When I was in junior high school, we were assigned The Communist Manifesto. I can’t remember why we read it, or in what class, but I do remember thinking that the philosophy detailed in the book made some bit of sense. Something about it tickled the back of my head, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was my father who made me see the flaw in the whole theory. I told him I thought it was an interesting way to live, and he simply said, “It will never work. Every man wants to have something that is his, something that he owns and has worked for. Communism doesn’t allow for that.” That stuck with me, and at the heart of Atlas Shrugged is a story that aims to prove that statement out. I don’t want to get too political with just a book review, but with this book it’s kind of difficult. Just saying you like it is a form of political statement.
The story follows Dagny Taggert, operating directory of Taggart Transcontinental, a locomotive empire created by her father. At the beginning of the book, which takes place somewhere in the 1950s, things with the empire are starting to crumble. Small chinks at first, but as the book moves on, we realize that the men of industry, the greatest people that Dagny needs to fix things, are disappearing. Just went she needs them the most, they drop everything they are doing, abandon their factories and their businesses and disappear.
Dagny doesn’t understand what’s going on with the men who are disappearing, and she takes strength from her friendship with Hank Reardon, the creator of Reardon metal, and the other character that the narrative follows. Together, they do their best to combat the crumbling of all things good around them, fighting against incompetence, apathy, and a government that wants to tie their hands and claim everything good they’ve created.
When Dagny finds a broken engine prototype that shouldn’t exist, she goes on a hunt to find its owner and creator. This hunt leads her down a path of broken dreams and broken companies. Eventually, it leads her to the answer to all her questions, including the question that starts the book, “Who is John Galt?” I won’t tell you much more because this is a review, and even though the book has been around for quite some time, it’s possible you haven’t read it and I don’t want to ruin anything for you.
The plot of the book draws you along, and the first time I read it, the suspense and the build up really gripped me. The second time I read it, I wanted to get to the good stuff. The third time (and all the times after) I realized the whole book was the good stuff.
The interactions between the characters are what really make this an enjoyable story. The buddy / not-buddy relationship between Francisco d’Anconia and Hank Reardon is a fun one to watch develop, as is Francisco’s relationship with Dagny’s brother, James Taggart. James is certainly in the group that is helping the world crumble, more by what he doesn’t do than what he does, and his inability to understand any of what’s going on coupled with his intent to find profit in others, creates an oddly evil character.
Many people claim that the characters within the book are flat, and to some degree I can see that. However, there are some characters that I really would like to meet someday. Francisco d’Anconia for one would be someone very interesting to have a long conversation with, and I’m pretty sure I’ve met Hank Reardon (or his like). I can picture him tossing his pen down and leaning back, arms behind his head to give you a steely look over a desk.
Dagny Taggert herself is a strong character, and you have to remember when this was written, and the fact that she is a woman at the helm of a large corporation. This quote shows some of that:
She was twelve years old when she told Eddie Willers that she would run the railroad when they grew up. She was fifteen when it occurred to her for the first time that women did not run railroads and that people might object. To hell with that, she thought—and never worried about it again.
With that said, the characters are certainly grouped into the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” There are very few that really fit in between. I think that’s one of the reasons some people don’t like it. In the end it’s a book about utopia and perfection. It sets a high standard to what is right and good in the world, and it’s sometimes a very cold, logical standard, without much pity.
Now, some cons. The book does have a tendency to get a bit preachy. There is at least one speech that goes on for about 50 or 60 pages. It is a climactic speech, and it drives the story, but it does seem to drone at times.
The other thing I’ve never understood about the book is that way that sexual relationships are portrayed. In essence, it comes down to a struggle between two people, and at times seems to border on abuse. I find myself skipping some of these sections as they are a little troubling.
In the end, though, Atlas Shrugged delivers a compelling story that gives me hope and inspiration. While I know it’s a utopian book, and I take it with a grain of salt, I find myself reading it when I think the world is falling apart, and it always makes me feel stronger and more optimistic.
Who would like it: People willing to invest some time in a great, inspiring story, who can handle the occasional long speech and odd sexual encounter.
Who would not like it: Light readers (the book is over 1000 pages long). People on the far, far left of the political spectrum.