Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thoughts Concerning Atlas Shrugged

The worst thing about this book is that it has been cited #2 — preceded only by the Bible — as the most influential work on American lives.

The second worst thing about this book: just about everything else.

I mean, I appreciated the idea of it. And it's the idea of it (along with the ingenious title) that prompted me to ever pick it up in the first place. After all, I agree with most the basics: society would cease to exist as we know it, without brilliant new ideas and honest competition. Communism is bad, capitalism is good. Et cetera.

In fact, this nearly 1,200 page novel is a testament to laissez-faire economics (it's no wonder Allen Greenspan was one of the first members of Rand's inner circle). But it's the heartless rationale underlying Rand's objectivist philosophy that drove me bonkers.

I mean, her heroes and heroines are miserable people — and not just because they're stifled by a controlling futuristic government that punishes the successful (now very realistic, I must admit)... but because they're devoid of any real feeling, apart from a zeal for work and occasional bouts of nihilism. And those who do demonstrate any... compassion... are exposed as lunatics and/or sadistic frauds.

Add to that every pedagogical viewpoint spews forth like diarrhea of the mouth in very unlikely settings (with Rand having one character ask another a question that leads to 2 pages worth of rambling on sundry economic inanities), and it was difficult... nay, impossible, for me to side with those Americans (apparently I'm in the minority) who have allowed Rand to so greatly influence their lives.

But you know, in a way that makes a lot of sense: because I seem to be running into a lot of people who don't give a damn about anyone else. But I digress.

There is one scene early on that I really liked — a scene that so clearly defined what I actually liked about Rand — not to mention, a situation I'm very much so familiar with:

The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, wakes up from a train ride to realize the locomotive is no longer moving. She walks outside to find the engineer and the rest of the crew all standing around the signal, which had beckoned them to stop. And because it remained red, they refused to move on even though there was no viable reason for it to remain red for as long as it had.

Dagny insists that they continue and — as COO of the railroad — promises that she will accept blame if anything bad should happen as they continue down the line despite the warning signal.

But this is very early on in the book, and Rand spends the next 150 pages reiterating the same point over and over, in a far less poignant fashion.

And I limit my knowledge to the remaining 150 pages because I didn't bother finishing this book. I felt like I got the point after that scene, and everything else was wasted time.

I mean, even the single line that defines this novel — "Who is John Galt?" — loses its luster within the first 20 pages, as Rand couldn't let the reader figure out what it meant... she has someone come out and tell us exactly what it means. Seems she was writing this book for "looters" rather than "strikers" (her terms), assuming her audience was incapable of thinking for themselves.

Every time "Who is John Galt" is repeated after this initial expose, I was as irritated as Dagny was (though for different reasons). I can only be hit over the head with a point so many times before I forget why I wanted to read the book in the first place.

I'm also a little disappointed I didn't make it all of the way to Galt's Gulch, but I simply haven't the patience (nor the life left in my years) to listen to her hapless characters drone on about the same thing. So I skipped around and got the basics after I finished the first 200 pages.

And so: one of my favorite radio programs, Sound Opinions, rates albums on a "Buy It, Burn It or Trash It" scale.

If a comparable scale were to exist for literature, I'd direct all of you to Spark Notes to catch the highlights of Atlas Shrugged. It certainly makes some interesting points and contains some downright brilliant insights — and the basics of the plot are certainly interesting — but so much else is pedantic drivel. It'd be worth the read if it were, say, 500 pages. But 1,100+ of the same thing over and over?

That's just bad editing.

So, uh, sorry America. I don't like this book as much as you.


M@ said...

Yeah, the government's so bad, what with fighting poverty and providing milk and cheese for Women and Infant Children, and building roads and infrastructure and shit.... I hate that.

Supafly Turbo Cyborg said...

AMEN BROTHER! I tried to read this book about 5 times a few years after I read the Fountainhead. Made it not too far past the century mark through force of will. Same conclusion every time. I get the point at about page 50. Stop slapping me in the face with a dead fish.

Jonas said...

My sentiments exactly.

Anonymous said...

I am a masochist. I read the whole thing. I agreed with her basic tenants but wondered (like you) why she couldn't just whittle it down. A lot.

As for the government, don't even get me started. I don't believe in the Nanny State as one of my friends calls it.

Eli said...

Fountainhead was better, but even that was longer than necessary. I've read most of her work, (and a long bio by her lover's former wife? I think), she's an interesting person, with an interesting take on life, but I don't buy into it. It's nice to have principles, but life requires some compromise and more heart than she seems to have.

disgruntled world citizen said...

Good thing you didn't get to John Galt's Objectivist radio rant about 3/4 through the book. Damn thing goes on for 60 plus pages. I skipped it and moved on. You've posted your dislike for this book in a couple places... I'm half tempted to read it again and see if its just that bad... read Fountainhead, its got the same philosophy, but its just a better book.

MelO said...

I'm so happy to hear someone who DID NOT enjoy this book... I personally couldn't get through the thing, but several friends of mine did years ago and loved it.

They're aren't my friends anymore, but I'm sure that has nothing to do with anything ;)

Unacademic Advisor said...

As I've said elsewhere, I did persevere through the entire thing, but not for love of the text. It's my stubborn nature that insists I WILL finish what I start, even though I agree that life's short and the good books are far too many to read something bad. I just can't help myself.

But I confess to skipping large portions after about page 200, including Galt's sermon alluded to by DWC above. Overall, I found the novel insightful and infectious, but it violates a core belief of mine in many ways. I don't consider myself a looter, but I will not turn my back on people, even if they are looters. Doing so would hurt me more than them.

And even if I agreed 100% with Rand's tenets, I absolutely don't need to be lectured and harassed about it again and again for over 1000 pages. Your comment about bad editing seems spot on to me. It even gave me chuckle.