I finally finished reading the long (over 1000 page) book Atlas Shrugged from the often misunderstood author, Ayn Rand. In this review, I will discuss more about it from a literary perspective, and not about Objectivism or Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll leave that up to another post to discuss. Since I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve always been for the plight of the small business owner. Ayn Rand speaks to such person, like no other book I’ve read.
The book has had a recent resurgence because of the events in the past 3 years. With government bailouts, Cash for Clunkers, TARP, TALF and other alphabet soup government programs, it’s no wonder. For those not familiar with the story, it could be taken directly from today’s headlines (though the book was written in 1957). It could be said Ayn Rand was somewhat a modern day prophet with her novel.
The book follows the main character Dangy Taggart, who is the Vice-President in charge of operations for Taggart Transcontinental. Traggart Transcontinental is a successful railroad company that’s been in existence for many years. The plot dives into an ever increasing government who wants to control greed and make everyone equal in society. However, something odd keeps happening. Leaders in their respective fields keep disappearing or just quit. Business and entertainment leaders leave with no fair warning. They are effectively “going on strike” against the higher taxes and increased regulations from government. As government increases more of its role, so does the increase in disappearing productive people. There are an increasing amount of “looters” or “moochers” in the book taking away other’s free will. The book topics can be very complex and much more than what’s discussed superficially in this review.
The book is a complex story with many different sub-plots and story lines. You have crony capitalists like James Taggart and Orren Boyle who are working with the government for their own personal gain, and characters like Hank Rearden who spent most of their life working creating a new metal that’s stronger and lighter than anything currently seen. After successfully making it, he gets badgered and is considered greedy for his successes.
John Stossel, from Fox Business News, had a show devoted to the discussion of Atlas Shrugged, and gives some additional insight into the book. The episode speaks better than I can in a 1000+ word post. You can find the episode on YouTube, and I have included the first part below.
For this review, I’ll break the book down into one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”
If you never owned a business, it’s kinda of hard to understand what a business owner goes through on a weekly basis. This book accurately reflects the different pressures an entrepreneur must go through (at least in the beginning of the book). It perfectly captures the blood, sweat and tears a business owner goes through. It captures the spirit of why to go into business, yes profit is part of it, but also the ability to create and produce something of value. Entrepreneurs get enjoyment from creating value and exchanging it with others.
In many traditional movies and books the hero is a strong male figure. I find it very interesting the book revolved around a strong female heroine, instead of the traditional male role model. This, in my opinion, is what made two of James Cameron’s movies great: “The Terminator” and “Aliens“. Today we accept a strong female lead as a non-issue, but keep in mind this book was written in 1957. Times where much different then, and most women were not business leaders.
Ayn makes the characters in the book much larger than life, and people you more than likely would not meet in the real world. Keep in mind, though, it is a work of fiction. I can assume Ayn stereotyped her characters to make her philosophical points obvious.
Did I say the book was long? Ayn was in desperate need of an editor. This book could be shorted to at least half the size and still get most of points across. There is a rant that is over 40 pages long from John Galt and could be summarized into 10 pages maximum. Since the book is so big, it can be an effective weapon to smack a socialist across the side of the head. The plot is, in my opinion, somewhat predictable, and there are some various subplots that could be removed without affecting the main story.
When you start reading it, don’t do it all at once as the book can get somewhat tedious. It took me over three months to complete the book, so pace yourself. Read it in 10-20 pages at a time.
I find it interesting (maybe ironic) the book references railroads and steel mills as the captains of industry. Steel mills were all but obliterated during the 80’s in the US, I believe because of unions. Railroads are now heavily subsidized by the government and have been for many years. Maybe this proves Ayn’s point of the book, because I don’t think Amtrak has ever been profitable.
The story is somewhat flawed in various parts. I don’t believe productive people would just get up and go on strike in some secret location. In reality, they just move to another state or another country. In this day and age it would be somewhat hard to completely disappear “off the grid”. Though in the age of the Internet, you can work from anywhere in the world.
At times, the book can be very hard to read. Some of the same themes are repeated at various points in the book, but just through different characters. In real life no one goes on multipage soliloquies (but no one talks like they are in a Shakespearean play either).
The plot is somewhat predictable, though it does have some decent twists and turns. Yes the book can be long and drawn out and gets into obssesive details not needed to get the point across. This is similar to Tom Clancy’s novels like The Sum of All Fears describing every minutiae of detail. In the Sum of All Fears, do we really need a 30 page chapter describing how a nuclear bomb goes off? Ayn Rand goes into similar descriptive detail in her book as well.
The ending of the book seems to turn into a traditional action thriller which made me disappointed, and it seemed somewhat hurried.
The book should be read not for its literary work, but for its philosophical view. From my perspective, most of the topics discussed in the book are old hat. I’ve always known them to be true, but this book adds more confirmation.
If you are entrepreneur, most of what’s discussed in this book should not be a surprise. If you come from a progressive or liberal viewpoint, it might be a big eye opener. You also might mistake the entire book is about self destructive greed. It’s not, though. To summarize the book in a nutshell, the book is about about free will and letting others act rationally selfish.
If you want to get the gist of the philosophy without having to read the entire book, may I suggest reading Atlas Shrugged Cliff Notes or The Virtue of Selfishness instead. Both are much more concise and more to the point of Ayn Rand’s themes. Overall the book is ok from a literary standpoint, and I give it 3 out of 5 starts. From a philosophical view I give it 4 1/2 stars out of 5, for then a combined rating of 4 stars. The book might not be perfect, but its themes come close. So who is John Galt?