If six years ago you were to tell me my favorite book would be an epic, philosophical, economic thriller written by an atheist, I would have assumed that you don’t know me. Nonetheless, I went through Atlas Shrugged three years in a row (2015-2017), and each read deepened my affinity for the book.
Atlas Shrugged grabbed my attention immediately with the characters. Because the story is philosophical in nature, many of the characters are idealistic, yet Ayn Rand writes intriguing backstories for these people. I often found that it was my interest in the characters that spurred me onward in the story. Let me introduce just a few of the protagonists:
- The novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, is the descendent of a train tycoon who is a brilliant engineer and business woman in her own right, but a woman in a world dominated by men.
- Hank Rearden is a steel industrialist and inventor of a revolutionary metal who has an unhappy marriage.
- Francisco d’Anconia is the gifted, assiduous childhood friend of Dagny mysteriously turned playboy.
- Ragnar Danneskjöld is a pirate proclaiming himself as the antithesis of Robin Hood.
Some argue that Atlas Shrugged isn’t a quality work because it lacks character development. The protagonists are often almost inhumanly rational while the villains are generally too emotional and nearsighted, but this doesn’t bother me because I appreciate the ideological nature of these individuals.
Instead of keeping the reader’s attention on characters through character development, Ayn Rand uses continual revelations about their pasts and relationships in order to hold the reader’s focus and develop an emotional attachment to the characters. I have never been distracted by the general lack of character development because Rand does this so proficiently. It was the characters and their gradual revelation that kept me engrossed in Atlas Shrugged.
At the same time, the story arc within Atlas Shrugged is massive, yet so interesting at each point that that story doesn’t drag. There was no point in my first read that I wanted to put the book down, despite its length. This is a big part of what makes Atlas Shrugged so great; its size and scope are enormous, yet each moment is significant. There just isn’t a lot of linguistic fat that could be trimmed from the book.
Still the story is massive, as the 561,002 word count indicates. There is a colossal story arc with several smaller story arcs within, and I remember getting to the end of the first major narrative only to realize that I had simply finished the first of many acts—much like concluding the Fellowship of the Ring. I felt like I had finished a book within a book, yet Atlas Shrugged is so skillfully written that I didn’t notice the length because I was so distracted by the story, eager to know what came next.
I also appreciate that Atlas Shrugged isn’t just story for story’s sake; it fulfills the purpose of capturing Ayn Rand’s philosophical perspectives on human nature and economics. While I disagree with Rand on a great number of major points—something I could say about virtually every writer on this list—I appreciate the immense amount of effort she went to in order to frame her views in such an entertaining manner. Atlas Shrugged is philosophy in its best form: philosophy in action.
Atlas Shrugged isn’t more popular because Rand was both anti-Christian and anti-socialist (though given that she emigrated from Russia, she has a better right to be anti-socialist than most). I suspect that this dual antagonism prevents Atlas Shrugged from being more influential in Christian and academic spheres; somehow I managed to get my degree in English and knew nothing about Ayn Rand’s writing. Still to get bogged down in the ideals instead of experiencing the narrative is a huge mistake.
There’s also the matter of dialogue, which is rarely boring. Take the following quote:
“There’s something I want you to know,” said Cherryl, her voice taut and harsh, “so that there won’t be any pretending about it. I’m not going to put on the sweet relative act. I know what you’ve done to Jim and how you’ve made him miserable all his life. I’m going to protect him against you. I’ll put you in your place. I’m Mrs. Taggart. I’m the woman in this family now.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Dagny. “I’m the man.”
Those few lines are loaded with tension, character development, and intrigue. That day, I came home and repeated that last line to my wife, and we had a drawn out conversation about female characters in literature, all spurred on by one compelling line. Atlas Shrugged abounds with such quotes.
I expect to be going back to Atlas Shrugged for many years, despite its intimidating length. It’s provoking and entertaining. It’s written so masterfully that I can relax into the narrative instead of trying to struggle my way through it. Like all my favorite books, it can be comprehended in the first read but deepens in breadth and complexity with each renewed encounter.