Someone on my Tumblr blog asked me to give a brief, spoiler-free review of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, to advise them on whether or not to buy it. Bearing in mind that, in terms of sheer number of copies read, Atlas may well be the single most influential libertarian work ever published, I thought the subject matter of my review was pertinent enough to the subject of this blog to warrant reposting. So here follows my brief, spoiler-free review of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book which for me, as for many libertarians, was the book which “converted” them to begin with, and remains one of the most important influences on my thought:
“Have you read Atlas Shrugged? (and if so give us a quick review)”
Yes I have, and simply put, it is the greatest novel ever written.
It crafts an extraordinarily broad, living, breathing world, which drips with a level of rich detail and atmosphere rarely found outside literary masterpieces of similar stature, such as War and Peace. Through this world it weaves an immensely satisfying plot, which positively charges forward with an intriguing inexorability and an intangible sense of vague dread which makes it almost impossible to put down. All this accomplishes the remarkable feat of transforming an extremely weighty book (both in length and subject matter) into a bona fide page turner.
The plot tears through a baffling number of “the big questions” with a breathtaking level of clarity and a laser precision that I’ve never seen equalled before or since, and touches on almost every conceivable aspect of the human experience. It populates its dystopian, 1950s wasteland of a world with a cast of characters so broad, diverse, and immensely memorable that each reader will find themselves identifying most with someone slightly different, and it’s rare to find two people with exactly the same favourite character.
If I had to offer one cautionary note though, it would also be on the subject of the characters. Rand believed her job as a novelist was to present the world as it could and should be, not as it actually was. When she created a character therefore, she was not trying to create a realistic depiction of the sort of person you might actually meet in the street, but was rather trying to pluck a particular idea or abstract concept out of the air, and solidify it into the mould of a person. Now that’s all well and good, particularly when you understand where she’s coming from, but to a reader who prefers more “realistic” characters it can be distinctly jarring. To a sympathetic and appreciative reader her characters appear highly stylised but nevertheless intriguing and compelling, but to a critic or a reader who just doesn’t “get it”, they might appear wooden, “absurdly unrealistic”, or at times even inhuman.
But putting aside the unconventional characterisation and Ayn Rand’s own obnoxious character flaws, Atlas Shrugged is nevertheless an absolute monolith of English literature, philosophy, and politics, and a book that everyone should read at least once. The fact that it was deemed to be the second most influential book in America, behind only the Bible, pretty much says it all (and bearing in mind the borderline ridiculous number of people you’ll hear saying “Atlas Shrugged changed my life”, or “It was like I finally understood who I really was for the first time when I read Atlas Shrugged”, I can understand why it was judged to be so.)
Read that book!