Friday, 14 January 2011

A cold shrug from Atlas.

I’m sitting in my top coat with two pairs of socks on my feet and a mug of hot jasmine tea at my side. I am the victim of the inverse snow effect. Britain does little to prepare for snow because it’s rarely a problem. The Taiwanese do nothing to prepare for winter because it’s so short. The temperature is about 12 degrees which doesn’t sound bad, but coupled with extremely high humidity constantly refreshed by near constant rainfall and a nasty cold contacted (I think) from two feverish Australians who tried to bag our seats on the plane to Hong Kong. All this coupled with a complete dearth of heating and a prevalence of restaurants which are little more than frontless tents leaves me depressingly cold, stultifyingly cold.

On the bright side I have finally finished reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It was recommended to me by a friend and I am grateful to him. The book is large in scope, in size, large in almost every conceivable description. When I was less than quarter of the way through it really seemed to me that the book was spent; there was little more to add to the story, but I was so wrong. That early part provided a solid platform for what was to follow.
It is not an easy book to categorise. It is a novel of course – though much more than just a novel. It is certainly a book on moral philosophy and yet could be regarded as a work of science fiction. It contains romance, sex, intense relationships, evil, good, heroes and “rotters”. It has a good story line which is both complex and satisfying. It also contains long political/philosophical speeches: one which is made by the near-perfect man (John Galt, a scientist and philosopher) lasts for three hours and I must admit that I skipped some of it. As a radio broadcast, which it purportedly was, it would certainly have lost most of its audience. The book is a sociological study and an outright attack on socialism.
Whilst I was deeply engrossed in reading Atlas Shrugged I met a man who knew of the author’s writing. He dismissed her work in two words: “right wing”. But short labels are as dangerous as short books. Atlas Shrugged is a big book – in all respects.
For anyone who has not read this book the basic theme is that society is gradually being taken over by looters, liars, and power grabbers who do their dastardly work in the name of the public good. These people produce nothing and expect those with ability to supply their needs. They are evasive, forever avoiding straight statements and burying their true meaning in obfuscation. On the other side are the producers: the entrepreneurs who bravely risk all to achieve their own happiness meanwhile providing for the needy by creating jobs, technology, food and so on. These people are pure in spirit and expect to trade rather than beg.
The story focuses on the Taggart railroad network which I guess is a symbol for the core functioning of an industrial society.  Ayn Rand, writing in the 50s, would undoubtedly annoy today’s liberated women by her constant and regular use of the generic “men” which for  her includes all human beings. Yet she places Dagny Taggart, a dynamic young woman who holds the centre ground of the book, as the true controller of the vast Taggart network whilst her brother (a looter and rotter) has the figurehead role.
The vocabulary and some of the prose is dated: there is an awful lot of chuckling which we rarely seem to do nowadays. It is quite amusing to meet so many “rotters” and smokers. Smoking is a given for everyone in the book which seems odd to a 21st century reader. Yet for all of that the introduction of a motor that draws its power from static electricity, the use of speech activated locks and other technological innovations have stood the test of time. The action is mostly quite gripping and the intensity of feeling between Dagny and her various lovers is convincingly described without overt sexuality. And, the three hour speech aside, the moral philosophy is nicely hidden away within the action and is rarely obtrusive.
I liked this book and was very impressed by it. There was much that I could relate to and it certainly made me think about our own society. I was a convinced socialist in my youth and had to learn a lot about human nature before I escaped its bewitching, naïve, goodness.  The world created by Ayn Rand is a simplification of our own, but the rotters are certainly about and seem drawn to power. Sections of our society are overly dependent on hand-outs from central government and rewards are often not related to achievement – bankers pay being a topical example. But perhaps post-industrial England is something that Ayn Rand did not envisage. We did not become the People’s Republic of England and the need for producers in the strange service-oriented economy that obtains right now is minimal – at least in the short term.
Much as I enjoyed the book , when my friend offered me another by Ayn Rand I refused – I need a rest. Atlas Shrugged has been a good travelling companion in Spain and Asia. My copy has tiny print and has tested my eyesight sorely – maybe destroyed it, but it has accompanied me through a minor crisis in which I was refused permission to enter Taiwan from Hong Kong on New Year’s Eve, and it came with me into mainland China where I waited for the Hong Kong British Embassy to reopen after its public holiday. Finally it came with me to Taiwan and endured the damp cold of a sub-tropical winter. I have now given it to my son who lives on this green island and who celebrated his 31st birthday with us last night. However, I doubt that he is quite ready for Ayn Rand at his age.
Like all good books I miss it now that I have finished it. But there’s plenty more books to read - that’s why my backpack is so heavy. Why, oh why can’t I make the transition to eBooks? I will, just give it time.


  1. I guess the Rake would fit into this galleria of personas. The backdrop of this book is surely her experience of the USSR and the communism. It fell in fertile ground as it was published during the Mccarthyism.

  2. I got half way through it before I had to put it down because I got a shipment of other books that distracted me. I thought the book was good, I didn't find it difficult nor dated. It definitely does not deserve two word descriptions. The only thing that kept bouncing into my mind and having to check the title ever so often to remind myself was 'Citizen Cain'


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