Normally, when some person (or social network profile) asks me for my favorite books, I murmur something about how it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite, and then I rattle off five or ten books that I’ve enjoyed recently.
That’s because the ‘favorite book’ question is a trap! All serious bibliophiles know that it’s super uncool to have a favorite book. We know that if you have a favorite book, it’s probably because you don’t read very many books. Having a ‘favorite book’ not only betrays you as a non-reader, it also betrays what kind of non-reader you are. A down-to-earth non-reader will usually admit that their favorite book is the only book that they’ve read in the last few years-- usually the Da Vinci Code or Twilight--while a snooty non-reader will say that their favorite book was Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby or whatever other book they sort of enjoyed when they were forced to read it for class.
Except, you know what? That’s all a load of hogwash. Because not only do I have a favorite book…it’s also the most titanically embarrassing favorite book ever. My favorite book not only disqualifies me from making fun of anyone else for having a favorite book…it also cannot help but raise serious concerns about my literary acumen and moral hygiene.
I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was an eighth-grader who was travelling with my mom through India. I completely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it 10 times. I’ve owned several paperback copies of Atlas Shrugged that have literally fallen apart at the seams. Several times in my life, I have experienced moments of great psychic pain that I tried to salve by re-reading Atlas Shrugged.
If you know anything about the novel, I think you understand why I find it to be an intolerable ‘favorite novel’ candidate. Atlas Shrugged is a 1000-page novel about a group of leading industrialists who—fed up with being leeched upon by incompetent second-raters (i.e. you and me) and a redistributionist government—decide to withdraw the priceless fruits of their mental labor from the world. These industrialists and scientists go on “strike”. They disappear, and subsequently the world comes crashing down. The government finds that there is no more wealth to redistribute. America literally crumbles: factories shut down; railroad transportation becomes unreliable; starvation becomes endemic. At the end, America is reduced to medieval times: all industry has vanished; people are reduced to subsistence agriculture.
Atlas Shrugged is an extremely popular book. Sixty years after its publication, it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year. And, as far as I can tell, the primary reason for its popularity is because most of its readers identify very strongly with its industrialist heroes. These readers also feel as if they contribute much more to society than they gain from it. They feel that their lives would be better off without government interference. They feel a terrible sense of oppression: a pervasive feeling that the machinery of society runs upon the fuel of their life’s blood. Most of the lovers of Atlas Shrugged tend to be misanthropes who believe in some flavor of libertarianism. This is unsurprising. The political philosophy of the book is completely undisguised. It contains numerous 1000+ word speeches that expound on its ideal political, philosophical, and moral system (which the book’s author called ‘Objectivism,’ since she believed it to be objectively true). Most famously, it ends with a 25,000 word radio broadcast about how the prevailing philosophy of the world (that the primary purpose of one’s life should be to help other people) is sick, irrational, and cowardly. The political system advocated by the author of Atlas Shrugged (a woman named Ayn Rand) is a laissez faire capitalism in which the government’s powers are limited to defense, policing, and enforcing contracts. In her philosophical system, the highest aim of a man should be to achieve some super awesome goal (usually building something, like a railroad, or skyscraper; but her heroes also include composers, actors, judges, financiers, etc.). Basically, her heroes include anyone who might get profiled by Forbes or Fortune magazine.
I think it’s possible that when I was thirteen, for maybe a month or so, I flirted with the notion of myself as a Randian superhero (In addition to being geniuses, the heroes of her novels are always beautiful, athletic, rigorously honest, totally free of jealousy, and wonderful at all the incidentals, like fashion, sports, music, etc.) However, I don’t think Rand’s political or philosophical beliefs have strongly influenced my own thinking.
If anything, I am very suspicious of the whole notion of heroism. My bias is that people’s lives are strongly determined by their economic and social circumstances. If anyone is ‘heroic’ it is only because society has put them in a space where heroism is expected of them.
Furthermore, I am extremely skeptical of Rand’s notion that economic and intellectual progress is the product of heroic effort. For instance, in the field of scientific progress, it seems like it’s more common than not for things to be invented multiple times, independently (e.g., the television; the airplane; differential calculus; the laws of genetic inheritance; and the theory of evolution by natural selection).
For me, the entire structure of Atlas Shrugged is founded on a rotten edifice. I consider its political and philosophical theories to be nonsense. If that wasn’t bad enough, most of its biggest fans are people whom I find to be frightening and incomprehensible, and many of its detractors--people who say that the book has no artistic merit--are people whose literary judgment I respect. And that’s why I’d slowly been moving away from considering it to be my favorite book. Over the last three years, I’ve significantly expanded my reading, and I have purposefully steered clear of re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I had hoped to expand my tastes and eventually reach the point where I perceived (and was disgusted by) all the qualities that have landed the book in such disrepute amongst literary circles.
Which brings us to four days ago.
Sometimes I get a very visceral sense of the likely odds that my life is going to be a failure. I suddenly realize that it’s more likely than not that I will never produce a worthwhile novel or story. I start to imagine myself as a 35 or 40 year old who has wasted his most productive years: a future Rahul who will be considered a failure by all his friends and family. Once, when I had a similar feeling in college, I combated this feeling by reading Atlas Shrugged.
That’s what I decided to do four days ago.
First of all, it worked. That sick dread disappeared.
Second of all, I was able to see flaws that I hadn’t seen before. The most egregious one is that the final third of the book is superfluous. The character’s arcs are not furthered by the action of the last third of the novel. The only fun of this section is in getting to see the U.S. collapse in a rather long and drawn out (albeit very exciting) fashion. Furthermore, the ending feels…wrong. The book has a really taut, stirring first third, where the heroine (the Operations Vice President of a railroad) and the hero (the owner of a steel company and the inventor of a new, lighter, totes-better form of steel) fight--against government interference and public opprobrium--to build a desperately-needed rail-line out of the new steel. This first third seems to give the book the traditional structure of a naturalistic novel; one in which the heroes almost achieve success in the first act, and then are slowly crushed into paste by society during the second and third act. In this case, the set-up for the crushing is clear. The hero and heroine are struggling to avoid joining the ‘strike’. They’re unable to let their companies collapse, even though their success in running those companies is fuelling the government’s expropriatory greed. In the end of the novel, they ought to be defeated…sucked dry and discarded by the government. Instead, they eventually decide to join the strike, and then the book sort of totters onwards for another hundred and fifty thousand words.
Also, although the book’s prose isn’t without a certain elegance, it can be sloppy. People act in a rather melodramatic fashion and they make bodily motions that it’s hard to imagine them making in real life. There’s rather a lot of people collapsing to their knees and lying prostrate and making the kinds of gestures that, if you try to block them out in your mind, look fairly silly. Furthermore, most of the dialogue (although it works okay on the page) would sound abominable if spoken out loud (which the recent Atlas Shrugged movie proved pretty comprehensively). There’s a lot of people intuiting very complex emotions from another person’s eyes and there are a lot of visuals that don’t actually look like anything. As in, if you try to imagine them, you come up with a blank. But, none of that is really unforgiveable. The book has a clipped yet overwrought style, like each sentence is a rivet being pounded into the novel by a jackhammer, that I found to be very engaging.
And, oh yeah, the book is definitely still my favorite novel.
I don’t know. It’s unaccountable. I guess the only thing I can say is that when I was a few hundred pages into the book, I realized that Atlas Shrugged is not a realist novel; it’s not even a polemic; it’s a myth.
And myths play by different rules.
I mean, there never was a king who was as good as King Arthur. 90% of Kings—even (especially!) the ‘Good’s and ‘Great’s—were ruthless bastards. Almost every king was a sly crook who lived by extracting backbreaking rents from his subjects. The whole monarchical institution was, from top to bottom, extremely corrupt, and it was a wonderful day for the world when it finally disappeared. But…that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the legend of King Arthur.
You can say the same thing about any myth. They’re all full of grotesque lessons. The Lord of the Rings (as many commentators have pointed out) is pretty much a war of racial genocide: orcs deserve to die simply because they’re orcs. And, yet, we love LotR not in spite of that, but because of it. We love LotR because of the moral clarity provided by its slanted set-up. There never was a war in the real world that was quite so perfectly justified as the war of Gondor against Mordor….and that’s why there was never a real-world war that felt quite as heroic as LotR’s.
In the same way, the real world does not contain capitalist superheroes. But it should. Wouldn’t we rather live in a world where our corporations were run by beautiful inventor-geniuses?
The heroism of Atlas Shrugged is accessible to us. It’s composed of the same elements as our own lives. The heroes of Rand’s novels struggle to build things; they decide that it would be excellent and beautiful for something to exist, and then they make it exist. And the enemy that they struggle with is of the same type as the enemies we encounter in our lives. The typical Randian villain is a faceless, mindless bureaucrat or an indifferent, blankly-staring crowd. In the same way, we encounter very few concrete villains when we set out to do something; usually our obstacle is just a sort of global indifference…no one in the world really cares whether we succeed or not…the world is composed of actors who are pursuing their own aims and who, in the course of doing so, happen to erect obstacles against us.
When I am a 35 year old failure, it won’t be because Sauron invaded my kingdom and blackened my fields and destroyed my castles. It will be because I wrote stories that no one cared about. It will be because I released work into the world and received only silence. It will be because thousands of readers read the first few pages of my book and then put it back on the shelf.
To me, there’s something mythologically powerful in Rand’s rendering of these malevolent forces as a horde of thoughtless, cliché-spouted government buffoons. There’s something that captures the imagination about beautiful business tycoons working with all their strength and intelligence and then being spit upon by an ungrateful public.
Not only that, she also creates such beautiful mirages. Her heroes and heroines are utterly self-contained. They might be thwarted, but they are never unhappy. They never feel shame. They never feel jealousy. They are perfectly secure in their own perfection.
There is something supercharged about them. They’re like airbrushed models: they’re more beautiful than anything that can exist in reality…but that doesn’t stop us from being susceptible to that beauty.
And they’re dangerous in the same way that airbrushed models are dangerous. Because her heroes and heroines act so powerfully on our senses—on our sense of the way that people should be—we can get too caught up in chasing after these mirages. The end result is blindness to the real conditions of the world.
But I don’t think it is a flaw in a work of art to be too successful at creating a fantastic illusion, and I don’t think it’s a flaw in myself that I am susceptible to that illusion.
Of course, it’s pretty clear that this is not the way Ayn Rand intended her book to be understood. In the last line of the version I read (in the Author Notes), she writes: “Let no one tell me that these men don’t exist. I have met them.”
She wanted her work to be taken literally. And she wanted it to touch off a movement for political reform. In fact, there’s a whole section of the book where the composer Richard Halley says that he only wants fans who appreciate his music in the way it was meant to be understood…that he’s tired of buffoons who have an emotional reaction to his work without appreciating it intellectually.
To Ayn Rand, people like me would be the fools. But, whatever, she’s dead. And the book is a lot better for her absence.
Atlas Shrugged is a tremendously powerful work that’s a victim of its own specificity. If she’d eliminated the speeches and allowed a little more room for nuance (in the way that, say, Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina), I think it would be seen as the great work of literature that it is. And I think there is a chance that someday the political situation in the U.S. will change in such a way that appreciation for Atlas Shrugged is not politically distasteful in the ways that I mentioned in the first third of this essay. If that happens, I think that there is a significant chance that there will be a critical reappraisal of the book’s literary merits. And, if I (through some miracle) am not a failure, then I will lead that reappraisal.
And after Ayn Rand takes her place in the canon (that she hated), I will go and dance on her grave.