Sunday, April 22, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: "Atlas Shrugged"

Atlas Shrugged
By Ayn Rand
Original copyright 1957 by Ayn Rand
Copyright renewed 1985 by Winick, Gitlin & Peikoff
Adult Fiction/Philosophy

I first read this book about 15 years ago.  I remembered the profound affect it had on me then, but when word came out that it was being made into a movie I was surprised (and, frankly, a little unsure exactly how they would go about transforming such a complicated story into a movie).  I decided that I'd refresh my memory of the book before renting the movie to see whether or not the movie-makers tanked.

Of course, I had forgotten that the book contains 1100 extremely verbose pages.  Yes, 1100.  It took me nearly five weeks, but I finally finished it.  The book seemed even more profound the second time around.  I'm a little daunted by the task of summarizing such a long and complicated story, but I'll give it my best shot. 

Dagny Taggart is the brains behind Taggart Transcontinental, one of the nation's most important railroads.  Her brother Jim, who is the actual president of the company, mostly spends his time being buddies with the guys in Washington.  Hank Reardon is another industrialist who has discovered a new way to make a stronger, better metal than steel.  Both Dagny and Hank work hard to be successful and productive members of society, but their paths are blocked at every turn by those in Washington, including Dagny's brother. 

As the government piles on loads of rules and regulations for all industries, including railroads and metal, in order to make things "fair" for everyone, the economy in the country begins to turn sour.  Taggart Transcontinental is forced to limit their amount of traffic (in order to make it fair to the smaller railroads), Rearden Metal is forced to limit their output (to make it fair to the smaller steel companies), and other industries are clamped down by the government, all in the name of making things fair.  But these new regulations have unintended consequences.  Slowing down the metal output means that not everyone who needs metal will get it.  Which means the railroad won't get the metal to repair their damaged tracks. Which means some of their lines will be shut down. Which means parts of the country will not be able to have food delivered to them.  Etc., etc.

Dagny and Hank continue to fight against the obstacles, but soon other industrialists begin to give up and disappear.  As the industrialists (the "do-ers" of society) disappear, the economy grows worse and worse and the state of the country grows darker and darker.  Dagny can't find any competent people to work for her, and neither can Hank. 

The people who are left in the doomed land don't ever seem to question why the economy keeps getting worse.  Instead, they ask a meaningless question, "Who is John Galt?", as if simply shrugging their shoulders and accepting their fate.  The real question they should be asking is "Who will save us?" 

Atlas Shrugged is part mystery, part philosophy.  It is an adventure, but it also makes you really look at the government and the role it plays in the economy.  Even though the main theme of the novel is philosophical, it really is an enjoyable read and is hard to put down once you've started.  The story itself is mostly fast-paced, although a few monologues run into several pages and become tedious.  I really enjoyed the story of the main characters and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the industrialists.  The book was very easy to relate to because so many of the characters are like people I have known over the course of my life and many of the concerns of the main characters are concerns I have known. 

My one complaint about the book (other than the long monologues) is that the philosophical black and white of the story was very blunt....there really isn't a single main character who is on the fence about the issues.  I'm not sure how easy it is to apply the philosophy in real life when the two factions were at such extreme opposite ends of the spectrum (so unlike the real world where, I believe, people are mostly somewhere in that gray area in the middle). 

All in all, though, I would definitely recommend the book to anyone who is a reader.  If you're not much of a reader, this one could be a long haul to get through, though.  Maybe you should rent the movie...I'll let you know if it's any good. 

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