Atlas Shrugged may be the most demanding work of literature I have read since university. It is certainly the only novel since then for which I have also bought a reader, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion
fiftieth anniversary collection of essays, and it is only now, having finished that, that I am turning to writing a review. At about 1,200 pages (always a bit hard to tell from a Kindle edition) it is also, give or take the occasional "space opera", the longest work I've read for a long time. So: was it worth it?
Arguably this is a work of fiction that is more germane today that it ever was. In a month where the government of one European state, Cyprus, exercised a "levy" thought to be over 40% on investors with over 100,000 on deposit, it's worth considering Rand's depiction of the causes and effects of state-backed "looting and mooching". While I find it surprising, 55 years on, that she could have seen the seeds of such statist decadence in the US of the 1940s and 1950s, the New Deal notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the European Union would have represented, to Rand, an (un)worthy successor to the Soviet Union as the archetype of a well meaning but ultimately corrupting and self-defeating super-state. Every day the news abounds with stories of government spending tax payers' money because they feel that "something must be done", or perhaps just that they feel that they ought to be seen to be doing something. Rand was clear: the best thing government can do is stick to maintaining freedom through the rule of law, and then by getting (the hell) out of individuals' way.
I doubt that anyone reads Atlas Shrugged today without knowing that they are reading a philosophical novel from a right wing, more or less libertarian perspective. There are those who claim that it is a great novel in its own right. While few would argue that works of fiction achieve greatness without giving us insights into some profound aspects of the human condition, few if any literary contenders focus so exclusively on the socio-economic and political facets. The narrative is interesting, it's exciting (although it could probably have been more exciting had it been shorter) and the imagery is arresting. Dagny Taggart is without doubt a compelling female role-model. My enjoyment may have been prejudiced a little by the knowledge that every character had been created to represent a particular viewpoint, and I may have spent too long trying to work out what they were, but I can't help thinking that the storyline suffers from all the characters being archetypes.
Characters tend to be either heroic or contemptuously villainous, and there's a distinct white hat/black hat feel to them, made all the more obvious by Rand's unsubtle use of physical attractiveness as a key to character. Perhaps this was the Hollywood screenwriter in her. The heroes are physically attractive while the baddies are ugly. Dagny's brother, James Taggart, the worst sort of pork barrel businessman, is first described as having "a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead". Dangy's three lovers, by contrast, Copper magnate Francisco D'Anconia, steel foundry owner Hank Reardon, and the inventor and philosopher John Galt, suffer only from being just too heroic, too near to godlike to make entirely believable characters. It's hard to develop empathy with an archetype, and I found only Dagny herself to be truly engaging.
Atlas Shrugged was the last work of fiction that Ayn Rand wrote. I suspect that after this book, and The Fountainhead that preceded it (by 14 years) she no longer needed to worry about money, and she devoted herself to developing her philosophy of "Objectivism" in non-fiction works. I can't say that I found it entirely easy to glean what objectivism was about from the novel alone (Younkins' reader has gone some way to plugging the gap since). Suffice to say that hers is a harsh and elitist philosophy, in which 99% of humanity could at best aspire to be the loyal "common man" represented by Dagny's right hand man, Eddie Willers.
John Galt's credo, and presumably therefore Rand's own, is "I swear by my life and for my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." While one may admire the entrepreneurialism, drive and personal responsibility of Rand's entrepreneurs, I do find her blanket condemnation of altruism misplaced. She appears to discourage personal altruism, not just state-backed, taxpayer-funded altruism. Does she condemn the Rockefellers, the Carnegies and now the Buffetts and the Gates for giving much of their fortunes to aid others? Is it not part of our role and our worth as human beings to look after other members of our "tribe"? Certainly, contemporary genetic theory from the likes of Steve Jones seems to suggest so. Credo: we should all be prepared to live a little of our lives for the sake of others.
As far as specifically ebook related comment on this Kindle edition, it's pretty good from what was probably a scan of a printed version, with a singular but oft repeated error that a small amount of proof reading would have fixed: every time the letter "a" follows a capital W, and some other letters too, it too was rendered as a capital. The frequently visited Wayne-Falkland hotel was rendered every time as the "WAy ne-Falkland". Amusing in a way, but distracting.
This is a book I feel sure that I will re-read again in the future, and I may yet read some of Rand's non-fiction. Great work that it is, however, this is not a book that I feel I can award 5 stars, but it's certainly worth reading - even if you don't fully understand, or feel you entirely like, all aspects of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy.