Thursday, January 6, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

For years my wife has been asking me to read Atlas Shrugged. She read it for the first time in high school and it has remained one of her favorite books ever since. I always told her that I'd read it but figured I had decades left before I die and there are always so many books on my to-be-read pile that reading it was never planned for the near future. When she finally started using the I-read-all-of-the-Dark-Tower-books-by-Stephen-King-you-told-me-I-had-to-read argument, I figured I needed to make good on my promise.

It was published in 1957, which I think is helpful to know to understand the context in which it was written. It was shortly after the Korean conflict and in the midst of McCarthyism, when the fear of Communism was on most Americans' mind. The book revolves around John Gault, one of the most enlightened minds in the country. When he learns that his invention of a motor that would be fueled by static electricity thereby increasing the efficiency of virtually every aspect of civilization is going to be subsumed by the government and become the property of the state, he decides to go on strike.

The "brain strike" as he refers to it, is subsequently taken by all of the major leaders of industry, transportation, and commerce throughout the country. Those individuals who are responsible for the economy and ultimately the country's survival walk away and join Gault, where they're free to use their minds and their abilities without government intervention to advance technology, efficiency, and ultimately their own profitability within their hidden and closed civilization. As the titans abandon the country, the country quickly falls apart and the government leaders who insisted that their decisions were always for the betterment of society are revealed to have destroyed it with their involvement and control.

I'm conflicted about this book. On the one hand, to read Rand's political philosophy during a time when our government believes that some businesses are too big to fail and has intervened in order to save them, and at a time that many citizens believe that the government is becoming too involved in the decision making abilities of its citizens, was remarkably appropriate and timely. And there were passages that I thought were brilliant such as when a government leader, pleading with Gault to intervene and rescue the country by offering him all the power and decision-making abilities possible, tells him that if he thinks the citizens should be free he'll be able to force them to be free.

On the other hand, there were many things about the book that I couldn't stand. Rand's characters, who are supposed to be some of the brightest people on the planet, speak using dialogue that was juvenile at best. All of her characters were one-sided. Those who were proponents for her philosophy were given the best of characteristics while those whose beliefs were contrary to hers were given all of the worst. The government officials, the real antagonists in the book spoke and acted as if their sense of logic hadn't evolved since the 6th grade. She places the book in a poorly thought out futuristic era. It's never explained what year it's supposed to be. But apparently there's some need to have a calendar continually and inexplicably projected into the sky for people to refer to. Every time that was mentioned I thought "she's finally going to explain what the point of this is" but she never did. Throughout the book her characters go on long drawn out tirades in which they explain Rand's philosophical viewpoints. The final one given by Gault took me two days to read. The book is extremely and unnecessarily long and winded, kind of like this review has become - so I'm done.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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