Hearing about the new Atlas Shrugged movie, I thought back to my first encounter with Ayn Rand’s epic novel. When I read Atlas Shrugged, I was captivated. There were complicated romantic relationships, alliances and treachery, heroes who overcame obstacles, villains who tried to stop them, and an intriguing question that seemed to be behind it all: “Who is John Galt?” And yet, it was unlike anything I had ever read before. My response was far from unique. From CEOs to college students to celebrities, people declare that reading Ayn Rand’s novel has a life-changing effect. Why?
Through her story and characters, Rand turns conventional thinking on its head. Which businessman would you expect to be a hero: the publicly spirited CEO, James Taggart, who calls for corporations to give back to the community and fights for business to be regulated in the name of the public good — or the wealthy entrepreneur, Hank Rearden, who proudly seeks to generate as much profit as possible, the public interest be damned? James Taggart, right? Not in Ayn Rand’s world.
By introducing to us a new kind of hero, Rand challenges our own thinking. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve been pursuing the wrong ideals in life. Should I pursue a career in business to make money, or so that I have something to give away? Should I be a doctor because I have an obligation to help the needy, or because I love the subject and have exceptional skills and training to trade with patients willing to pay me? Should I be proud of what I’ve earned, or should I feel guilty because others have less? Am I required to accept moral ideals on faith, as religions teach, or are there rational standards by which I can determine right from wrong? For Rand’s characters, the answers to these questions are vital to their happiness, and it is a betrayal of self not to ask them.
Among the novel’s heroes are ambitious capitalists unapologetically pursuing money, values, and success. There is Hank Rearden, the industrialist who creates Rearden Metal, a new alloy that is stronger, safer, and cheaper than anything else on the market. There is Dagny Taggart, the executive who risks everything on her own judgment in order to build a great railroad. Both want to make as much profit as possible by perfecting their products. In today’s world, as in Atlas, such people are criticized as “selfish” and “greedy.” In today’s world, as in Atlas, antitrust lawsuits and controls to rein in their greed are brought against such people. But in Rand’s world, when the capitalists are faced with these attacks, we see these people as persecuted victims, not wrongdoers.
More widely, when the novel’s heroes learn that they should not feel guilt in the face of irrational demands — even if the demands come from your mother who is nagging you to give your shiftless brother a job he does not deserve — we learn it too. When they learn to stand up for the right to their own lives and happiness — even if this means you will be denounced by your family, colleagues, and the public for refusing to sacrifice yourself — we learn it too. When the novel’s heroes refuse to be sacrificial lambs, we come to agree with their reasons.
And so as readers, sometimes against our previous beliefs, we side with her heroes and want to see them overcome their opponents. After Hank Rearden invests millions and his very soul into creating Rearden Metal, the response is a concerted effort to keep the metal off the market; worse, when its value is grudgingly recognized, people demand subsidized access to it in the name of the public good. How completely unjust! — we think in outrage. We rally behind the proud, value-creating man. We become invested in his success. What our priests and teachers taught us was immoral, Rand boldly presents as heroic — and we wish we could meet her heroes in real life.
How did Ayn Rand reach us with such impact? Her challenge to conventional thinking is presented in the form of a riveting story. We can be inspired by her new ideas, see their concrete meaning, and apply them to our own lives. This is the reason her book has had a lasting impact on so many people since it was published in 1957.
So whatever your response to the movie, know that there is no substitute for reading Atlas Shrugged – or rereading it and reconnecting with why it changed your life.
(Also see: “Mr. Galt Goes to Washington.”)