Book review: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

originally posted elsewhere: February 6, 2004

tl;dr: Why you should read this book...

Atlas Shrugged is without a doubt one of the most important books of the 20th century, and is still entirely relevant today. It addresses a subject (individualism vs. collectivism, in economics, philosophy and culture) that wars have been fought over, and which millions perished and suffered because of (the communist, socialist and fascist regimes of the 20th century). Even today, while most of these collectivist states have collapsed, the debate over the proper role of the government and the degree to which wealth should be taken from some to be given to others continues unabated. All of the arguments that politicians use today to justify their positions on tax policy, or regulation of businesses, or new health and welfare programs, or the evils of big businesses and powerful industrialists (e.g. the U.S. government's attempt to punish Microsoft and Bill Gates), appear in Rand's masterpiece. You could study these subjects by reading dry economics textbooks, but Rand has taken both sides of each argument, illustrated the conflict with dramatic images and events, and drawn the logical conclusions.

Atlas Shrugged is a 1000+ page refutation of Karl Marx's dangerously alluring statement: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. Why doesn't this work, and why does it actually destroy societies? Why would a cradle-to-grave welfare system (government guaranteed housing, medical care and food) fail? Atlas Shrugged shows why, in incredible detail. If only more people in the 20th century (and today) had been able to read and understand Ayn Rand, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

A book cover with a golden statue of a man, Atlas, bent over on one knee holding up a box containing the book's title and the author's name, with an Art Deco skyscraper in the background along with a stylized drawing of the sun on the horizon with rays radiating into a dark sky

Atlas Shrugged is also an inspirational guide for how to conduct one's own life. The top people I've met in U.S. businesses more closely resemble Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart than they do Jim Taggart and Wesley Mouch. So, if you want some ideal role models on how to succeed in business, Atlas Shrugged provides them. It is one of the few works of art to present engineers and applied scientists as true heroes. Also, the book teaches the most important lesson about personal responsibility: each individual, not others, is responsible for his/her own happiness.

Finally, there are other more trivial reasons to read Atlas Shrugged. The plot is a page-turner; youll want to keep reading to find out what happens. Youll feel a major sense of accomplishment when you finish. You will find many interesting, amusing tidbits (I was surprised to learn that American academia was a collectivist, relativist hotbed in the 1950s; I had thought that was a phenomenon induced by the Sixties).

It's amazing to realize that Ayn Rand had this all figured out in 1957. It's also heartening to see that Atlas Shrugged continues to be a top-seller (ranked in the top 1000 on Amazon right now) nearly 50 years after it was first published. Why is this so? Read the book!