Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Atlas sells [update 2]

Over fifty years after its publication Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged hit number one over the last week on Amazon’s best-seller lists for Fiction and Literature.  (It’s currently at number 11.)

And no wonder.

As The Economist pointed out recently, it’s usually Hollywood that takes fifty-year-old novels and makes them best-sellers again.  This time however it’s Washington that’s boosting sales, where they’re now doing everything Rand said they would do when the world starts turning into the place she said it must under their meddling.  A complicated sentence (perhaps) but an important point.

It wasn’t crystal ball gazing that allowed Rand’s predictions to come true – it was her understanding of cultural trends and what causes them.

The fact that Atlas is tops again is frightening some people.  “Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels,” says a Guardian literateur who does her best to shut her eyes and stamp her feet and insist it go away.

“An analysis of the reasons it was so hated,” notes Lindsay Perigo, “yields also the reasons it is still so loved.

    Atlas, far more explicitly than Ayn Rand's previous best-seller, The Fountainhead, challenges, in Rand's own words, "the cultural tradition of two thousand five hundred years." It demolishes the sacrificial ethic that permeates the belief systems of that entire period. It repudiates the proposition that man's highest purpose and duty is to sacrifice himself—be it to God, the state, society or his neighbour. It roundly condemns the equation of ethics with suffering. "The purpose of morality," says one of its heroes in a startlingly direct and outrageous formulation, "is to teach you not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."
Say what?!
Thus did Ayn Rand enrage religious conservatives and secular "liberals" alike.”

Still does, as the reactions from around the place to Atlas’s renaissance demonstrate. Edward Cline notes that the rise of Atlas. the re-emergence of John Galt and the whole Tea Party phenomenon looks like a hopeful sign amid the political and economic gloom, that “the nation -- indeed, the world -- is waking up to the idea that ideas have consequences.”

    The world seems to be emerging from a moral and intellectual coma . . It is discovering that other ideas have other consequences, as well, ideas that promote life, promote prosperity, promote ambition and personal success, and that they are possible only in political freedom, and that this freedom has been violated, abridged, and nullified by the first set of ideas. True, politics is the last thing to be affected by a philosophical revolution. But one cannot help but be pleased with how startled the collectivists and altruists are now by the knowledge that they have not successfully pulled a fast one on Americans. These Americans have come knocking on the doors of elitists or leaning over the café railings or invading their legislated smoke-free bars and restaurants to ask: What in hell do you think you are doing?
    The Americans who recently protested the spendthrift policies of the Obama administration and Congress with “tea parties,” and who plan to protest them on an even larger scale in the near future, one can wager are not regular readers of The New York Times. They cannot have much in common with its columnists and editors, nor with the news media.
    So the collectivist and altruist elite become very touchy when the people for whom they are “doing good” for their own sake, even to the point of enacting coercive and felonious legislation, exhibit signs of intelligence, resistance and anger. How dare these yokels!
    And nothing raises their hackles higher than any mention of Ayn Rand.

For the self-anointed and the power hungry, the idea that people see through their scam must be truly frightening.

Fact is, as Ayn Rand Institute head Yaron Brook says in the Wall Street Journal, what’s most frightening is the constant calls for more and more government power, and deeper and deeper sacrifices, every time the previous sacrifices and the earlier abuses of government power get us in yet another hole.  And what’s most necessary is to grasp the fundamental cause of today’s crisis, which as Brook makes clear is not primarily economic, but moral.

    Economic crises and runaway government power grabs don't just happen by themselves [says Brook]; they are the product of the philosophical ideas prevalent in a society -- particularly its dominant moral ideas. . .
    Rand offered us a way out . . .

Which is the chief reason she’s both so loved, and so hated  . . . and presently so popular again.

Read Brook’s short piece – Is Rand Relevant? – and then print it out and stick it inside the front page of your new copy.

UPDATE 1:  Pajama TV interviews Yaron Brook about “Going John Galt” and the Atlas phenomenon.  Don’t “Go John Galt,” says Brook: fight back!

Watch: Is Atlas Shrugging? – PAJAMAS TV

UPDATE 2:  Philosopher Greg Salmieri says ATLAS SHRUGGED: It's more than just a political novel.

Most of the recent discussion of Atlas has focused on its political themes, creating the impression that the novel is essentially a condemnation of government intervention in the economy. However, its scope, its relevance to the current crisis, and the reasons for its enduring appeal go much wider and much deeper than this. . .


  1. I confess that - for as much as I knew she had it very, very right - I never thought Atlas would come true in quite so literal a form.

    But it's glorious that it's getting the attention it so much deserves.

    Beyond all its virtues as a work of philosophy (and fountain of economic truths), it is superb literature.

    Among those creatures on the lowest of Dante's levels, I'd place those who claim, variously, "It's badly written," "It has some good ideas, but her style is [cartoonish, boring, too complex, too simple, etc. etc.], "The plot is badly constructed." and on and on.

    I know a thing or two about what it takes to write a good novel and I'd argue to the death about how magnificently she accomplished that, independent of whether or not one agrees with the philosophy. But, then, objectivity is the last thing I've come to expect from those who dislike that philosophy.

  2. I must buy a copy myself.
    I commented on the book over at barnsley Bill at the weekend.
    yesterday i cited you in my post about how relevent libertarians are.
    Go on, tell me what you think.

  3. Jeff, here's a message from the ninth level. I've read it, and it's hard going. Brilliant concept, etc, but if you're trying to get a point across, then you are best not to write it in a style that will put off all but the most determined readers. I skipped the forty pages or so of John Galt blathering on because it had all been said already. I'd love to recommend it to others, but there are only a few of my friends who have the fortitude to finish it.

  4. FM, sorry, I didn't see your post(s): could you post a link to it/them?

  5. twr,

    I read it first as a teenager and found it very easy to read purely as a story, and I don't claim any particular great intelligence.

    But then, perhaps it's simply a difference of age. Public school was bad in my day, but not yet completely dedicated to destroying young minds (and I did read a great deal outside it, starting from a young age).

    I've heard it's difficult for some, but I suppose anything above the level of, say Clive Cussler or James Patterson might be difficult for most readers under 40.

  6. twr,


    Interesting that you say the first 40 pages of Galt's speech had been said already, yet you found the book hard going. Apparently not so hard that you were able to grasp that (in your view) 4/7ths of his speech was a repetition.

  7. I have to agree with twr. I much enjoyed the book but got the feeling that the same concepts and ideas were being repeated.
    I too (sadly) gave up during John Galts monologue.
    And there were too few fricken' lazers.

  8. Anyone interested in Rand's ideas should start off with "Anthem".

    Short and easy to read - and individualism in a nutshell.

    Really Libz should provide this book free of charge to NZers who register interest. How much would it cost?

  9. What I meant by "hard going" wasn't that it was technically difficult to read, but that it took some time to get engaged in it, and the story line moved quite slowly. It's not the most entertaining of books for readers who are used to modern fast-paced action-type novels. But, as I said, well worth it for what you eventually get out of it.

  10. I prefer the Fountainhead. Shorter speeches, more of Ayn's rape fantasies. Dagny Taggart only gets violated once every couple hundred pages, with Dominique it's like every second chapter.

  11. twr, I think Atlas is fascinating reading especially today. In other times it might be hard-going, today it's a fast paced novel, that you want to finish as soon as you start. You read read it, and you look out of the window, and say, oh my, this is really what's happening right now.

    This book displays an uncanny ability to predict the behaviour of government under crisis.

  12. Only "The Bone People" surpasses "Atlas Shrugged" for unreadability.

  13. The Silent Majority17 Mar 2009, 21:34:00

    I read Atlas Shrugged only recently as part of the process of my recent "political conversion". I loved every sentence of it even though I had to read many sentences twice!

    After reading it however, I went crazy for some weeks, because everything I saw around me seemed to be straight out of Atlas. Wherever I was, be it at work, driving, listening to the radio, I felt like I was living in the middle of that book.

    I am used to that feeling now, so I no longer feel that maybe I need to be medicated!

    It would be wonderful if there was a kids version of it.

  14. "Anyone interested in Rand's ideas should start off with "Anthem"."

    Ageed Ruth....its a great easy reading intro to give to people who are curious about Rand.

    "Short and easy to read - and individualism in a nutshell."

    Yes ...rather than scare them with the doorstop that AS can appear to newbies start them with Anthem.

    "Really Libz should provide this book free of charge to NZers who register interest. How much would it cost?"

    Its not that much from what I remember....less than $20 5 odd years back..?


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