Worst Possible Time to Read Ayn Rand?

For years I’ve meant to, meant to, meant to read one of the two giant Ayn Rand novels Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. I’d read a few of her essays and the novel We The Living in a book club, and I used The Virtue of Selfishness while teaching a college class on argumentation, but I always felt I should read one of the books that really made her reputation. I felt that not having read her, I had perhaps missed one of the formative intellectual experiences that had shaped many of my fellow citizens. Dozens of times over the years I would see references to Atlas Shrugged, as in the famous “Who is John Galt?” grafitti, and vow to give one of the big novels a try.

 I was put off by three things:

1. The sense that I’d missed the boat long ago on Rand, that somehow the novels were more the sort of thing you read in high school or college.

2. The sheer stupefying length of the books, more than a thousand pages each. (I guess I’m kind of a length wimp; I’ve never read such humongous tomes as The Remembrance of Things Past or War and Peace, though I did, to my shame,  slog through Stephen King’s behemoth, It, some years ago.) 

3. I’ve always liked the late William F. Buckley, and I knew that he and Rand had a vicious falling out when Whittaker Chambers savaged Atlas Shrugged in the pages of National Review.

This flimsy list of excuses  illustrates once again that when we don’t want to do something, it’s easy to find endless reasons not to do it.   As with so much else, the best way to experience an author or a philosophical movement is to cut out the middlemen and go to the sources; I’ve lost track of how many times someone told me I would or would not love a book, movie, play, or place, only to form a much different opinion once I’d actually had the experience. (Most recently, during the presidential campaign, I read books by both McCain and Obama, and realized that much of what the public  and the media said about them pro and con was just wrong.)

So,  through a roundabout path, I now find myself reading . . . and reading . . . and reading. . . Atlas Shrugged. In fact, I’m just about finished. (I confess to some judicious skimming here and there.)

Here’s what brought me around to Rand  after all this time  (at what may be the worst time in decades to read a famous apostle of unrestrained capitalism!)

 Last summer, The Dallas Morning News held an online book club/discussion of James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, which I’ve mentioned from time to time. Essentially the book is a long argument for Less; the Age of Cheap Energy is coming to an end, Kunstler writes, and what lies ahead for the industrialized West is, in a word, Less. Much Less. Night cometh. End of big global dreams. Retreat to small local lifestyles. Plant a garden. Leave a smaller footprint on the land.

With gas bumping $4 a gallon, I thought it seemed a good time to read a critique of gas-guzzling consumer culture. So I read the book and followed the discussions among the four or five members of the panel.   And I quickly noticed that one commentator was adamantly, vehemently against everything Kunstler said.

 His objections were not  so much to Kunstler’s specific points or his evidence or his writing style.  Instead, he hated the very idea that anyone would suggest any limits whatsoever  on man’s desires to reshape the world. In his view, anything we could conceive, we could and should build if that’s what we want. To him there was no downside to a highly industrialized society. None. To suggest we should ever do with less, to suggest that there was or should be any  limit to satisfying our appetites, was blasphemy for this man. He denounced the Kunstler/Gore view of life as a wimpy, collectivist failure of nerve. What we needed was to damn the torpedos, realize global warming was a myth spread by Frenchified socialists, and continue our march toward glory. The West doesn’t need to make do with less; instead, every country on earth can and should mimic the consumption patterns of America.

He never mentioned Ayn Rand, but I felt I could hear her echoes, possibly distorted, possibly not, behind what he was saying about man’s indomitable spirit and the glory of the gutsy, pathfinding entrepreneur.

Now, about 100 pages from the end of Atlas Shrugged, I’m glad I’m reading it. It’s been a long slog, but I’ve learned a lot about a hugely influential writer and philosophy. I do wish I’d read the book twenty years ago, because I would have understood some of my fellow Americans much better, but I can definitely use what I’ve learned. More once I finish up.

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