Friday, April 25, 2014

Door Stop: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

No, your eyes do not deceive you. This post is indeed on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I, like many of you probably, believed for a long time that no one actually ever read this book...not all of it. Why would they? I've never even heard of anyone ever being assigned it in school. But I assure you, as unbelievable as it may seem, even to myself, I have in fact read all 1168 pages of Atlas Shrugged.

The Situation: It is commonly understood that Dagny Taggert is the real power behind Taggert Transcontinental Railroads. Her official title may be that of Operating Vice President, but since her older brother James, that actual president, is incapable of making a real decision, much less one that affects the railroad for the better, Dagny runs the show and does an excellent job of it. James deeply resents his sister's ability to make effective improvements, brilliant business deals, and other decisions that only further the influence and profit of an already great railroad. He will sometimes make decisions of his own, ready to take the glory for them if they succeed, but even more ready to shift the blame to someone else if they fail. James also makes his decisions under the guise of helping the common good, and accuses his sister of only caring about making money. So while James and his friends in Washington seek to force major businesses into sacrificing for the common good, Dagny is making friends and striking deals with the leaders and owners of those businesses, making the best of the increasing amount of restrictions James and his friends attempt to impose.

The Problem: Just as Dagny and her like-minded business partners make incredible strides in the industry, James and his friends in Washington find a way to take those advancements from them in an attempt to spread the profits around and give everyone equal access. This ultimately causes the competent to run at a loss, and the incompetent to have the means to produce, but because they are incompetent, they don't produce enough. If that wasn't bad enough, it seems that accidents such as trains derailing and mills catching on fire are happening more and more often. Plus, the inventors, scientists, and leaders of the large companies are disappearing and abandoning their companies and causing whatever market they were in to suddenly have a shortage. It soon becomes clear to Dagny that none of this is an accident, and someone who was once a childhood friend has admitted as much and is proud of being a part of it. But Dagny is resolved to never abandon Taggert Transcontinental and continue fighting, even when there are now two opposing sides who insist on having her lose.

Genre, Themes, History: Clocking in at just about 40 pages shy of 1200, this book has earned the heading of "door stop." In fact, this is the second longest book I have ever read...War and Peace still holds the blue ribbon for first place in that category. Atlas Shrugged could also fall into a few interesting and unexpected (to me at least) genres such as science fiction, dystopian fiction, alternate history, historical fiction, mystery/thriller, and even romance. It takes place in an unspecified time period, when railroads were still a massive deal. The best estimation would be late 1800s to about 1930s or depression era America. The primary theme is probably greed, along with capitalism. It is reiterated over and over, without shame or any attempt to disguise it, that people should be able to invent and produce whatever they can, and do with it what they want, and hold onto the profits however they please. In fact, they are encouraged not to share anything: not their genius, not their product, not their profits, nothing. And anyone who thinks otherwise is not only an idiot, but also evil. The man who serves as the poster child of this philosophy is presented as somewhat of a Jesus figure, while preaching almost the exact opposite of what Jesus preached during his ministry. And at one point, Rand makes an appearance in her own book. At least I think she does. There is a point where the greed poster child points out a female writer who has followed him and explains that her books and ideas were not accepted by the public. The reader doesn't actually get to meet the writer or hear anything she has to say, but it seemed to me that Rand had placed herself within her own book. This isn't unheard of, of course, but if this writer is supposed to be Rand, then I'd say she is also making it clear that she supports what the greed poster child stands for.

My Verdict: This book is exhausting. Make no mistake about it. Most books become easier to read as you go along because you eventually find a rhythm to reading them and get used to the language, allowing you to read faster and faster the further along you get. With Atlas Shrugged, I had the opposite happen. Yes, I did find a natural rhythm after about page 200 that allowed me to go along a little smoother, but for the most part, all 1200 pages were a struggle. It was part the ideas that were presented, part the complete absence of likable characters, and part the epic speeches that every character seemed to feel entitled to make. One in particular goes on for 60 pages. For me, with a speech that long, and especially for one that was advocating what it was advocating, I not only eventually lose interest, but I also eventually just get angry. I felt like I was listening to the rant of a drunk man where the longer he insists on holding you hostage with his nonsense, the harder you find it to be polite. I have a hard time believing that even if you agree with what was being said, you'd be okay with having to read all of these speeches that are essentially making the same point over and over again, which more or less boils down to people wanting to keep their money and not share with anyone, but it's said with fancier words and high rhetoric in an attempt to be convincing. From what I gathered, they want everything, and they believe they deserve it because they are the inventors and producers. And if you don't agree, then God help you. Those who don't agree not only endure the speeches, but the insults within them. As I mentioned before, those who don't agree are made out to be idiots and the evil of the earth. The book has every inventor, producer, scientist, and genius turn out to be selfish and greedy, and proud of it, and only those that don't invent and produce and who aren't geniuses could possibly be the ones who believe in sacrifice and sharing. Even Dagny, who doesn't completely agree with what is being said in the beginning, holds the same basic belief. But I eventually lose all respect for her opinion when it becomes clear that she is simply attracted to the most powerful man around. 

For me, there just aren't any likable characters in the book, and I can't get behind what it preaches. The story itself, without all of the philosophy, is actually quite good. But around page 600, Rand takes what I like to refer to as a "Huck Finn" turn. Essentially, a Huck Finn turn is when a completely unlikeable character is introduced into the story and ends up sticking around for the reminder of the novel, despite the reader's desperate wish that they would disappear or be killed off. I named the situation after Mark Twain's novel because it happens twice within Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. First when the duke and the king make their appearance and are allowed to stick around for a ridiculously long time, and second when Tom Sawyer shows up on the scene near the end of the book. Such a turn also takes place in Atlas Shrugged, and it is brutal. So, for these reasons, it won't surprise anyone when I say that I did not like this book.

Favorite Moment: When Eddie Willers, a childhood friend of Dagny's who now also works at Taggert Transcontinental, makes a discovery about himself in relation to how he feels about his friend and coworker.

Favorite Character: There really isn't anyone I can choose here. I mean no one. Even the ones attempting to do good are terrible. Just awful.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to Atlas Shrugged, I recommend Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, because if what Rand had put down in this book were to actually happen, I believe the world Huxley presented in his book is a pretty reasonable and eventual outcome. 

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