Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian/American writer and philosopher. You may have heard of John Galt and her most famous novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and maybe you’ve heard of her personal, and often criticized, philosophy called objectivism. She incorporated her beliefs into two terrific books and created characters who stand for these principles.
But what is objectivism and who the heck is John Galt?
- Rand’s philosophy of objectivism is a bit selfish, but there’s more to it than that. The Ayn Rand website (aynrand.org) describes it this way:
Follow reason, not whims or faith.
Work hard to achieve a life of purpose and productiveness.
Earn genuine self-esteem.
Pursue your own happiness as your highest moral aim.
Prosper by treating others as individuals, trading value for value.
- John Galt is a character in Atlas Shrugged. The reader doesn’t get to meet him until late in the book, but there are many references to Galt and to shrugging, building the mystery as the plot develops.
So what is The Fountainhead about?
The Fountainhead is a great story about a young architect in New York named Howard Roark who refuses to conform and collaborate on design projects because he believes that his artistic talents would be compromised. Rand’s themes focus on socialism, capitalism and the conflict between conformity and independence, with characters on both sides and some caught in the middle. Rand introduces the idea of independent thinkers and “second handers,” people who believe that the opinions of others are superior and therefore conform to those beliefs. It’s not all dry stuff, though. Get ready for intense romance, friendship and betrayal.
I think this book is terrific on every level. The characters are unique and interesting and what they stand for ties them into Rand’s personal philosophy of objectivism. And although I think Rand’s beliefs are extreme, I admire Roark’s unwillingness to compromise his designs. Rand’s ability to develop these characters, weave them into a complex and interesting story and keep the reader going through more than seven hundred pages is a genius accomplishment that stands the test of time.
And what about Atlas Shrugged?
Atlas Shrugged is about a dystopian United States and is Rand’s lesson book about objectivism. The story revolves around Dagny Taggart who runs the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, Hank Rearden, of Rearden Steel, who has developed a metal alloy that is better and stronger than anything else, and Dagny’s childhood friend, Francisco d’Anconia who comes from a wealthy copper family. One by one, the most prominent business leaders disappear and their industries fall apart. The economy tanks and the government exerts more control on the businesses that are left. It’s heavy reading, but Rand also includes a romantic triangle and interesting sub-themes, such as duty and honor. Its mystery element keeps the plot moving, despite nearly twelve hundred pages. In the end, she explains why the business leaders have disappeared, and John Galt’s identity.
It took me two months to read this book and I enjoyed every word. If you want to fully understand what everyone who mentions Atlas Shrugged is talking about, it is well worth the effort. You don’t have to agree with everything Rand says and her philosophy of objectivism to appreciate her skill in storytelling and the value of having ideals and standards.
I kept a long list of characters and companies and organizations as they were mentioned in the story and this list helped me keep track of the hundreds of references that appear. What I found most impressive about Rand was that, despite the length of the book, there are no unnecessary references. If you meet a character or read about something on page 100, you can be sure it is important and you will see the reference again, even if it is five hundred pages later.
Over the years, political figures have aligned with and distanced themselves from Rand. A quick internet search will give you everything you need to explore that angle.
And if you enjoyed The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you may be amused to see Ayn Rand as a character in Old School by Tobias Wolf.
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