Atlas Shrugged – my review

Before I begin this review, I want to acknowledge two things: 1. This review may contain a few spoilers. If you haven’t read the book and want to some day, consider yourself warned (though if you possess half a brain, there’s not much I can give away that won’t be obvious within the first 100 pages) 2. I predicted it would take me 2 to 3 weeks to read this book – don’t take the 3 months it took me as a sign that it would really take this long to read it. In fact this is a 2 week read – I just spread my 2 weeks over a course of months due to a couple of snags.

Being a reader all of my life, I have indentified certain criteria for which I judge the merit of a novel. I expect anyone who has spent a good portion of their free time with books has done the same. My standards are:

    Plot – Not just that the story itself is good, but that the story moves along well and is both plausable and unique.
    Characters – I want the characters to be well defined and three – dimensional. It’s also important for at least one or two of the characters to be likable enough that I care what happens to them.
    Atmosphere – I need to feel that I am standing next to the characters, experiencing the story as they are. If I’m not brought into a novel, there’s no hope of it evoking an emotional response from me – which is important.
    Grammer and Style – I don’t read a book, red pen in hand, ready to make corrections. I want an author to observe proper form and usuage only my for my own ease of reading. The two things that annoy me more than any other are bad dialog attribution and wordiness.
    Knowledge – While I read primarily for pleasure, I feel slightly let-down if I close a book without gaining some knowledge. It doesn’t matter if what I learned was how a small town in Maine smells on an autumn evening or the motivation behind the French Revolution. I just want to come away from the book with a new bit of information.

Based on these standards, this is my opinion of Atlas Shrugged.

Plot: This is a great story. I never thought a railroad or a steel mill could be so interesting. The story is merely a backdrop for theory, but it’s a good backdrop. The story does drag in a few places, but these instances are usually due to elements other than the plot itself.

Characters: Overall, the characters worked. Dagny and Rearden were well defined, believable, and likeable (to me at least, I understand there are some who took the looters’ perspective). I had a problem wtih Eddie Willers simply because he seemed very flat. It’s debatable as to whether or not his character was even necessary. I personally feel he wasn’t, the only information he held was obvious from the beginning. Clint thinks he was necessary to bridge the gap between the great minds and the workers – and I agree that a bridge was a good idea. I just don’t think Eddie Willers really offered us much to relate to. Francisco was both laughable and endearing so I can’t complain about him. My only real complaint is that we weren’t given any backstory on the Washington boys to explain their reasons for behaving as they did. Jim Taggart gets the most backstory, but it lacked any real substance. I was also a bit disturbed that so many of these men were so “beautiful”. How can both Rearden and Francisco be the ideal of a man in Dagny’s mind. I’m glad that Ellis Wyatt, Ken Dannager, and Owen Kellogg weren’t so devestatingly attractive or the book could have been retitled “Dagny the Slut”. Interestingly, Clint cites Francisco as his favorite character – I would choose Rearden.

Atmosphere: Again, overall very good. Ayn Rand did an excellant job of luring me into the setting and making me feel as if I were actually seeing and hearing rather than reading words. I feel that I could navigate my way through the Taggart Terminal, or recognize the face of Francisco d’Anconia. I felt pride for the accomplishments of the industrialists and digust at the actions of the looters. Of course, I grew weary of hearing about Dagny’s angular appearance and the mouth that was sensual in spite of the nature of the woman. Halfway through the book I was wishing desperately for an accident that would render her armless or blind so that I could get a new description. I was aware that she was thin by chapter two – why keep bringing it up?

Grammer and Style: Ayn Rand needed an editor. Everything that is wrong with this book is the direct fault of Rand’s shortcommings as a writer and the absense of the editor. Where was the editor? I don’t know – but this book should have been about 400 pages lighter. I said that I have two pet peeves – bad dialog attribution and wordiness – this is rather unfortunate for the author. Let’s start with dialog attribution. Take a look at this sentence:
“We … can’t … let … this … happen …”, Bob said slowly.
I ask you, is “slowly” really necessary? The three dots in between each word indicate Bob said it slowly.
How about this one:
Ann slammed her fist on the desk. “Get me that report now.”, she cried angrily.
Is “angrily” necessary? No, we know she’s angry because she slammed her fist on the desk.
I don’t like having my intelligence insulted or my time wasted by this kind of drivel. I also dislike having to go back to the beginning of a discussion to count lines so I can figure out who the hell is saying what. I don’t know if there is a standard on how many lines one should write without attributing dialog to a speaker, but I’m guessing somewhere around 6 is the limit for the average reader. This book is full of useless adverbs and confusing exchanges. If you’ve made it past 500 pages, you’re aware that if Jim Taggart says “I can’t be blamed”, he shrieks it. If Rearden says “What do you want?”, he says it in a flat and confident tone. Ayn Rand failed to respect the intelligence of her reader in this way.
At the risk of falling victim to my second pet peeve, I will move on to wordiness.
Of all the examples and criticisms I could dredge up, the John Galt speach is the only one necessary. By the time this speach rolls around I had read 915 pages expressing all of the ideas this speach contains. If this information could have been conveyed in the 64 pages it takes to make this speach, why wasn’t it done? I understand that certain events had to occur before the resolution could make any sense, but too much of this book was spent on characters over explaining themselves, driving points into the ground, and then bringing the same theory up 20 pages later in a different setting. I’ve got more to say on this but it really fits better into the knowledge standard so we’ll come back to it there. On with the speach. This speach only had four or five points, but each one is explained several different ways in excruciating detail. If the reader hasn’t grasped the concept of cause and effect by this point I can’t imagine they had the mental ability to get through the first chapter. I understand that the whole nation had to hear this speach, but since the reader already heard it (several times), couldn’t we have moved on to something else. We don’t read Dagny’s explanation of her month long hiatus to Rearden because we were there – we saw it first hand. Why, oh why, did we have to hear that speach for the millionth time? This tendency towards wordiness is apparent in every single page. Ayn Rand would describe my decision of which pants to wear as such:
She stood in front of her closet. In front of the closet she stood. She glanced at a pair of black trousers, then at a pair of tan trousers. She liked the black ones better. The black ones pleased her at this moment. A cooper wire broke in a phone booth in Montana. In front of her closet, she choose the black, not the tan, but the black trousers, which were black.

Knowledge: I have heard it said by many people that this is “my favorite book” and that “it made me change the way I think”. This will not be my favorite book, and overall, it has not made me change the way I think. I could talk for weeks on why it has not changed the way I think so I’m only going to try and identify a couple of the main reasons. If I had read this book when I was 16, I think it would have made a much bigger impact. There wasn’t a theory or belief expressed by the industrialists that I wasn’t already familiar with because I have worked and lived. Because I’m familiar with Communism and Democrats, I’m also aware of the theories and beliefs expressed by the “looters”. There were a couple of ideas that did influence or solidify a connection. For example, I’ve always been put off by hearing someone express their desire for someone to “love me for myself”. I now know why this has always disturbed me. The bulk of the theory was not earth shattering or unique – even at the time it was written. I will say that because of my interests, it’s possible I may have been exposed to a lot of philosophy the average reader would not have been familiar with. I will also say that in the many coversations I’ve had with many different people, these philosophies are quite common – and a majority of these poeple do not hold my particualr interests and have not read Atlas Shrugged.
Regardless of these facts, I do not consider the time I spent reading Atlas Shrugged wasted. The ideas expressed are commonplace, but it never hurts to be reminded of them. For the record, I sided with the Hank Reardens and not those acting on the supposed interests of public welfare.

In summation, I enjoyed the book. It was an interesting story full of memorable characters and events. I think the ending was pretty ridiculous, but we can’t have everything. Clint was unhappy with Dagny’s decision to return, and while I think it was necessary for both the reader and Dagny to understand the alternative – the book probably could have ended there and been essentially the same. Possibly the motivation for such an ending can best be understood by looking at the important works of Edward Gorey. One of his finest examples of storytelling, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr. Earbass writes a novel, may give us answers. Early in Mr. Earbass’s process, we read:
“He cannot help but feel that Lirp’s return and almost immediate impalement on the bottle-tree was one of his better ideas.”
Later we discover,
“He is engaged in making diagrams of possible routes and destinations, and wishing he had not dealt so summarily with Lirp, who would have been useful for taking retributive measures at the end of Part Three. At the moment there is no other character capable of them.”

PS – I was only kidding with the Democrat statment… kind … of … , she added slowly.


One Comment on “Atlas Shrugged – my review”

  1. Ed Minchau says:

    First, it is spelled “grammar”. Second, Ayn Rand did have an editor – 12 of them. Among them was (former Federal Reserve Chairman) Alan Greenspan. But yeah, the book could have been 400 pages lighter – who knows how long it would have been without her “collective” of editors? That speech by Galt was WAY too long.

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