Just Can’t Shrug Off "Atlas Shrugged"

I have lately been reading Atlas Shrugged, and as many of my friends know, I have been struggling with it. Ayn Rand and I are not really a compatible pair. I find her writing far too heavy handed for my taste. I’m a reader who likes to form my own opinions and be free to agree or disagree with an author’s philosophical or political views while still enjoying the heart of the story. Rand is not conducive to this kind of reading. Ayn Rand is not a subtle author by any stretch of the imagination; she is an author with a mission. In the two books of hers that I’ve read, Rand has never allowed me to think what I like about her heroes, to identify with a character of my choosing, or to agree or disagree with her philosophy. I imagine that reading one of Ayn Rand’s books is equivalent to being a child in her house, “As long as you’re reading my book, you’ll think according to my rules!”

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I have an admission to make… I am actually enjoying Atlas Shrugged. Everything I said in the preceding paragraph is true, but as much as I’d like to be able to write off Rand and her uber-capitalist philosophy, I simply can’t. I can’t write her off because her writing is solid–and often quite beautiful, she has some brilliant insights into human relationships, and because once you get beyond the prickly politics she really does tell a compelling story of human struggle.

I think the first thing that softened my heart toward Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged is her passionate love of a job well-done. How can you not admire that? Her heroes (and heroines) display in so many ways a pure motivation for their work. They work for themselves, for capitalism, and for the beauty inherent in a job well-done; not for fame, praise of others, or any kind of outside approval. I like that.

Another thing I must appreciate about Rand is her support of individual independence. I’m a bit of the independent type myself–always preferred singles tennis to doubles and that sort of thing–and it makes me uncomfortable to be in debt to anyone for any length of time, which is why this passage struck such a chord with me:

“My way of trading is to know that the joy you give me is paid for by the joy you get from me–not by your suffering or mine. I don’t accept sacrifices and Idon’t make them. If you asked me for more than you meant to me, I would refuse. If you asked me to give up the railroad, I’d leave you. If ever the pleasure of one has to be bought by the pain of the other, there better be no trade at all. A trade by which one gains and the other loses is a fraud.”

As much as I admire this passage, I have to admit that don’t think it’s quite realistic. For example, I think that as a parent sacrifices must be made for the sake of your children. Hopefully, by the reasoning provided above, the joy of being a parent outweighs the pain of the sacrifices, but let’s be honest, the rewards are rarely immediate!

And I suppose this is one of my own biggest hurdles to overcome with Ayn Rand’s writing: Her characters, situations, and story lines are too archetypal, too polarized, too over-the-top. Although I find much to admire in her writing, I don’t find much to relate to. This is not to say that every story has to be relatable, many excellent short stories and novellas are complete abstractions, but if you’re going to subject me to almost 1200 pages of your story I’m going to need a little camaraderie, a little subtlety, and a little freedom to get me through.

I’m more than halfway through the book now, and although I find it incredibly frustrating at times I also find it absolutely inspiring. It is for this reason that I can’t just set it aside as perhaps I should. I can’t get it out of my head until I get to the end. So wish me luck, wish me insight, and wish me patience. And my most sincere apologies to any Ayn Rand disciples out there.
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