Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Atlas Shrugging?


So last summer, as I was commuting to Fanta Se . . . oops, slip of the finger, of course I meant Santa Fe . . .( every Wednesday, I got into the habit of listening to talk radio on the drive. Yep. I have become one of those people; you know the type--one of those bitter persons clinging to G-d and guns. Well, strictly speaking, I have been shooting since I was 12, and being Jewish, well, let's just say we invented G-d a long time before talk radio was even thought of . . . at least by mere mortals.

So on one of the afternoon drives, as I was sitting in what amounted to traffic on the frontage road just off of Cerillos Road, I was listening to one of the talk gurus, and he made a book recommendation. (It's unbelievable, I know, but there are those rare talk radio hosts who actually read). He said, and I quote, "You know, if you haven't already, you really ought to read Atlas Shrugged."

I had read Atlas when I was a teen, but I used a lot of skippibus, as Darwin was wont to call it, and although I had the basic plot, it had been a long time. So I made up my mind to read it, and the Chem Geek Princess, ever happy to find a new book challenge, was ready to join in.

She was a little bit disconcerted when she found out that it was by Ayn Rand, who had written The Fountainhead. The CGP read that book in high school, and she liked Howard Roark quite well, and understood him; but she emphatically did not like the heroine of the story, Dominique. "Mom," she said heatedly, "That woman's self-destructive marriages remind me of some of the girls I knew in high school. And really, if she was in love at first sight with Howard, why did she play that ridiculous game with the hearthstone? How . . . teenybopper can a character be?" Times and young women have certainly changed.

In the end, we agreed to read it and discuss it during our regular weekly coffee hours.
As we read, the Chem Geek Princess was impressed. And I was re-impressed. And on a very different level. There were many things to discuss, and eventually I will blog some of those discussions. However, what was downright disconcerting was how well Ayn Rand seemed to have predicted what was (and is) happening to our country right now. The book was first published in the 1950's, and could well have been written today.

As I read the book, I would turn to the Engineering Geek and say things like: "Sweetie, you've just gotta hear this . . ." and then read a passage aloud to him.
And being the Engineering Geek, soon my desk was littered with newspaper clippings labeled in that neat, all-capital Engineer printing: DEAREST ELIE, DOES THIS REMIND YOU OF THAT BOOK PASSAGE YOU READ?
And it would. In fact, as I began to realize how much so, I began to become very worried about the future of our freedom and our prosperity.

For example, sitting in front of me at this moment is a neatly clipped little article from The Albuquerque Journal: Bottlenecks Slow Grain Transfer.
An AP story from sometime in August, the article says:
"Across the country, from grain elevator to grain elevator, golden wheat and corn are piled in towering mounds, waiting for a rail car to haul them to market . . ."
The article dicusses the outdated and inadequate infrastructure, much in poor repair, that has caused the grain to ". . . sit for a month or more on the ground, exposed to wind, rain and rats." Billions of dollars worth of American cereal grains are lost due to inefficient processing and shipping to get them to market.

Such a problem, but on a much larger scale, is described in Atlas Shrugged, as well as the resultant loss of harvester factories and the ripple affect across the country and their suppliers and the suppliers of the suppliers are all put out of business. In Atlas, the event and its impact on an already faltering economy is described in such detail and with such force that I felt like I had had the wind knocked out of me. I literally had a sick feeling in my kishkes as I thought about the economic loss and hunger such as event would create.

So as the Chem Geek Princess and I read, and the Engineering Geek, inspired by our frequent need to share passages, clipped, my desk was soon piled with what we began to call "the Atlas chronicles." And as the pile grew, we became more and more dismayed. Because Atlas describes a United States that is slowly but surely grinding to a halt by some mysterious malaise. Factories are closing, infrastructure is neglected, supplies become scarce, and people go from being poor to desperate. In the book, the productive people of the country are being systematically looted by those who have produced nothing and yet feel entitled to take wealth away from producers.

As this summer turned into fall, it seemed that the pace of the looting in the real world has increased rapidly, with the crash of the stock market in September, and the failure of the commercial paper to keep business, small and large afloat. Since then, we have nationalized banks, and we are now printing billions of dollars to prop up every large concern that comes to Washington for a handout.

In our family, as we have been preparing for the crisis that is nearly at the door, we have begun to ask each other: "Is Atlas shrugging?"

And every day there are news stories that are alarming in that they characterize the extent to which we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, consumed in haste and gone forever.

NOTE: Atlas is a mystery story in which the heroine (a strong, competent woman much more to the Chem Geek Princess's liking) is searching for the inventor of a motor that could run the world, and through this search the reader also finds out what is causing the country to grind to a halt. But the story is much more than that. It is also a moral justification for the liberty of the unfettered mind and for capitalism, which requires and supports liberty. There are some stylistic elements that will surely displease literary critics, such as long speeches by the main characters, but I thought that the story was well constructed, well told, and it kept me up nights thinking. I also think that it provides a framework for understanding the many disparate news items that are so unsettling.







6 comments:

Shez said...

My husband has been trying to get me to read Atlas Shrugged for nearly a decade. I've always resisted because the font is so tiny. Now you have convinced me to finally read it (I loved The Fountainhead). I just need to find it in an ebook format so that I can adjust the font size. Low vision can be a pain in the butt for a bibliophile.

If I can't find a copy that's easy for me to read, I'll have to listen to it. Marc has an MP3 version of it but I find it easier to absorb new information if when I read it rather than listen to it.

Crimson Wife said...

So funny that you bring this subject up. My DH read the book this past summer, and he made very similar comments about how prescient Ayn Rand was.

I haven't read it, mostly because I did not care much for "The Fountainhead" when I read it in high school or college (can't remember which). Her philosophical views are just not my cup of tea :-)

Anonymous said...

Elisheva,

I am looking for my copy of Atlas Shrugged, and look forward to more of your comments.

A coworker gave me this book a few years back, telling me I should read it, but I am afraid I didn't take his advice and read it then. I started it.....never finished it.

BTW.....you mention plans you are making to "prepare"
Mind sharing your thoughts?

I'm going to find my copy of the book and start again.

Thank you,
Lisa

Judy Aron said...

hah! I have been reading it the past bunch of months.. pick it up and put it down and then don't get much time to read.. but the message really sticks in my mind. I know my son loves this book. (He's 25)

It should be required reading of everyone in this country.

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

christinemm said...

Oh boy another book for the To Be Read pile.

I've been seeing "objectivist homeschoolers" signs on some blogs. I didn't get what objectivist was. Maybe this will help me understand.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Everyone:

Shez: I bought the larger-sized hardcover anniversary edition. The print was more manageable. There is no way I could have read the trade paperback given my vision. Maybe the library can get it for you with large print?

Crimsom Wife: Certain aspects of Objectivism do seem to be rather rigid. And some objectivists are not above rejecting objective reality when it does not fit their paradigm. But the Chem Geek Princess liked Atlas, even though she did not like The Fountainhead--or at least, she did not like the heroine of The Fountainhead.

Lisa: It will be worth your while to find the book and read it. I will blog about the preparations part in the next few days.

Judy: I thought I was too busy to read Atlas last summer, but this fall, it would have been absolutely impossible!

Christine: Certainly, Atlas will give you some in-depth information about Objectivism as well as an exciting read. However, for a quick introduction, you might check out the Wikipedia entry, and some objectivist blogs. Rational Jenn's blog is a a good place to start as well. She is in my blog roll.

Everyone: If everyone here is reading/has recently read Atlas, maybe we can talk about it more? It would be interesting to see what we all think about it, since we are decidedly not Objectivists.