Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Reviewed by Meagan

Published: 1957

It's about: This book is a million pages long, so I browsed a few summaries online and am stealing the summary off Wikipedia:

"The book explores a dystopian United States where leading innovators, ranging from industrialists to artists, refuse to be exploited by society. The protagonistDagny Taggart, sees society collapse around her as the government increasingly asserts control over all industry (including Taggart Transcontinental, the once mighty transcontinental railroad for which she serves as the Vice President of Operations), while society's most productive citizens, led by the mysterious John Galt, progressively disappear. Galt describes the strike as "stopping the motor of the world" by withdrawing the "minds" that drive society's growth and productivity. In their efforts, these people "of the mind" hope to demonstrate that a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed, that civilization cannot exist where people are slaves to society and government, and that the destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society."

I thought: I really, really enjoyed this book.  And I found it very interesting that a plot line that was very straightforward and even simplistic could pack such a punch, but I think it's because Ayn Rand managed to write a commentary on just about every aspect of modern American life. And what is especially fascinating is how relevant a book written more than half a century ago is to our society today.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is fascinating.  I disagree with her views about as often as I agree with them, but this was a novel that really made me think about how I feel about capitalism vs. socialism, welfare, religion, empathy, love, justice, charity, etc., etc. etc. (Remember the million pages I mentioned, the multiple "etc." are really a must :)

With this novel, Rand asks several interesting questions that don't have easy answers. For example: How much influence should government have in industry? How much should the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Should the individual be responsible for the collective? Should people be punished for individual genius or success? Do the gifts of genius or success make you the property of others? Does social responsibility exist? Should it? These may all seem like variations on a common theme, and to some degree they are. But Rand takes the time to study and dissect nearly every nuance. And even though her feelings are often obvious, she provides enough food for thought to give us dinner conversation for years to come. 

Even the concept behind the title is brilliant. Atlas Shrugged. The man holding up the world just...stops... 

Imagine the possibilities! Now who that man is, and what the consequences of his ceasing his role may mean different things to different people. And I do think that there are some points in this area Rand beats to death and some of her solutions are overly-simplistic, but love it or hate it, I don't think many readers will close the back cover feeling apathetic. And I think there is the real genius of the book. 

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? Shelf. Even if it's mostly for bragging rights (:

Reading Recommendations: As I mentioned before, this book is substantial. Rand called it her "magnum opus" and she really put everything into it. But stick with it. The story line is straightforward and interesting, you just need to keep calm and read on. I alternated between reading the text and listening to the book on tape which helped my eyes a lot (:

Warnings: Rand has been accused of being overly simplistic in her views, and disdainful of those who disagree with her. Both of these are apparent at different places in the novel, but don't miss out on the forest because of a few obnoxious trees!

Favorite excerpts: It's a long book, so I feel okay about posting a few more excerpts than normal:

To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money – and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement....[T]here appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being – the self-made man – the American industrialist.
You know, Dagny, Thanksgiving was a holiday established by productive people to celebrate the success of their work.
Here, we trade achievements, not failures – values, not needs. We're free of one another, yet we all grow together. Wealth, Dagny? What greater wealth is there, than to own your life and to spend it on growing? Every living thing must grow. It can't stand still. It must grow or perish.
Mr. Rearden," said Francisco, his voice solemnly calm, "if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood... his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders – what would you tell him to do?"
"I...don't know. What...could he do? What would you tell him?
"To shrug." 
You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live. You, who have lost the concept of the difference, you who claim that fear and joy are incentives of equal power—and secretly add that fear is the more “practical”—you do not wish to live, and only fear of death still holds you to the existence you have damned.
I am, therefore I'll think

What I'm reading next: Room by Emma Donoghue