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Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

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You may ask why a site about commercial real estate would need a review of a book by Ayn Rand. Fair question.

I would argue that Ayn Rand is not really an author. She is a philosopher, and, more specifically, an economic philosopher. She happened to write a few books in her career, but her main occupation was philosopher. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, is essentially a treatise on economic theory and the free market economy. Therefore, this book is extremely relevant to commercial real estate and all of the industries interconnected with it.

Let me begin my review by saying that I think Rand is an exceptional philosopher and an amazing woman. I have written about her before and I hope that I conveyed how exceptional she truly was while she lived. Whatever I may say about her book, she was one of the more gifted philosophers of the past century and deserves credit.

Having said that, I’m not sure I would ever read Atlas Shrugged again. It was interesting and entertaining . . . for the first 500 pages or so. Actually, I listened to it in my car on 50 CDs. So I should say that it was interesting for the first 25 CDs.

I read my fair share of books. Last year I finished more than 20 different titles. So I have learned over time that there are certain writing styles I prefer. For example, all of the books that I read not named “Harry Potter” are non-fiction and business books. So I tend to enjoy a writing style that is heavily factual and balances interesting anecdotes and facts (think Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell).

Therein lies my problem with Rand.

Atlas Shrugged (and The Fountainhead) is a work of fiction. All of the characters and situations came from Rand’s vivid imagination. She has an exceptional talent for detail and description. She can take your breath away with her knowledge of the steel industry down to the grittiest detail of bolt sizes on industrial smelters.

But I don’t really care about the bolts.

I just want to know what Francisco and Hank Reardon are doing at the mill when one of the smelters over-heats and threatens the entire mill. Just tell me what happened, what they did, and why. That’s all I need. All of the superfluous details are . . . superfluous. Remember, I’m a business book reader. I want a quick anecdote, lessons learned, and how to apply it to my life. If Dagney’s lapels match the bluest hydangea on a wet spring day . . . I don’t really care. I want facts and lessons and I want them in as few words as possible. I highly value brevity and, as a writer, appreciate the skill it takes to develop the balance between description and brevity.

Maybe the simplest way I can critique her is as follows: Rand is an exceptional philosopher and an average writer.

You can probably tell that this isn’t necessarily a problem with Rand. It’s just my preference. I simply don’t prefer her writing style.  As I said, I value brevity and concision. She doesn’t. I only need Jim Taggert to speak a few times to know that he is an idiot and a dangerous man. Rand has him speak 200 times and beats that dead horse. To each her own.

So, while I may not prefer her writing style, I strongly admire her philosophical reach and wisdom. She ardently promotes individual achievement while vehemently condemning those who would bring down the achievers around them. She abhors people like Jim Taggert who believe they are entitled to success and money and need only bring giants down to make themselves feel tall. I agree with her.

She would hate that the top 5% of income earners in the US pay 60% of all taxes. She hates Robin Hood.

Frankly, I can understand where she is coming from. As an aspiring high-achiever, I would be pretty peeved if I worked my hands to the bone to make a small fortune and then was made to feel guilty for my success, called greedy, called privileged, or called lucky. That would probably piss me off. I’m not trying to make a political stance or anything, but I can see how you would be upset if you worked that hard only to be called “lucky.”

I can also see how it would be frustrating to have Uncle Sam take a disproportionately large chunk out of my income apple. The country is telling me:

Hey! You! Successful rich guy/girl! You owe us a big piece of those huge paychecks you are bringing in! That’s our money! We know how to use it better than you would anyway!

Yeah, it’s safe to say that would make me pretty unhappy. Rand gets that. And the whole premise of her book is: What if those high achievers and successful leaders refuse to cooperate? What if they just all walked away? What if the best and brightest people on the planet all quit and walked away because they were tired of the government taking their money and then changing the rules of the game they play? What would you do then? Who would you tax to pay your government bills?

Interesting concept, right?

I thought so too. And Rand does a fine job of taking that question to its most extreme conclusion. To ruin the ending for you: they all do quit, the world “stops”, many people die, and then the do-ers have a clean slate to start over with. You know they will build something great, because that’s what do-ers do.

Rand has recently seen a burst in popularity as the current political party in the White House has been promoting regulations and ideas that tout “social benefit” or “the greater good” or “helping the less-privileged” while seemingly hampering individual achievement (cough, rights, cough). Rand uses weasels like Jim Taggert and Orin Boyle as the hideous underbelly of “social responsibility” and uses Dagney Taggert, Hank Reardon, and John Galt as her ideal men and women who value achievement and individualism above all else. When you learn the difference between these two groups of people, it’s easy to see why her popularity is peaking.

So, in that sense, I’m glad I read the book. There are some deep philosophical waters to wade through in Atlas Shrugged and I enjoy discussing them with others who have read it. The $29.99 question is: Should you read it?

Maybe.

If you have more patience than I do, enjoy ornate descriptions, or just have an unhealthy obsession with philosophy, Atlas Shrugged is probably worth the price. If not, take this review and other reviews, get the main point, and apply it to your own life however you please.

Either way, beware of Robin Hood and those who wish to punish the successful.

 

Atlas Shrugged in Two Sentences: What if all of the achievers and brilliant men and women of the world went on strike? What would happen if they stopped the engine of the world and left it to people who make a living off the greatness of others or off the guilt of the successful?

Pros: Very interesting philosophy on economics and free market capitalism, very detailed descriptions of industries like railroads and steel, well written dialogue

Cons: Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooong, at times redundant

Target Audience: Anybody in any country over the age of 16, I suppose

This book is best for: Readers interested in philosophy and economics and who have the patience to learn about it through the medium of business fiction

Overall Rating: ♦♦ (out of 5)

 

Ratings Guide
♦ = Not worth your time
♦♦ = May be worth your time if it is specific to your industry or interests
♦♦♦ = A decent book and worthy addition to your library depending on your interests
♦♦♦♦ = A great book and an excellent addition to your library.
♦♦♦♦♦ = One of the all time classics. A must-read for anyone and everyone.

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