” The question is obviously symbolic of the pressure put on the country’s industrialists to keep the nation on track, and the answer gives you a preview of Rand’s philosophy.

I have an even looser grasp on the theory, than the story, so, again, please refer to a better source if you want a better explanation, but I saw it as Rand posing a question to readers: “Who are you working for?”

Dagny and Hank struggle  to produce for the benefit of the people who are creating the obstacles they struggle against. It’s a self defeating cycle. They work because they are passionate about creating and producing, but they begin to wonder if maybe producing for the sake of valueless tyrants is actually a disservice to their passions. They start to discover that people can only be exploited so long as they allow themselves to be.

The philosophy explores what would happen if the producers of the world essentially withdrew their minds and talents from society. As you can imagine, the results are not great.

The Combination of Story and Philosophy:

Atlas Shrugged is essentially Rand’s manifesto. I didn’t know this going into the book, and probably would have read some of her other works before diving into this one as it is rather intense if you’re not familiar with her.

She is not a master of subtlety. The characters are more like caricatures than actual people. She explains it best:

“My characters are never symbols, they are merely men in sharper focus than the audience can see with unaided sight. . . .  My characters are persons in whom certain human attributes are focused more sharply and consistently than in average human beings.” (source)

I’ll give it to her that they have more depth than figures in a typical allegory, but they are sometimes too far fetched to be believable, and it takes away from the book. The constant breaks in the advancement of the plot make it hard to stay connected to the story. I think the theory would have shown through just as clearly if she had just told the story without all the philosophical interludes, but who am I to tell a writer how to create a manifesto?

People who have read this book will sometimes speak of it in a way that evokes magical transformation. It’s as if reading this book will forever alter the way you perceive the world.  I loved this quote from Paul Kruger:

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” (source)

It didn’t change my worldview, partly because it is so heavy handed. I am conditioned to believe that anything someone works  so hard to convince people of isn’t very plausible. Besides, the entire context of the book is so hypothetical, that it’s hard to imagine an application of the philosophy.

Still, I’m glad I finally got through it. It makes some really interesting and thought provoking points. Then it makes them 47 more times. Then just 12 more times for good measure. But, seriously, she poured her whole heart into this magnum opus, and you can tell. Even if you disagree with every point she makes, you can’t help but respect her passion.

If you’re looking for an interesting story, watch the movie, and skip all the theorizing. If you’re in need of a brain burner, read this book. Or maybe just download it as an audiobook, so you can fast forward through the all the repetition. But you have to admit, you’re dying to know who John Galt is, aren’t you?

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