Let me just say that while I knew what I was getting into regarding the length of this book, I had very little clue as to what the book was actually about. I knew about the “immortal query” of “Who is John Galt?” and that someone had said he would “stop the motor of the world”—but to be completely honest, I kind of thought that this was going to be some sort of weird science fiction novel where someone actually stopped the world from spinning and everyone floated off into space. Or something like that.
Happily, I was wrong.
Atlas Shrugged follows Dagny Taggart, the Operating Vice President of Taggart Transcontinental. She is intelligent, businesslike and absolutely ruthless when it comes to her railroad, which was founded by her grandfather, Nat Taggart. Her brother, Jim Taggart, is the president of the railroad—but, unlike Dagny, he is unwilling to take any responsibility for the necessary but difficult decisions regarding keeping the railroad afloat in difficult economic times. Dagny, therefore, runs the railroad behind the scenes while Jim schmoozes with his “friends in Washington.”
Often, Dagny’s personal policies—like preferring to buy steel from Hank Rearden rather than Orren Boyle, who has continually delayed delivery of steel rails—conflict with Jim’s ideals; Jim, who has always done business with Orren Boyle, refuses to order from Rearden (even though Dagny orders from him anyway). Here, we find one of the first major themes of Atlas Shrugged: fear of the new and unknown. Because Rearden is a new steel manufacturer, and in fact something of an overnight success, many of the established industrialists refuse to buy from him, even when it becomes clear he is the best manufacturer.
Soon, Rearden creates a new alloy, called Rearden Metal, that is lighter, stronger, and cheaper to make than steel. However, when he chooses to keep its blueprints a secret, he not only sparks jealousy and outrage among his competitors, but also prompts those competitors to spread unfounded rumors about the unreliability of Rearden Metal—rumors which are backed by the increasingly collectivist government. Dagny, who does not know Hank Rearden personally but is aware of and trusts his morality and integrity as an industrialist, is the only one who is willing to purchase Rearden Metal, and does so to construct new rails. Meanwhile, Dagny also struggles with personal despair: her only childhood friend and first lover, Francisco d’Antonia, heir to the d’Antonia copper mines, has become quite the worthless playboy and seems bent on destroying his own company.
As the novel progresses, the best industrialists go out of business and disappear, one by one, until only Dagny and Rearden remain. With the world’s economy crumbling, Dagny becomes increasingly desperate until she stumbles upon the life-changing secret of the vanished industrialists—and her world will never be the same.
Okay, sorry for the long summary, but the book is over 1,000 pages long, after all. No way to just summarize it in a paragraph without copying the blurb on the back of the book—which, clearly, did not give me a very good idea of what the book was actually about. You guys are probably smarter, but still.
Anyway, this book was wonderful. Hard to get through at times, and I will admit that there is an approximately 50-page-long speech towards the very end that I skimmed (because really, he was basically saying the same thing over and over) but for the most part it is entirely worth it. It is beautifully written, perfectly capturing Ayn Rand’s deliberate style—you’re never really left guessing about whose side she’s on. If you’re not in at least partial agreement with her, you’ll probably feel as though she’s hitting you over the head sometimes, but that’s okay because it’s enjoyable (at least, I thought it was).
But then again, I agree with a lot of what she was saying. I don’t necessarily have such a grim view of the future of our country, but I do think welfare efforts can go overboard sometimes. Don’t get me wrong; I work in the non-profit industry. I whole-heartedly believe in doing what we can for those who are less fortunate than we are. But I also believe that many of the efforts this country makes can be misguided, and there are many who take advantage of the system. And I was also taught growing up that you earn what you deserve. If you work hard at school/work/sports/whatever, you will generally earn good grades/a good salary/a good score/whatever. If you don’t put in the effort, you don’t earn the rewards. That was the biggest thing that drew me into Atlas Shrugged: all these wonderful, intelligent, talented people were being totally taken advantage of and in fact being punished for their success, and that was heartbreaking. I knew it was fiction but at the same time it seemed so plausible that I couldn’t help but be outraged for them.
Still, there were a few things I didn’t agree with. Like I alluded to earlier, I don’t believe as strongly as Rand apparently did that we shouldn’t provide any welfare services. I just think that we go a little overboard—not nearly as much as they did in Atlas Shrugged, though. I also didn’t agree with the demonstrable lack of belief in a higher being. I’m certainly not the most religious person, but I do believe in God, and Catholicism has been a pretty important part of my life. But religion is not for everyone, and I understand that it didn’t have a place in Rand’s philosophy. It’s just a part of her philosophy I don’t personally agree with.
Seriously, though, it was a terrific book, and you should read it. It’ll take a while, but it’s so worth it. I promise.