A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was embarking on a rather difficult book. I said that I didn’t know anything about it other than that it was a classic. I dove into reading it with a bit of trepidation and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I hate leaving books unfinished- I think deep down I consider it some kind of moral failure to leave one incomplete, and I think I’ve left less than 10 unfinished in my life (which is why I tend to be more picky in what I read, often vetting the book through reviews or trusted friends’ recommendations before picking them up). So to start a 1000+ page (645,000 words), extremely small print book with no knowledge of it made me nervous.
Well, today, three weeks after starting, I’ve finally finished the book. I said that it was titled “The Strike” and that’s true- to a point. “The Strike” was actually the original title. The author changed the title at the suggestion of her husband. The real name of the book is here.
I’m amazed that I went through college and never had contact with this work. It never came up in English class, was never the topic of discussion among professors. To the best of my recollection, I don’t even recall ever hearing the words “Atlas” and “Shrugged” in consecutive sentences at any time during college. So the fact that I was able to read the book with no preconceived ideas or knowledge about any part of it whatsoever is akin to being a member of our race nowadays and not knowing that Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker have a family resemblance (sorry if I spoiled that one for you).
There are some works (books, paintings, movies) that become so Important that they stifle under the weight of their own approbation. It becomes de rigueur to have an opinion on the work even if one has no direct knowledge of it, or only a passing familiarity. We see this often in the very public and very nasty disagreements that often precede a controversial movie (The Passion of the Christ) or book (Harry Potter). No matter where you go, you won’t have to look far to find someone who has made up their mind about it, simply because to admit to ignorance or (worse!) a lack of understanding is tantamount to wearing black socks with shorts. People just don’t want to look uncool or uninformed.
Unfortunately, just like works that get encumbered with the baggage of other people’s opinions, many books become so popular and so well known that it becomes sophomoric to admit that they have relevance to you personally, that you’ve discovered for yourself what everyone has known for so long. That something so boringly familiar to everyone else is fresh and new and relevant to you. It’s like the college professor telling the annoying student “Don’t you quote Kierkegaard to me!”. I take offense at that. I mean, at some point, Kierkegaard was new and fresh and relevant and revealed deep truths about the nature of being. Just because those truths are well known does not make them less true. Similarly, just because intellectuals have read Atlas Shrugged since it was published in 1957 and have talked about the philosophy of Objectivism for decades shouldn’t mean there is no amazement left for the uninitiated. There is still room at the table of calloused didacts for a new reader to pull up a chair and say “this is an amazing book.”
Well, this is an amazing book.
Yes, certain parts of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism disagree directly with Christianity. I’m not talking about those sections. Doubtless, Rand would disagree with the idea that someone would agree with part of her philosophy and reject the rest (most philosophers are like that, you know… and most writers? Don’t even ask). Rand believes that unmotivated selfless altruism is wrong and the Egoist with selfishness as his main goal represents the ultimate form of Man. At core this is antithetical to the concept of Christ’s guiltless, sinless, perfectly altruistic sacrifice. But the fact that Rand, an avowed atheist, was otherwise able to put together such a beautiful picture of the dignity of being alive reinforces the idea that Truth can sometimes be uncovered by any source.
I don’t want to give away any part of the story (there are some breathtaking sections if you don’t know the plot, and the suspense in several parts left me shaking). I don’t even intend to write a book review. But I will risk looking sophomoric by saying that this book really spoke to me. It reinforced much of what I believe and I found myself saying “this is me!” many times. I read online that Atlas Shrugged has been listed as the second most influential book of all time (happily still a distant second to the Bible), and that leaders of industry, normally competitors, often meet in groups whose sole requirement for admission is a familiarity with the story. As I plowed through the pages, some of the ideas were so relevant I kept wondering if Rand didn’t maybe write it yesterday:
Then his head fell back, and there was no convulsion in his face, only his mouth relaxing to a shape of serenity – but there was a brief stab of convulsion in his body, like a last cry of protest and Rearden went on slowly, not altering his pace, even though he knew that no caution was necessary any longer because what he was carrying in his arms was now that which had been the boy’s teachers’ idea of a man – a collection of chemicals.
He walked, as if this were his form of last tribute and funeral procession for the young life that had ended in his arms. He felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill.
The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy’s body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy’s teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug’s gun – at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care.
Somewhere, he thought, there was this boy’s mother, who had trembled with protective concern over his groping steps, while teaching him to walk, who had measured his baby formulas with a jeweler’s caution, who had obeyed with a zealot’s fervor the latest words of science on his diet and hygiene, protecting his unhardened body from germs – then had sent him to be turned into a tortured neurotic by the men who taught him that he had no mind and must never attempt to think. Had she fed him tainted refuse, he thought, had she mixed poison into his food, it would have been more kind and less fatal.
He thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly – yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child’s education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think.
From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his consciousness. “Don’t ask so many questions, children should be seen and not heard!” – “Who are you to think? It’s so, because I say so!” – “Don’t argue, obey!” – “Don’t try to understand, believe!” – “Don’t struggle, compromise!” – “Your heart is more important than your mind!” – “Who are you to know? Your parents know best!” – “Who are you to know? The bureaucrats know best!” – “Who are you to object? All values are relative!” – “Who are you to want to escape a thug’s bullet? That’s only a personal prejudice!”
Men would shudder, he thought, if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival – yet that was what they did to their children.
Armed with nothing but meaningless phrases, this boy had been thrown to fight for existence, he had hobbled and groped through a brief, doomed effort, he had screamed his indignant, bewildered protest – and had perished in his first attempt to soar on his mangled wings.
But a different breed of teachers had once existed, he thought, and had reared the men who created this country; he thought that mothers should set out on their knees to look for men like [those teachers], to find them and beg them to return.
This powerful passage had me literally crying as I read it late one night last week. Not only is it an emotional tidal wave, but it illustrates perfectly the current state of what passes for education and higher thought in many places. There was no chapter in the book where I didn’t think Yes! She gets it! That’s still true!
Atlas Shrugged was a profoundly amazing book and I feel extremely fortunate to have read it.
I’ve braved the spammers and opened up comments. I’d like to hear from those who have read the book and wish to comment.