Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Rand: Atlas Shrugged—Retrospective, Not Review

Atlas Shrugged is fiction that still provokes love/hate reflexive responses. Like Dune, Ayn Rand's magnum opus influenced a large segment of the populace. Like Catch 22, it hit some nerves. Like Stranger In a Strange Land, even its flaws resonated with readers of its day.

Rather than go on about the book's length (the 1996 anniversary edition is still over 1000 pages) or its improperly-perceived "right-leaning philosophy", why not try to think of a seminal work that is currently hot and fresh?

What book will we be picking apart 20, 30, 50 years from now that is IT today?

Atlas Shrugged followed Ayn Rand's first novel by 20 years, and came on the heels of two decades of seeing her newly-adopted country, the US, become more like the Soviet Russia she had fled. Remember, this was the late 1950s, and McCarthyism was the political correctness of the day.
"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."
--John Galt, from Atlas Shrugged

That's the philosophy Rand takes 1000+ pages to embody. I defy anyone to place that in either a right or a left corner.

John Galt and the others who "shrug" are creators, thinkers, swimmers against the collectivist, censoring, small-minded stream. It does not take too narrow a squint to see them recast as the bloggers of their day.

Do I feel that Atlas Shrugged is perfect, or even the best book I ever read? No, far from it. The novel is deeply flawed as a narrative, chiefly by Rand's urge to pontificate and preach. Her characters are sometimes wooden, and she has little sympathy for the good but peripheral actors in the tale. And Rand seemed constitutionally unable to concede a scrap of goodness to any character she had assigned to the "evil" side of the ledger.

But like Stranger In a Strange Land, Dune and Catch 22, this book transcends its shortcomings by the sheer power of its message. That's why, 35 years after its first release, Atlas Shrugged could be cited as the "second most influential book for Americans today" after the Bible (according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club).


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