When you ask a group of literary experts to list the top novels in the English language over the past century, they will generally include books such as Ulysses, Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird in various orders. However, when a poll was taken by the Modern Library some years ago of readers’ favorite books, the top three were Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Battlefield Earth.
“Battlefield Earth!” you exclaim. “Who wrote that?” Well, none other than that founder of scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, who also wrote that best seller Dianetics. I confess to being unable to plow through either of these creative enterprises, however, and consequently have little to say about them. I cannot resist, though, pointing out that one critic dismissed Battlefield when it was published as “atrociously written, windy and out of control.” And TIME magazine opined, when the movie of said fantasy emerged in the year 2000, starring the avowed scientologist, John Travolta, that it was “the worst movie in living history.”
Ooh, that smarts.
When we turn to Ayn Rand we are confronted with an individual whose thinking has probably produced a wider influence on a number of prominent members of our society. Mitt Romney, a candidate for president of the United States in 2012, for instance, and his running mate both openly admire her work. Rand was born in Russia and went through the Russian Revolution during her student years. She moved to the United States at age 21 and already at that time wanted to be a writer. She was especially attracted to the stage and so went to Hollywood where she did minor film work, and for a while was head of the costume department at RKO Studios (the idea of the tough and uncompromising Rand being head of a costume department brings a smile to one’s face today). In 1936 she produced her first full novel, We The Living, which did not sell well and quickly went out of print. It later was rescued and re-issued when The Fountainhead became so successful, and eventually sold over three million copies.
The story is set in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. It portrays the hardships that people encountered during this period and gives a emotionally intense account of the life of Kira Argounova, the main figure, and her relationship with two men: Leo and Andrei. I read this novel in the 1970’s and found it brutal and compelling, though perhaps overly dramatic at points. The author pulls no punches in her depiction of Russia or of the tragedy that it brought to so many people. Rand said it was as autobiographical as anything she ever wrote.
The Fountainhead was published in 1943 and became a slow and steady best seller, primarily through word of mouth. This is Rand in full stride of her “rational and ethical egoism,” “objectivism,” and the emphasis of individual rights over altruism. The story centers around the architect, Howard Roark, who has his own vision of modern architecture that runs contrary to the accepted ideas of the traditionalists. The book has many twists and turns among ruthless and power-hungry individuals, and a curious love affair between Roark and a woman named Dominique. I thought the book was interesting enough to read (and did so in the ’70’s) but at times considered the plot and the characters to be stretching credibility. Howard Roark comes across as arrogant and pompous, not to mention that his relationship with Dominique is somewhat bizarre. But the book has sold over six million copies and people who swear by Ayn’s philosophy of individualism speak of Howard Roark with affection and pride.
Most people believe that Rand’s last book, Atlas Shrugged, is the real magnum opus of her thinking. The leading protagonist is John Galt who leads a revolt against a government he and other primary leaders of the business world see as interfering with free capitalism. In this novel Rand stresses her idea of “ethical egoism” and the morality of self-interest. The book is long and convoluted and page after page is devoted to philosophical pontification that goes on and on, ad nauseum. While The Fountainhead presents its philosophy more so through the development of plot, Atlas Shrugged bludgeons the reader with soliloquy. Those who agree with the writer’s ideas tend to consume these tutorials with glee, those who do not find it to be tedious patter. The book, however, continues to sell briskly even in these modern times.
Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s last novel. She went into something of a depression for a while after its completion and spent the remainder of her years writing non-fiction and giving speeches. Unfortunately, she was also a heavy smoker, and underwent surgery for cancer in 1974, and died of heart failure in 1982 at age 77. Her life and work are and were polarizing, and readers today tend either to love or hate her. It is likely that she would approve of that. Better to be argued about than not thought of at all. Whether her Objectivist philosophy proves to be the best one for societies in the long run has yet to be determined, but it is likely that she will continue to be read for years to come. Having said that, it behooves me to end this essay with a quote from my favorite economist, Paul Krugman, quoting John Rogers: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” 🙂