It took a couple months, but I can now say I have conquered Atlas Shrugged. It is a book I’ve thought about trying to read for years, but never felt I had enough time. Then I found it on CD at our favorite used bookstore, and it was off to the races, as it filled my morning and evening commutes.
So, let’s start with the fact that lots of people hate Rand, for lots of reasons. It’s easy to understand some of that, and it’s fairly easy to see where other accusations have gone a bit astray, and it’s REALLY easy to see where knee-jerk reactions have just gone off the deep end and dumped the baby out with the bathwater.
Her writing is … not the best. I recognize that listening to a book read out loud is not the same experience as reading it off a page, and I’m not sure if the CDs made this aspect better or worse. Some of her stylistic choices are anvil-esque (that whole section about “blank out” in the radio address had me itching to hit the skip button), and some of her preaching does get in the way of her narrative (like, said radio address was three hours. I timed it, and she apparently did too, since it’s referred to as such in the book. Here on Planet Real World, the looters would have tuned out after about three minutes, and the Mr. Thompsons of the world would not have clustered around the radio listening; they would have been freaking the hell out and going on a rampage looking for how to spin it. Not to mention — at the end of the address, they are apparently all STILL STANDING UP staring at the radio. Seriously? I’d have plonked on the floor after the first hour or so.) In other spots, her writing is comically clumsy — the whole action scene at the end rescuing John Galt was bad 30s film noir put on the page.
Her overall premise is appealing in some ways, though it runs into the same problems that all zealous -isms run into. It runs to absurd extremes, and she seems to labor under the impression that if given the option, everyone would operate the way she thinks they should. It’s unclear whether Rand thinks natural resources are there to be used up, or if she thinks that rational man will develop ways to use less of them so they last longer. All politicians are bad, and all capitalists are honorable men looking to create a better product. Well, no. And her views on sex are a tad alarming, to say the least. There’s also little room for irrational emotional response. It’s also weird that the vast majority of her characters have horrible family lives — no parents, worthless siblings, unmarried, unhappily married, and no kids anywhere. (Well, almost. There’s one family with two kids in the Colorado utopia.) I can only speak from personal experience, but having a kid made a vast difference in my outlook on the world, and while I’m pretty sure I still fall squarely into the ranks of the workaholics, I also suspect there’s more to empathy and selflessness than Rand’s ideal world would include.
But here’s the real reason I won’t discount this book and so many others have. It’s a work of conservative fiction. There just isn’t much of that genre, and it gets smaller the farther you stray from the classics. Contemporary conservative fiction authors don’t tend to get throngs of admirers lining up around the block at book signings. I’m not sure why this is. Do conservative readers prefer nonfiction? Do they keep a lower emotional profile that precludes fandom? Are they just older with bad knees and hate lines? Rand’s work does tend to be more treatise than treat, but there’s got to be something in there, given that she continues to appeal to new readers.
I suspect it’s the liberal-conservative issue that is at the root of the knee-jerk Rand haters. She seems to be one of those writers who inspires extreme reactions — boundless enthusiasm or pure vitriol. (I find this interesting, because my own reaction was so very smack-dab in the middle, at the tippy top of the bell curve.) I suspect that liberal readers, confronted with a book that blasts the very core of their world view, respond as if faced with a base insult, rather than an alternative paradigm. I would posit that conservative readers of fiction are much more accustomed than liberal readers are to being confronted with the dichotomy of loving a book while despising the worldview that it (or its author) espouses, simply because there is so much more liberal fiction out there. And perhaps the problem with Rand is that her stories aren’t great enough to overcome that overwhelmingly hostile reaction to an alien viewpoint.
In any event, I’ll take Fifty CDs of Rand over Fifty Shades of Grey, any day of the week. How’s that for damning with faint praise?