Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged

by Ayn Rand

 

My god.

Now: I’m a word guy, a writer and a literature teacher, so I read quickly. I enjoy it, so I dedicate a lot of my free time to it. I’m a high school teacher and it’s summertime, so I have a lot of free time. I’ve been averaging about a book a day since school ended.

Until I hit this one.

1070 pages of some of the smallest print I’ve seen outside of User Agreements. 562,000 words, according to the Indefeasible blog. For scale, that is 25,000 words less than War and Peace by Tolstoy, and 400,000 words more than The Grapes of Wrath, the longest book I’ve ever tried to teach. It is equivalent to 12.186 Fahrenheit 451s.

This took me eight days to read. I spend at least 3-4 hours a day reading, too. It was a tough slog, too; because it is a philosophical treatise as much as it is a novel, I had to concentrate on the ideas harder than I would on, say, a book from The Wheel of Time or Harry Potter. I did it because the book was recommended as an important first step in understanding a former colleague and debate opponent’s worldview, which he describes as Aristotelian and bears a lot of resemblance to Rand’s philosophy, which she called Objectivism. I wanted to understand his worldview because his ideas are different from mine, and he is very, very sure of his positions and opinions; so I wanted to know from whence came his surety, and if I could and should be thinking along the same lines. So I read the book.

It made me think lots of interesting things. It really did: it made me realize that there are some things that I have done (like mock and castigate industrialists – in my case my favorite target was Bill Gates) that I shouldn’t have done, some things that I do that I shouldn’t do (like use words ambiguously, or symbolically, with little concern for their actual meaning), and some things that I haven’t done that I should do (like think about what my purpose in life really is, and why). There are some parts of the philosophy espoused and exemplified that I find interesting, and that I plan to investigate further and perhaps even adopt, if I can verify that they work for me.

However: reading this book was not worth it. Even with my personal interest in knowing what it has to say, I got so bloody tired of reading it that for the last three days, I had to work twice as hard to pay attention – and since I had to work twice as hard as normal to pay attention in the first place, this has been a mentally draining task. I did it, though, and now I’m here to tell you: don’t do it.

Rand was not a good writer. I’ve read three of her books now, and while this one was leagues better than Anthem, that’s like saying that shaving with a chipped-flint spearhead is better than shaving with sandpaper: you still wouldn’t want to do it. I read The Fountainhead in high school, so I don’t remember it well; once I’ve recovered sufficiently from this one, I may read that one. I dunno, though. It’s only 311,000 words, but that’s still two Grapes of Wrath.

That’s the biggest problem. She used too many words. And I say that as a wordy writer, which I am; my first book was 200,000 words. But she repeats things too many times, unnecessarily, as though using five words to describe something makes up for the fact that she is telling and not showing; and when she explains them, she uses too many synonyms and appositives. As a random sample from a page I just flipped to:

The scream of an alarm siren shattered the space beyond the window and shot like a rocket in a long, thin line to the sky. It held for an instant, then fell, then went on in rising, falling spirals of sound, as if fighting for breath against terror to scream louder. It was the shriek of agony, the call for help, the voice of the mills as of a wounded body crying to hold its soul.

So there was an alarm, then. You know, just the word “alarm” implies that it was bad, and “scream” implies fear; you could basically say this same paragraph in three words:

An alarm screamed.

Now of course repetition creates emphasis, which is presumably the point of the extended description; but there doesn’t seem to be anything in this book that Rand doesn’t want to emphasize – which means, of course, that nothing is really emphasized, because all of it seems almost like – well, like a screaming alarm siren fighting for breath, crying to hold its soul. By the end of this book I was very tired of being yelled at. I can’t imagine how fatiguing a conversation with this woman must have been.

In addition, the level of rage leveled at people like me – political liberals, that is, which means Rand saw me as a looter, a moocher, a liar, a coward, a fool, a murderer, a thug, and the destruction of humanity – was just as exhausting. I knew going in that there was a critical speech at the end, when John Galt speaks (No spoilers – that’s the name of the chapter, “This is John Galt speaking.”), which explained the whole worldview being dramatized in this book; but the problem was that most of what Galt says had already been said by the narrator or one of the other characters. I probably could have just read Galt’s speech and skipped the rest of the book. I would have been happier, too, because Galt carries the deepest anger, the most righteous condemnation of anyone who would support, you know, taxes and welfare and stuff. So I had to read that after reading another 900 pages of pretty much the same stuff, just not quite as angry as when Galt says it. I got really tired of being insulted so many times, and with such bile.

I will also say that, while the story itself is interesting (though much too long) and, I think, disturbingly realistic, the characters are not. Not that I think Rand’s idealized hero-industrialists are absurd; I mean, they are, but they are absurd the same way that Tom Brady or Michael Jordan is absurd, or William Shakespeare, or Isaac Newton, or Michelangelo or Mozart: nobody should be that good at what they do. But as all those names (Just the first few to come to mind. Of course there are many more examples.) show, people really are that good at what they do. It is possible. No, these characters are unrealistic in the way they read each others’ expressions. Like this:

The suggestion of a smile on Mrs. Hastings’ face held sadness, but the face had no imprint of tragedy, only a grave look of firmness, acceptance and quiet serenity.

Picture that face, that smile, in your mind. Okay, that’s good, just the suggestion of a smile . . . No! No imprint of tragedy. That’s better – but it needs a little more firmness in that look of quiet serenity. Got it, now? Or this:

There was the faintest coating of mockery spread, like shellac, over the smooth notes of her voice.

I mean, I like that, it’s a nice phrase – but what the hell does that sound like? And how would someone pick up on it?

These aren’t the best examples, the best examples are when someone heroic looks into the face of one of the villains and sees what they intend to show, along with what they’re hiding, and also what they are unaware they are really feeling; but I didn’t want to spend the time looking through the book to find one. It took me long enough to find these examples.

There are thoughts worth thinking in this book. I intend to spend more time thinking about those ideas. But good grief: I have already spent enough time reading this book. No more.

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