Some thoughts on Atlas Shrugged

April 20, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, it seems most folks either love it or hate it. Except there's a secret underground of folks who follow a golden middle path. Those who can't stand Ayn Rand will decry you as a heartless bastard who couldn't tell good literature from a boiled sock. While those who love the book see your slightest disdain for either its literary stature or its message as weak-willed bleeding-hearted drivel.

In reality, Atlas Shrugged is a passably written but powerful polemic. Rand could out-write Dan Brown on a good day, and maybe stand up next to James Patterson but even Stephen King is rather far ahead. However, what she wrote has a strong impact on many people and dismissing it as nothing but fodder for egotists is willfully ignorant.

In my youth Atlas Shrugged was helpful in presenting an individualistic alternative that for whatever reason I wasn't exposed to. For many who grow up with ideals such as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps as cliched caricatures the book offers nothing but more of the same. Myself, I've always leaned towards approving of such things but before reading Atlas Shrugged in high school there was never a crystallized idea that this was a path one might follow. That is, although I thought I followed a meritocratic ideal I had always pictured it as a sort of technocracy instead of the more distributed ad-hoc system where your value to others is measured directly by them and not some external agency. Atlas Shrugged really opened my eyes not just to how I could be appreciated but how I should appreciate others--directly, personally, and for the sake of their own labors.

However, I was mature enough to quickly abandon the book's (over-)simplifications, straw men, and other problems. Holding Rand's improbable men of marble in ultimate regard is pretending much of what makes us human doesn't exist. The book's lessons are reacting to a context where the negative extremes it riles against are reality--e.g. the Russia Ayn Rand escaped. Its ideas are not templates for direct realization, for they are just as extreme and unreasonable.

We tend to assume that just because we may not appreicate someone else's endeavors they are somehow willfully blind. Paradoxical as it may seem Atlas Shrugged helped me find a new sort of compassion--most people see themselves as striving towards a personal ideal of some sort, not as corrupt goblins.

Just because you may see Atlas Shrugged as an extreme part of a view you consider prevalent, consider that it may be a shining beacon for those on the other side. It can also be a bible for zealots who take its words literally and can find no flaws in its stilted prose. So, let's not dismiss this important work but nor should we revere it.

(Oh and I saw the trailer for the movie and it was incredibly painful. Megan McArdle compared the movie to Tommy Wiseau's The Room so I guess I'll wait for the Rifftrax!)

Some thoughts on Atlas Shrugged - April 20, 2011 - Michael Katsevman