Atlas Shrugged Remains Salient After 50 Years

There are one or two books in most people’s lives that have a profound on the way that they think, creating a narrative that explains and provides context to life. Perhaps the book simply was the first to make a particular person sensitive to a certain aspect of the world. Year-in and year-out, the most prominent book in this category is the Bible. However, beyond this there are a few books whose popularity and saliency have persisted for decades, informing new generations of readers.

In 1991, the Book of the Month and the Library Congress conducted a reader survey that listed the following top five books that affected readers lives:

  1. The Bible
  2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  3. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Modern Library of Random House has constructed a similar “best of” list of novels written English. A board of “prominent thinkers” listed the following top five books as:

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

It is easy to make light of the presumptuousness of the list constructed by prominent thinkers which bears little resemblance to what people really find meaningful. One suspects that these “thinkers” put Ulysses at the top of the list because it was one book that few people are able to actually finish and even fewer understand. The top five in the Modern Library reader list are very similar with the Book of the Month Club Poll. Its top five are:

  1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  3. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
  4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Despite the panning by critics at the time of publication, over the last 50 years readers continue to find the work of Ayn Rand important and influential. Eight percent of the American population claims to have read the 1000-plus page novel and the percentage is higher among higher income earners.

The effect of Atlas Shrugged seems to be disproportionate among the influential. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, has long been known as an acolyte of Rand. In his recent autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas singles out Atlas Shrugged an important footing in his intellectual foundation.

Atlas Shrugged is essentially polemical, arguing that self interest or egoism is not only economically efficient, but a moral imperative. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rand’s track held that altruism denies the essentially nobility of man. No one wonder that many ambitious people have flocked to a moral system that validates their ambition rather than burdening it with guilt. The “Atlas Shrugged” title refers to the book’s theme: What would happen if those businessmen who support the world through the creation of wealth decided to withdraw that support.

However, the appeal to personal ambition is insufficient to explain Atlas Shrugged‘s long-term popularity. Most of all it is a good story, a moral tale with the forces of good arrayed against the forces of evil. This is a characteristic largely shared with the all the books in the reader-polled listed. Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Friedrich Hayak’s Road to Serfdom are important milestones in the West’s political legacy, but are non-fiction tracks. They do not use an engaging plot to make their points. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel depicting the injustices of the Great Depression, may have provided a long-term counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged, but it hasn’t despite its literary value. This may be because the economic conditions of the Great Depression have no important counterpart in modern America. By contrast, the collectivism that is the antagonist in the Atlas Shrugged remains a threat in contemporary America. A victory by Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election is sure to spike sales in Atlas Shrugged just as surely as an economic collapse would improve the popularity of the The Grapes of Wrath.

Atlas Shrugged shares with other books, meaningful over the long-term, a call to heroism, especially salient to adolescent and young adult readers who carry the lessons of the books into life. These books are meaningful because of heroic figures from John Galt and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, to Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird, to Frodo Baggins in the Lord of Rings.

Finally, Atlas Shrugged is popular because it represents a ideology of rebellion to contemporary socialist ideology. Rebellion against authority has always attracted young, energetic people.

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