I really think that this is the worst book I have ever read—literarily and morally. More than a thousand pages of poorly written, morally reprehensible dribble. I feel as though I need to read the Left Behind series to remind myself what good literature can be, and then Blood Meridian to remind myself that there is still goodness in this world.

I must give credit where credit is due. I have never written an influential novel. I have never written a document of any length in a foreign language. I certainly give Rand credit for having done those things. I also give a Russian émigré credit for knowing something about communism.

Two or three hundred pages in, I judged that Rand had managed about a short story’s worth of plot. After nearly twelve hundred pages, I grant that she managed a novella’s worth. (Does anyone else remember being surprised at how short Animal Farm was? Orwell knew when to stop.)

One certainly develops pet peeves in a book of this length. One of mine is Rand’s repeated use of a strategy I believe I’ve only otherwise encountered in young adult literature. I failed to highlight an example, and I’m unwilling to reread to find an example, so I’ll just describe it. Within the course of a single paragraph, Rand sets up some situation as unexpected, and then attempts to create a dramatic effect by subverting that expectation with an event in the same paragraph. It’s foreshadowing for readers who can’t be expected to remember the details.

Or there’s her tendency to describe six events presaging the dire state of affairs, when three would have been excessive. The book could have been hundreds of pages shorter, had Rand only credited her readers with the capacity to connect the dots on their own.

In the end, however, the aforementioned pale in comparison to Rand’s grating use of the phrase “as if”. I believe the proper and typical usage of this phrase can be described as setting up a hypothetical situation, to which the actual situation is related by simile. For example, “He stared at the statue, as if expecting a reply.” Rand often misses out the simile:

No one had moved through the span of silence; they had stood, looking at the radio, as if waiting.

Of course waiting is exactly what they’re doing. No simile is needed or deployed. What is required here is simple, “they had stood, looking at the radio, waiting.”

And this is a personal favorite:

“You’ll find a Taggart station there,” he said, pointing at the town, “and you’ll be able to take a train.” She nodded, as if she understood.

A related blunder is putting exposition into sensory verbs—as if below we need not only be told what the voiced was weighted with exhaustion but that it sounded that way as well.

“Hello, John,” said a clear, quiet voice that sounded steady, but weighted with exhaustion.

The plot… for the first two-thirds of the book, the plot moves inexorably forward toward what common sense and Rand’s own foreshadowing demands. Aristotle, whom Rand claims as an influence, once said something about the role of the unexpected in literature…

It’s so, so bad. One spends half the novel watching Hank and Dagny develop a relationship, waiting for the appearance of the mysterious John Galt. (I omit for the sake of brevity a fascinating few hundred pages when Dagny builds a new railroad track.) Then John Galt appears, Hank is dumped, and Dagny spends the rest the novel agonizing over whether she can leave her railroad. A flurry of action at the end succeeds in restoring all the characters to exactly where they were half-way through the novel.

(One could imagine a sequel to The Great Divorce where George MacDonald returns from the hereafter to help Rand develop a more coherent plot…)

The characters… the characters are all industrialists and evil men; white hats and black hats. The heroine sleeps with the industrialists—as near as I could tell, she leapt into bed with whoever had to that point demonstrated the greatest industrial prowess. I confess that by the time she fell in love with the third, it lacked much dramatic force. Of course, all three of the men remained the best of friends, because that’s how real life works.

The philosophy…

I have seen Rand listed as an INTJ, and as a stereotypical INTJ myself, I can see why. This book reads as a celebration of the darker tendencies in my own personality. I am very grateful that I didn’t read it when I was sixteen.

I believe a fair characterization of the philosophy of objectivism is that reason is thought to provide all of the necessaries of life, including somehow morality. There is an unacknowledged premise that production—especially industrial production—is the highest expression of humanity.

Rand has plenty of digs at Christianity—almost all of them uninformed—and a few against Hinduism as well. She is clearly anti-religious. What bothers her most seems to be the ideas of selflessness, sacrifice, and a sense of the universal brotherhood of man. As a Christian who pays attention to how Christians are represented in the media, I feel warranted in saying that these are not usually the things we are called out for.

The antisocial element also is strong in the book. Marital and familial relationships tend not to be happy ones in Atlas Shrugged. Common humanity cannot even run that far. So, although I would not dare to label Rand as a psychopath, I think it is incontrovertible that if a psychopath were to develop a social philosophy, this is the one she would come up with.

Morally, then, the book is chilling. The greatest intellectual offenses lie in the presentation of the moral philosophy. Fallacious reasoning generally either makes claims stronger than what the premises allow, or fails to draw properly strong conclusions from the premises advanced. Rand makes both errors. For the former:

All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil.

This is presented as an argument, but it is far from obvious what is “proper to the life of a rational being.” This is of course never defined. Instead we get bold pronouncements such as the following:

The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.

But Rand disdains any communitarian ethos. So if she were honest, she would attempt to exclude specifically the possibility that “enjoying oneself” might entail making a reasonable contribution to the common good, rather than retreating from one’s fellow men.

These unstated premises—and ironically, one of the catch-phrases of the book is “check your premises”—make a mockery of the repeated claim that rationality in itself provides a sufficient guide to life.

You who speak of a ‘moral instinct’ as if it were some separate endowment opposed to reason—man’s reason is his moral faculty.

Chesterton can be quoted profitably here: “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.” Madmen are entirely logically consistent, but have no valid premises from which to reason. So too with Rand, she celebrates reason, but doesn’t acknowledge that reason doesn’t provide her anything to work with. Why is unfettered capitalism more reasonable than communism? Why is either more reasonable than some arbitrary middle ground between the two? It’s like how Spock through around the word “logical” in Star Trek to mean “I approve”, and “illogical” to mean “I disapprove”.

Rand has no answers here, and (as Paul might say) it darkens her mind to the point that she’s able to believe that vacuous statements such as the following entail an entire moral system.

My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live.

Rand clearly believes that the “rational” approach to life is basically one of self-interest. And—fair enough, excluding divine revelation. But she lacks even the subtly to acknowledge that making a reasonable contribution to the public good—be it through volunteerism or taxes—might actually make one happier in the long run. She would be allergic even to the Epicurean idea that virtue itself has some contribution to human happiness.

Of course this is represented as being true to oneself, the high ideal of individualistic cultures.

Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness—not pain or mindless self-indulgence—is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.

(In the narrative portion of the book, this insight leads one of the characters to abandon his wife, mother, and brother without remorse, and carry on with the protagonist… until the protagonist finds someone she likes better than him.)

Lest anyone be in doubt about the basic incompatibility between the philosophy of objectivism and Christianity, this sums it up nicely:

Discard the protective rags of that vice which you called a virtue: humility—learn to value yourself, which means: to fight for your happiness—and when you learn that pride is the sum of all virtues, you will learn to live like a man.

I feel I’m just about done venting. I think my basic feeling is disappointment that this book has influenced, or is thought to have influenced, American political discourse. There are valid points to be made about free markets and a free society. I have libertarian tendencies, and so I’m open to arguments for a reduced role of government in daily life. But for me at least, the “void” left by government is always to be fulfilled by civil society. A conservatism that stems from a lack of concern for others is chilling to me. The vision of “freedom” presented in this book, however, strikes me as nothing but selfishness writ large.