Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Buy Atlas Shrugged (Centennial Edition) here

From the time I was in high school I heard how brilliant this book was. I remember seeing one of my friends reading this really fat paperback, which turned out to be Atlas Shrugged. I wondered what was so great about it, but it took me forty years to get around to read it. It seemed like another forty years to get through it. I saw an interview of William F. Buckley on Charlie Rose where he said he read it for pretty much the same reason I did, and that it was horrible. He had to flog
himself to read it. That is the perfect description of what one has to do to get through this monster. And believe me, you really gotta wanna do it.

I am not the sort of person who has to finish something they start. I am a great starter of things, but not a finisher. A quitter, you might say. So why did I beat myself into reading this thing? There were financial reasons. First, I generally buy books from Amazon because I live in Italy. There are a few places here in Venice where I can get English language books, but the selection is limited. Also, it is often cheaper to buy the book and have it shipped. So, I did that, or thought I did. On my first try I ended up with the SparkNotes. For about eighteen bucks.  (Note to self: read the description of the book before you buy it.) Since I would rather cut my wrists and hang upside-down rather than deal with the people at the Italian post office, I kept it and ordered the paperback, this time paying attention to what the heck I was doing. So I got the thing for probably another fifteen bucks (I don’t recall, exactly). Problem was, the print was about the size of that on the little paper that come in a box of pills. The years have not been kind to my vision and I couldn’t read it, even with glasses. So, being committed to it, I bought the hardcover. Someone somewhere thought that this book is so important (and it is still one of the best selling books of all time) that it ought to be real expensive. So I was into the project for about another fifty-six bucks. (Don’t leave the receipts for things like that laying around for your wife to find.)

It took me months to read the damn thing. I read several other books in between, just to support my opinion that Atlas Shrugged sucked. But what was I going to do? I had close to a C-note invested in it.

This book weighs in at close to 1,200 pages. I think it’s the longest book I have ever read.  I have heard people say that it should not matter how long a book is. And it don’t. Unless it is a 400-page book that is made into a 1,200 page book. 

Atlas Shrugged is the companion book to The Fountainhead, which is a sort of prelude. The books together espouse Rand’s philosophy of objectivism which, in a nutshell, glorifies the individual, particularly the really smart and talented, over the masses. I have no problem with that. I think it’s true that there are a few great and brilliant thinkers and doers upon whose backs society is built and runs. Think about the relative handful of people who have made your world what it is today.

In Atlas Shrugged, the world has moved toward a system of government that is clearly meant to resemble Soviet-style communism (Ayn Rand having come from commie Russia).  In the U.S. the government takes over every aspect of life. For example, to deal with an economic “crisis,” the government declares that you can’t quit your job, and you can’t be fired. People are paid according to their need, rather than the value of their work, and businesses put their money into a common pot, the proceeds of which are distributed to companies that need it. So all the wealth is shifted from those who produce or are profitable, to those who are not. There is no more investment or research, and the existing infrastructure is let rot. Some of the elite of the country decide to go on strike and disappear from society. (The working title of the book was The Strike). In the end, the whole thing falls apart, with the help of a little sabotage, all production and transportation comes to a halt, and the country is utterly impoverished. That’s it. That’s the story. So, the story contrasts those who are smart and great achievers with those who are virtually useless. The book shows what happens when the useless get in control to take from the productive and profitable. It becomes a crime to be successful and profitable.

My main beef with the book is that it belabors the point, and is sometimes preachy. The book, however, is not irrelevant, even today. In fact, I see a lot of what the book is about happening with this “Occupy” movement. The protesters, to the extent anyone can actually determine what they are protesting, are against corporations and banks. But what would they have done? Dismantle them? Shift the profits to them? Gee, I dunno, but it seems to me that the U.S. was built on that sort of thing. Maybe these people haven’t read the book. I digress.

So, should you read the book? Here’s the irony of it all. The solution was dropped into my lap by providence, but I did not recognize it. When I got the SparkNotes, I should have stopped there. I could have read the plot, a description of the characters, what they mean, and a discussion of the philosophy. I would have been out of the whole thing for eighteen American, and got more out of it in one hell of a lot less time. Important book? You bet. But goddamn, it’s long.

Buy Atlas Shrugged here


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