Book Summary: Atlas Shrugged


by Ayn Rand

First of all, yes, this book gets a bad rap. Some of the ideas, when taken at face value, give fuel to plenty a tea-partier and libertarian fear-mongerer. I was afraid to be seen reading this book because I (correctly) anticipated gasps of horror, like I was reading Mien Kampf or something.

It’s a sad state when people assume that because you’re reading a book you accept the book’s message. They don’t realize that the point of reading to evaluate and explore ideas, not to reinforce them. Why would I bother reading a book if I knew I already agreed with it?

In this book, like in everything else, there are lessons to be learned.

What’s it about?

A bunch of industrialists in a dystopian version of the 1950s fight against inane government economic regulation by refusing to lend their brilliant minds to a world that doesn’t give them the respect and freedom they deserve. Rather than fight against gross injustices like income tax, they quit their jobs without a trace and live in their own secluded colony, where they watch the world fall apart as the incompetent Washington-types and assorted moochers try to run the show.

My impressions:

I am in love with the imagery of this book. The cover art, the descriptions of big business, New York, architecture, and 50s-era technology give the whole narrative an Art Deco vibe that is just brilliant. Aesthetically, I want to live in this world.

For many people, the takeaway of Ayn Rand is economic. For me, it’s deeply personal. All the protagonists are strong and attractive, and the antagonists are timid and physically ugly. Unrealistic? Absolutely. But I chose to read it as if it were a classical epic– the characters are not real and never could be, but to try to draw a direct line between them and the real world is to miss the point.

This is a book about the power of the individual, and about the glory of achieving your personal best. Dagny, Rearden, Galt, and Francisco are model humans. They’re exaggerated, but no more so than Achilles or Odysseus. They’re guiding lights to aspire to, not real people who you could grab a cup of coffee with.

I like them because they all work extremely hard for whatever drives them, and they know the importance of harshly realistic perception, strict efficiency, and direct speech. They have extreme confidence in their ideas, ambition, and resolve.

This book is a celebration of man’s ability to change the world to his liking, and to never play the victim. It reminds me how great it feels to be insanely competent, and what clarity and sense of purpose accompany a task done to perfection.

The good guys this book view life as purely transactional. Their first thought is always “what can you do for me?”, which is refreshing in a world that tries too hard to maintain a facade of charity and generosity all the time. Even in love, the logic hold. Unconditional love is wrong; love is based on mutual self-interest. You don’t love someone for no reason, or out of pity or charity. You love someone because you admire him or her on some level and because you get something out of him. You love people for his virtues. Love, just as everything else in the world, has to be earned. Entitlement of any kind is a foolish.

Further Questions:

  • Why do so many people miss the fact that this book is about personal responsibility and excellence? Why bother objecting on political grounds?
  • How can libertarian Christians possibly reconcile Rand with Jesus? Seems like a pretty sharp split.
  • Dagny and Galt’s superpower is the ability to make a decision rationally and stick with it to the end, even when emotions get in the way. How to practice this or read more about it?

Quotes:

“[P]roductive work is the process my which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values– that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repears in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others– that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind.”

“I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

“Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is possible, it’s yours. But to win in requires your total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is a sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind.”

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