Well, anything is brief compared to that insipid read.
In short, my feelings about the book are akin to those of Officer Barbrady. Though I will not discontinue reading for all eternity, the book did nearly sap me of my life precious.
I did have a few positive reactions to the book. It wasn’t nearly as dry or dull a read as I had expected. In fact, Ayn Rand’s prose style is eminently readable and somewhat engrossing.
Did I say a few? Okay, I really only had one nice comment because this book is both an artistic and philosophical nightmare.
Though Rand’s prose prevents the book from becoming completely tedious, the fact of the matter is that it is still long, and it feels long. I own a relatively small print edition of the book, and it still clocked in at 1,069 pages, and by about page 250 I was ready to wrap up. I can deal with long books – when they are good books, and when the author is not repetetive. Unfortunately Atlas Shrugged is not a good book but Ayn Rand is certainly repetitive. She had basically made her point effectively about a third of the way through, but she insisted on writing essentially the same dialogue for another 700 pages. We get it: producers are good, self-interest is a virtue, non-producers are scum. Understood. Stop repeating it.
There’s also the little problem that there are no realistic characters worth supporting. The villains are indeed villainous, but frankly the protagonists are no walk in the park. And does every single male character really need to fall in love with Dagny Taggart?
Speaking of falling in love, I didn’t think it was humanly possible to write worse sex scenes than Barry Eisler in the otherwise excellent John Rain series, but Rand takes out every romantic and humanizing aspect of love-making and turns it into an ugly and frankly repulsive act. I’m no prude, but I could have lived without what were essentially a bunch of rape scenes, for that’s the best way to describe Rand’s vision of sex.
Amazingly, Rand’s one virtue disappears at the book’s pinnacle moment: John Galt’s ponderous speech to the world. For 900 pages Rand had at least eloquently stated her philosophic vision, but that is completely erased by Galt’s excruciatingly dull and insipid talk. If I had been a member of the listening audience I would have turned off the radio and quickly made like Cheryl Taggart (Dagny’s sister-in-law, who ends up killing herself), because I would have realized that my only choices were a dehumanizing totalitarian system and a dehumanizing and boring capitalist system. Joy.
Besides, the speech doesn’t even make sense from the plot’s standpoint. The strikers have slowly been implementing their plan, and the way they choose to finally go public is a three-hour lecture? Would that actually work in the real world? I’m sure people had longer attention spans in 1957, but there are limits to anyone’s endurance.
And that leads to the philosophic problems with the book, namely with Rand’s objectivist philosophy. Now as a conservative with libertarian sympathies, especially as it relates to economics, one would expect me to agree with much of what Rand has written. In a word, no. In two words, hell no. Oh, that’s right, there is no hell.
The atheism is only a small part of the issue with objectivism. Galt (and thus Rand’s) objection to the concept of original sin is naive, but even absent this aspect of objectivism, it remains a dehumanizing and abhorrent moral philosophy. Rand detests totalitarianism, it is true, but other writers have written better and less repugnant works in defense of capitalism and against totalitarianism. If libertarians and conservatives wish to seek out inspirational works on the topic, they are better off with the likes of George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Sowell, Wilhelm Roepke, F.A. Hayek and countless others.
The fundamental problem is that Rand is as naive about human nature as the socialist utopians. After all, a utopian is a utopian, whether they are Marxian or Randian utopians. Therefore the rejection of the concept of original sin is something of a problem because it blinds Rand to the idea that human beings cannot simply shut off their passionate desires. If totalitarians are blind to the reality that human nature cannot be perfected, Rand is blind to the fact that the altruistic tendencies of humans cannot similarly be wiped out. Believe it or not, we are social beings (Aristotle and Aquinas being right), and it is simply unrealistic – and Rand is supposed to be about reason and realism – to expect humans to simply ignore these aspects of their personality.
It is as if Rand desired to turn Rousseau on his head. I expected her to write at some point that the “man who feels is a depraved animal.” Where Rousseau and his followers glorified the passions, the Randians put reason above all else. Neither seems to understand that humans are reasonable and passionate animals, and to deny either aspect of their natures is to reject human nature altogether.
It is understandable why Rand’s works might be popular these days. Some of what she wrote about clearly strikes a chord, and she wasn’t a complete crank in that regard. But surely we can reject the opposite extreme. So let’s not go all John Galt, because then I might be forced to go all Cheryl Taggart.
Update: Donald McLarey links to the excellent Whittaker Chambers review from National Review. Also check out Maclin Horton’s blog post, and do note the ensuing kerfuffle in the comments section. (Pay particular attention to the very first commenter.) H/t: Chris Blosser.
Update 2: Again courtesy of Christopher Blosser, Objectivism Illustrated: