Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand was published on October 10, 1957, 50 years ago today. It is my favorite novel. I believe it is the greatest novel ever written.
The book is a publishing phenomenon. Last year it sold 130,000 copies, more than the year it came out. How many other novels published in the 1950's can boast such sales figures? (And how many of those have yet to be made into a movie?) These sales come despite the contempt the novel has gotten from tastemakers on the left and right since it was first published. Whittaker Chambers in National Review made the novel sound like the second coming of Adolph Hitler, an outrageous smear. (Could there be a worse person to review Atlas Shrugged than a communist who had become a Christian?) The conservative Andrew Ferguson recently dismissed Rand's novels as "preposterous" and the leftist maverick Christopher Hitchens has sneered at them as "transcendently awful."
If you accept the standards of naturalism, to which most serious novels conform, then Tolstoy's War and Peace is the greatest novel and Atlas Shrugged is indeed preposterous and awful. It has an interesting plot with suspense and an exciting climax; characters who are not statistical averages but heroes; a style that is at once clear and poetic, rational and passionate; and worst of all, it has a theme. Moreover, the theme contradicts the morality of both the left and right, undercutting both socialism and religion! Not only does it do all that, but it introduces a radical new philosophy in a 57-page speech. How on earth did such a book ever get published in an age of naturalism, an age in which your typical novel is a dreary, pointless, plotless story about some hapless professor suffering a midlife crisis?
As the venom from conservatives suggests, Atlas Shrugged is in no way conservative. It is radical. It is a revolutionary tract that introduces the philosophy of Objectivism, a philosophy of reality, reason, rational self-interest, capitalism and romanticism. (And it does this while also being a dramatic page-turner, a love story, a mystery and science fiction. To me it's not just the greatest novel, it's the most astonishing and most ambitious. Rand set her purpose high and she fulfilled it.)
Objectivism is now in a race with modern philosophy to determine the fate of Western Civilization. If modern philosophy continues to spread subjectivism, moral relativism, altruism, egalitarianism and collectivism, then statism will continue to grow and America will continue to lose its freedom. The nihilistic black hole of modern philosophy paves the way for religion to fill the value vacuum; as history shows, religion also leads to dictatorship. The enlightenment, of which America is a product, was the historical lowpoint of religion. If Objectivism spreads the morality of rational self-interest and individualism, then the march toward dictatorship will be halted and turned around.
That last paragraph probably baffled all but those who already agree with it. Any discussion of the effects of philosophy on politics and culture is highly abstract and hard to make real. I can't do it in a blog post, but what I can do is point the reader to the book that does make it real, that concretizes the philosophical struggle of Western Civilization. That book is Atlas Shrugged. It shows what altruism-collectivism-mysticism are doing to America -- and it provides the solution.
I can't do the novel justice here. All I can do is suggest you try it, you might like it. Or you might not. I have pushed the book on many family members and friends, none of whom read it. I think people are more likely to read a book they find and buy themselves than one they get as a gift. People seem to think, "You're giving me 1,000 pages to read? As if I didn't have enough work to do!" So I won't give you the book; but if you should see it in a bookstore someday and recall this review... go for it.