Self-Help Classics

Atlas Shrugged
(1957)
Ayn Rand

This a book which sees raging debates in review pages and discussion groups. It seems people like to love it or hate it, and if there was a list for 'most fascinating book of the 20th century', Rand's classic would have to be in the top ten.

Rand was a philosopher who used fiction to influence the masses. A Russian emigrant who had seen first hand the restrictions placed on individual freedom after the Bolshevik revolution, her magnum opus may get you thinking for the first time about what it means to be free and the nature of capitalism. The book addresses one of basic issues of existence: the degree to which one should be selfish. At a higher level, the work is a treatise on the heights that human beings can and should reach for.

What is Atlas Shrugged?

Atlas Shrugged is a mystery, raunchy romance and work of philosophy all in one. Its protagonist is Dagny Taggart, a driven young railroad executive who tries to run Taggart Transcontinental while fighting off corruption on a national scale. She is joined in the cast by the ruthless industrialist Hank Rearden and the flamboyant and aristocratic mining baron Francisco D'Anconia. But the key character does not reveal himself until late in the book, when we get answers to some intriguing questions: why is the greatest living philosopher working as a short-order cook in a diner in the Rocky Mountains? How did the most important inventor of our time come to be an underground ganger on the railways? What happens when the people who might save the world choose not to save it? Who is John Galt?

Reason (or the responsibility to live according to a purpose)

Atlas Shrugged was inspired by the author's fury that people wasted the one capacity which distinguished them from other animals: reason. Those who no longer asked 'Why am I alive?'or 'What am I going to do or create that can justify my existence?' were for Rand as good as dead. 'Society' amounted to a protection racket for all sorts of mediocrities, with people agreeing not to point out others' lack of effort if theirs was not likewise exposed. But this willingness to accept less, in order to accommodate 'human nature', was for Rand actually anti-human. One of her characters says something to the effect of "most people don't really want to live, but "to get away with living'". And when Dagny Taggart asks Franciso D'Anconia what he thinks is the worst type of human being, he shoots back 'The man without a purpose.'

Dagny's role in managing Taggart Transcontinental is, in her eyes, a sacred trust. Only when out on the tracks or poring over figures does she feel really alive: the trains are a metaphor for her whole understanding of life - they run at high speed on undeviating courses toward a fixed destination. In one scene, as she pushes a locomotive towards 100 mph on the newly built John Galt Line, Dagny gets a flash of insight above the roar of the engines: Wasn't it evil to wish without moving - or to move without aim?

Atlas Shrugged holds a person's greatest duty to be appreciation of the joy of being alive. Dagny Taggart's whole existence seems to be a struggle, yet she refuses to give suffering authority over her life.

The nobility of making money

For Rand, wealth was a sign that significant individual thought had taken place - to create something and to make money out of it was nothing less than the essence of human morality. Napoleon Hill said it in cruder words: 'Think and grow rich.' Money obtained by any other means (including inheritance, fraud or public directive) is 'looting', yet in the book the people who advance civilization and keep the world turning are sneered at as being 'vulgar materialists', and 'robbers of the people'. The big question that Dagny faces is why she should still try to save her railway while the looters, in the name of 'the public good', emaciate it. Wealth creators be proud! is the book's cry. Fight for your freedom to innovate and produce, and never accept the guilt of the non-productive.

The best society is one in which people trade the best they have created for the best that others have created. Alan Greenspan, the famous former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, is probably Rand's best-known disciple, and was part of her New York circle in the 1950s. In The Greenspan Effect (Sicilia & Cruickshank), the authors refer to a statement by their subject. Before he met Rand, Greenspan notes, he was an 'Adam Smith' economist, appreciating the technical basis of capitalism - after Rand he became convinced of its moral force.

Atlas Shrugged and the individual

For so long an object of ridicule, many of Rand's ideas are now conventional wisdom. We now worship the entrepreneur just as she did, and despite the turmoil on world markets many still believe that a purer brand of capitalism makes the best use of each person's talents and delivers ever-more refined products and services. Economic life in the 21st century is not simply a triumph of technology, but a culture of invention generated by individual imagination.

The motif running through Atlas Shrugged is the dollar sign. For Rand, an immigrant to the United States who loved its ideals, this sacred symbol represented the triumph of the creative mind over the state, religion and tradition. It meant freedom from mediocrity and its strangling power. This worship of the dollar and self-interest looks unpleasant and unseemly, yet Atlas Shrugged brilliantly portrays what happens when the ethic of 'the greater good' is pursued to its logical ends. It very effectively annexes the spirit from an entire nation. Self-interest, as Adam Smith noted, is actually in full accordance with nature and therefore brings the more moral end. Rand is a patron saint of the 21st century entrepreneur because she provides a morality of powerful creation; a person with a Randian frame of mind is opposed in principle to 'equality' if it means sacrificing their dreams for the sake of others. The pursuit of equal rights may be noble, but ultimately suffocates the life-spirit that has always fired human advance.

Final comments

Rand may have been a ranting, chain-smoking, homophobic, commie-hater, yet her star continues to rise. Whether she influenced its emergence or not, her philosophy of maximum self-expression teamed with a lust for technological progress has been the perfect backdrop for our times.

Atlas Shrugged will probably outlive its wry-smiling critics, continuing to inspire while other works classified as 'literature' become of only academic interest. The book runs for 1080 pages, and like the greatest novels, it is a world you enter rather than a book you read. The prose may not be the most brilliant: there are many lines that will have the discerning reader shaking their head or chuckling, and there is a fair amount of repetition - like many books of this length, it could be a lot shorter and better edited. However, there is a spirit behind the words that makes you certain you are reading something important.

Source: 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books To Transform Your Life by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)

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Atlas Shrugged:

"There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think."

Ayn Rand:

Born Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St Petersburg, the author's father took the family away to the Crimea as the Bolshevik Revolution erupted; when they returned the family business had been taken over by the state. Alissa graduated from the University of Petrograd (Leningrad) in 1924, before beginning a screenwriting course. The following year, she travelled to Chicago to 'visit' a cousin, never returning. After six months she moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, changing her name to Ayn Rand. 'Ayn' was the first name of a Finnish writer, 'Rand' the model of her Remington typewriter. On her second day in Los Angeles she famously met Cecil B de Mille, who offered her work as an extra on a film where her future husband, Frank O'Connor, was on the set.

Rand never broke in to screenwriting, but in 1935 her play Woman On Trial was mounted on Broadway as Night of January 16th. Her first novel We the Living (1936) and Anthem (1938) were well-received critically but not best-sellers. Rand's fortunes changed with the success of The Fountainhead (1943), a 700-page story of a modernist architect who battles to realise his vision.

Another decade passed before the publication of Atlas Shrugged , which was an instant bestseller. In 1958 Rand and Nathaniel Branden (who is today better known as a self-help author) opened the institute in New York which would spread objectivist philosophy. Rand's non-fiction output in these years included many newsletter writings, the objectivist journal, and the books For the New Intellectual (1961) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966).

Having railed against government anti-smoking campaigns, the author died in 1982 of lung cancer. A dollar sign was placed over her coffin.

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