(by Patrick, on the eve of the RPCB Women’s Book Club 2010-11 selection meeting)
First, the negatives: 1) The length. I “read” Atlas Shrugged in 2008 by listening to it on audio while driving to and from work. It had the feel of a 200, maybe 300 page book. So I was flabbergasted when Lynn brought home AS in the flesh -- a 600-page, small-print tome (she almost capitulated to my entreaties to read it). 2) What you’ve heard is true. Objectivism, Rand’s system of ethics which is illustrated by AS, is antithetical to Christianity, and to Western Civilization, for that matter. Whittaker Chambers, ex-communist, reviewing AS for National Review in 1957, pulled no punches, saying Rand’s “shrillness is without reprieve,” hearing it in the echoes of the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Rand, through AS’s heroine Dagny Taggart, exalts promiscuity, one reason why AS is met by some aversion in Christian circles. (But, book club, if you can stomach “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” surely you can stomach Atlas Shrugged.)
And one can go on. So why read it? First, it is widely regarded as one the most important books of the 20th century. Second, reading AS, if anything, will contextualize the “Who is John Galt?” bumper stickers that are starting to appear around Bowie (ah…you’re sold!). But the primary reason (which is behind the latter two) is that AS, for all its “shrillity,” is an effective explication of what I would call extreme libertarianism (though Rand shunned that word). The economic bent espoused by Rand in AS is apropos today, especially with midterm elections looming. If you maintain a grain of cultural competency these days, then you are bombarded by a constant stream of statements (some overt and some covert) that illustrate the far left of political philosophy (embodied in a socialist utopia), with the result (I think) that the American populace is pulled by degrees farther and farther to the left of center, where it historically occupied the right of center. Over the last 80 years, this shift has lead to a monstrous welfare economy, and an implicit, unchallenged assumption that we need the government’s help in all, but especially economic, circumstances. Now we quietly hand over a large portion of our personal property in taxes, while the government grows larger and more overbearing, the latter illustrated by the fact that, for the first time in history, legislation was just passed that REQUIRES private citizens to spend their own money to purchase a product or face heavy penalties (the “individual mandate” of Obamacare). Atlas Shrugged offers a still fresh discussion of liberalism’s economic converse. If we must listen to the ramblings of Fool A, then let’s also give Fool B a hearing. Then we’ll be better able to navigate the middle. In my limited reading, I haven’t found such a discussion, stated so effectively, anywhere else. And so the advantage of AS, as I see it, is that it gets us asking questions that have not been asked, by Americans anyway, for a very long time. It helps us to conceive of a counterpoint to the propaganda we are spoon-fed everyday by a liberal media and culture. It helps us to conceive of the dignity of conservatism, which is based on the dignity of the individual, while rejecting (as we must do if reading as a mature Christian, or with the guidance of a parent) those elements of Objectivism which are manifestly evil.
Let me return to my first disclaimer: if you are put off by the book’s length (and I would have been), then I suggest you read John Galt’s 100-or-so-page monologue toward the end of the book (can’t quote page numbers here…sorry). This is a concise explanation of Objectivism. Or do like I did and listen to the novel on audio. Or, book club, make it your 2011 summer reading.
Next week: The Case for Green Eggs and Ham