I have not read Ayn Rand’s major work that supposedly lays out her philosophy of objectivism and that has attracted devoted followers like Speaker of the House of representatives Paul Ryan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and a host of other libertarian-minded people.
The problem was that the first work of Rand’s that came into my hands was The Fountainhead that I found at a used book store and reading it turned out to be a real chore. It was so long (720 pages) and dreary that I simply could not bring myself to plough through another, even longer, book (running to about 1,200 pages) by her. It is not that I am averse to long books since I have read and enjoyed both War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, who was no slouch himself at cranking out huge volumes of words.
But whereas Tolstoy wrote with grace and subtlety, built believable portraits of characters, and dealt with complex human relationships and issues, Rand is an author whose prose style can only be described as deadly, with characters who are always on message, two-dimensional and predictable, and never miss a chance to make speeches that relentlessly advance her philosophy, such as it is. So while I have frequently thought about reading this book just to try and understand its appeal, I just could not muster up the enthusiasm.
And yet, she seems to attract many readers, especially when they are young. Adam Lee has made reading the book even less necessary by providing a detailed précis of the ten main ideas that each of the three parts of the novel seems to make. In his review of the first part, Lee lays out the basic premise of the book.
If you’re not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.
Rand’s protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who’s invented a revolutionary new alloy which he’s modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase “Who is John Galt?”
(You can also read his deconstruction of part two.)
In the third part of the book, these ‘heroes’ decide to withdraw to a remote area in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch and live a totally self-contained existence just for themselves, depriving the world of their genius and irreplaceable skills as punishment for the way they were not truly appreciated, thus leading to misery, decay, and chaos in the world they left behind. Maybe the reason why the book appeals to the adolescent mind is that this is a version of a common childish fantasy where a child, angered by some event in their life where they were treated badly or not appreciated, thinks about running away or dying, and imagines that then the people who treated them badly will realize their error and will be sorry.
Lee says that the final third of the book contains a single speech by the hero John Galt that goes on for an incredible 34,000 words and shows us the heart of Rand’s dark and inhumane philosophy. He summarizes ten things about Rand’s views elaborated under the following headings:
- Good doctors put profit above saving lives.
- Laws should be made up by one person without any voting or debate.
- When capitalists gather in large enough numbers, consumer goods materialize all around them.
- True capitalism looks a lot like true communism.
- Women and children aren’t necessary.
- Time stops when a true capitalist is speaking.
- Humanitarians secretly want people to starve.
- The key to utopia is abandoning your oldest and most faithful friends.
- It’s okay to kill people who can’t make up their minds.
- The death of millions is a happy ending.
For those who maybe want to get Rand’s message more quickly than by reading her book, there were the three films that were made by devoted followers of Rand. They all failed miserably at the box office with gross revenues steadily dropping from $4.6 million to $3.3 million to a pitiful $860,000 for the final installment. The films were also panned by critics, with Rotten Tomatoes giving them ratings that steadily declined from 10% to 4%, to an astounding 0%.
One good thing that came out of the novel have been the jokes at its expense, such as this one by John Rogers who memorably wrote that, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
The first of the films also produced funny parodies such as this one.