Reading is an essential part of my life. Right up there with breathing and coffee. I've even written poems about it.
Along with that addiction, I’m also the kind of person that is (for better or for worse) stubborn and determined, and finishes what gets started, no matter how long it takes. Something may go on hiatus for a long period and sink to the bottom of the pile, but eventually the guilt will begin to gnaw away at my conscience, and I will hunker down and finish it.
This has meant enduring some long and dull tomes in service of reading.
I can’t readily remember the last book I didn’t finish reading. It might possibly have been the Bible (yes, *that* Bible), which I tried to read cover to cover as a young teenager. Somewhere around the second book of Kings the energy petered out, and beyond studying it for theology classes in high school, I never picked it up in that vein again.
However since then it has been a habit to finish every book once opened. So it’s an exceptional event when a book comes along that despite every initial intent to see it through, the point comes where it’s impossible to keep going, too painful to continue.
And it happened this week.
Congratulations Ayn Rand. You made the (very) short list. I couldn’t even get through a third of “Atlas Shrugged” without giving up in frustration (and some disgust).
I tried to give it a fair hearing, given the strong thread of libertarian and objectivist discourse in the United States. Friends and business leaders had placed it front and center of their best books list. I wanted to understand the basis for the philosophical viewpoint, to see what was so compelling that people would name their children after the author or their businesses after its characters.
It’s been with this same attitude that I have studied other political and religious texts over the years. Understanding the basis for a viewpoint allows you to frame an issue from another’s viewpoint, to create more moderated discourse, something less than shouting.
And so it was that I attempted to read Rand’s magnum opus. But I found little to recommend it. So little, that at the urging of a close friend, I put down the book, removed the bookmark, and returned it to the library.
My criticisms? From a literary standpoint it’s a horrible novel. I should have sensed something when reading the text in the inside cover, which describes the plot in a teasing, sensationalist manner befitting a racy pulp novel. It’s the literary forerunner of clickbait – “Why did this man throw away his entire business? Read to find out what happens!”
Then there are the unengaging characters, vapid and devoid of qualities with which the reader can empathize, even a little. Well written characters are ones that we can relate to, even if we disagree with their motives or their actions. They hold up a mirror to our own qualities, good and bad, our aspirations and our fears. A good villain is one that makes us uncomfortable because we relate too well. However, the protagonists and antagonists of Atlas Shrugged lack such qualities, almost to the point of being inhuman and dimensionless. They are loud and grating, the literary equivalent of fingernails on chalkboards.
Added to this is a plot that lurches about from scene to scene, propping itself up with intellectual language to present a veneer of respectability, like a drunken uncle leaning against a bookshelf for support. There is not enough momentum, no impulsion to turn the page or to curl up for hours losing track of all time. And when your book runs to over a thousand pages that’s kind of a necessary requirement.
So maybe it’s not a literary masterpiece. But isn’t it intended as an embodiment of Rand’s concept of objectivism and therefore treatable as a philosophical text? Here it fails too. Its greatest failing is its excessive use of rhetoric and straw man arguments, which strip and dehumanize opposing viewpoints. Coupled with it are the absurdist behaviors of all the characters, the wild mood swings, the pathological obsessions that manifest themselves as mission-statement-like soliloquies.
Even knowing that the book is meant to be an expression of Rand’s idealized worldview does not give it any redemption. In fact, by its absurdity it hurts the argument it tries to make in defense of its philosophy. It is so unrealistic that reduction to practice is not possible. Even looking at it from the perspective of a free-market oriented individual I found the ideas extreme and impractical with respect to the realities of a global marketplace.
And if instead we want to frame it as a political text it’s far too long. A thousand pages of vanishingly small font is no way to present something with the intent of provoking societal change. For all the manifold faults of Communism, at least Marx's manifesto kept it pithy.
So, despite all attempts to persevere and extract some redeeming quality, I grew ever more frustrated, and with a third of the novel read, I was left no choice but to stop.
Reading a few critiques and plot summaries didn’t seem to indicate that the book got any better either. It did however lead to reading some funny quotes, indicating that my own aversion to the work was not unique. A particular favorite was from John Rogers:
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”
And having read Tolkien (and endured that seemingly endless and mind-numbing sequence with Tom Bombadil in the Fellowship of the Ring) that’s saying something.
In summary, if I wanted a dystopian novel that lambasted excessive government interference upon the liberties of the individual, I’d read Orwell ("Animal Farm" or "Nineteen Eighty-Four", take your pick). If I wanted an idealized view of how a society could be run, I’d read Plato’s “Republic”. If I wanted epic, meandering tomes with absurd plots, I’d read Stephenson (any of them, really, but since this piece is about a right wing author, let’s choose “Reamde” on the basis of its ending).
So “Atlas Shrugged” has been returned to the library from where I borrowed it (which, being a subsidized government service to those who cannot buy books, has some poetic irony). In its place, I’m reading Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”, William Shakespeare’s play “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, and “Creating a Data-Driven Organization” by Carl Anderson.
All of which, whilst each imperfect, are far more bearable.