Sunday, June 13, 2010

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

I ignored all the good advice I was given to never read this book. I should have listened. I bought the audio book to listen to on a road trip, and it was 11 1/2 of terrible writing, forgettable characters and simplicity that had me rolling my eyes. AND I just realized that what I was listening to was the abridged version! I feel like I dodged a bullet by not subjecting myself to the full version. This review contains spoilers because anything I can do so save people from reading this monstrosity is a good deed.

I read this book because I know people who want to argue with me about the benefits of Randian Anarchy who thump this book like a bible. I felt the need to read this to better understand where they were coming from. After reading it, I feel that I understand these peoples' tiny little brains much better. It was almost worth the repetitive stress injury I risked from the involuntary eye-rolling fits this book induced.

The story is about some delightful Pillars of Capitalism who are clever, hardworking, kind, etc. etc. etc. They just want to run their railroads, steel mills and mines but the evil, inept, selfish, immoral, etc. etc. etc. members of the government keep getting in their way. The Pillars of Capitalism get fed up and escape, leaving the 99.9% of people in the setting who aren't Pillars of Capitalism (and therefore are stupid, selfish and lazy) to bumble around attempting to feed themselves or whatever and largely failing.

I have so many problems with this book that I don't even know where to begin.

First of all, anyone who has paid attention through an economics class (or, you know, aced it like me) does not need this endless simplistic story Rand has given us to understand that capitalism as an economic system works very well, and can be harmed by government interference. That being the only "message" in the book I agree with, I recommend taking an economics class or reading an economics textbook instead of reading Atlas Shrugged. It might actually save you time.

In economics classes, they actually teach you even more than the concept that self-interest can drive progress and make rich people happy. They teach you about ways in which unfettered self-interest can be harmful. These are called externalities and Rand ignores them. As the real-world Pillars of Capitalism have made abundantly clear, their self interest won't protect, oh, I don't know, their investors and employees from getting bilked or companies from raping the environment. We need government to stop people from abusing each other and our world.

I could go on for days on the fallacies and freaking errors in libertarian anarchy. I approve of small government as much as the next person but there is an important place for the government in economics and it is, unfortunately, mostly to protect us against those who Rand reveres.

Dagny Taggart. She is the main protagonist and is completely a Mary Sue. The best part of the book was when I realized that Taggart was a total self-insertion character and I couldn't stop giggling. Characteristics held by Taggart that are commonly associated with bad fanfiction and Mary Sues are as follows, with certain descriptions from The Mary Sue Litmus Test.
  • Highly attractive without having to work at it
  • No less than the THREE most important male protagonists fell in love with and boinked her.
  • Genius level intelligence
  • Holds a position uncommon for women in the setting
  • Freaking flew an airplane with no training, unless time spent in flight school was just left out of the abridged version for some reason
  • Consistently radical and irreverent without repercussions
  • One of several Pillars of Capitalism in the story who are apparently necessary for the setting's economy to function.
Again, I could go on but I doubt many readers are as enthusiastic as I am about making fun of "classics" for characteristics they share with bad fanfiction.

I had several other problems with Rand's portrayal of Taggart, mostly due to the inevitable sexism. Dagny Taggart is referred to throughout the story simply as "Dagny" while her much less important brother is referred to as "Taggart". Why do only men ever get referred to by their last names?

The single part of this book that made me rage more than any other was when Dagny visits the Pillars of Capitalisms' little mountain capitalism retreat. She shows up, gets stuck for a month, feels like being gainfully employed so what does she do? This accomplished railroad executive, this brilliant engineer and genius supply chain planner declares that she wants nothing more than to be Galt's maid. I raged. OK, the book was written in the fifties, but if it is still respected as relevant today that gives me the right to rage.

The stupid mountain capitalism retreat pissed me off in general. There was the strong implication that all we needed to do to create a utopia was to get rid of the government. Forget about how the Atlas Shrugged government was a straw-man, a ridiculous over exaggeration. Forget about how this setting completely ignores the old, young, sick or otherwise unable to work portions of the population. For his little utopia, Galt hand-picked all the (brilliant, young, healthy, industrious, ambitious) people he let come in and work. Let me pick several industrious, dedicated, brilliant young communists and I could make that work too. The tricky part about societies is they can't just work for the most fit segment of the population.

Again, I could go on indefinitely about things that I hated about Atlas Shrugged. I strongly recommend you skip this book, unless you like simplistic portrayals of good and evil, remarkably predictable stories and unsubtle propaganda all drug out over what feels like 10 billion pages of obnoxious writing.


  1. Is it more that "classics" share characteristics with bad fanfiction, or is it more that bad fanfiction authors have made too many poor attempts at emulating the "classics" that it makes the classics seem kind of self-parodying?

    Yeah, I didn't care for the book either. And I read it. Unabridged. Except I skipped the monologue on capitalism because it was so boring it would have taken me a century to get through it.

  2. Here's the URL for the essay I mentioned tonight, "The Complement of Atlas Shrugged:

  3. Wow that is great! The holes in Rand's setting are definitely a great way to tear apart the book!


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