The Value of Atlas Shrugged

Originally published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged, one of the most controversial novels in American fiction, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Annual sales have been growing for years and may grow even faster when the film adaptation is released.

Atlas Shrugged is routinely included on “favorite books” surveys. It is not uncommon to hear a businessman, a teacher, a truck driver, or a musician say, “Atlas changed my life.” How is it that a fifty-year-old, 1200-page novel about industrialists and inventors can have such an effect on so many people?

Written by Ayn Rand, the Russian-born philosopher who escaped communism early in the 20th century, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling novel about a cast of business executives struggling to achieve their interests in an inimical world. Set in New York City, it tells the story of Dagny Taggart, an underappreciated railroad VP, who fights to save her company from the incompetence and envy of her brother, the company’s President. It is the story of Henry Rearden, creator of a new metal alloy, who defends his invention against government bureaucrats who first mistrust then covet the valuable metal. It is the story of Francisco D’Anconia, heir to a lucrative copper mining firm, who pursues his own mysterious agenda while seemingly wasting away his wealth on frivolities. And it is the story of several other protagonists, each struggling in their own way to achieve and articulate their personal values.

What makes Atlas different is its philosophic depth. Underneath the suspenseful action, the story is fundamentally an intellectual mystery. Why do characters make the choices they do? What ideas animate them? The answers penetrate to the very core of Western Civilization’s traditions and values: Is man his brother’s keeper? Is the love of money the root of all evil? Is sexual pleasure base? Is happiness possible? What does it mean to be moral?

Atlas Shrugged, like all classics of literature, dramatizes a particular worldview, a way of approaching life that readers can judge, learn from, and incorporate into their own perspective. Unlike other classics, however, Atlas dramatizes values that are normally opposed in our culture—the justice of unfettered capitalism, the morality of principled egoism, the absolute efficacy of human reason. The heroes of Atlas are idealized expressions of values normally attacked in America’s college classrooms, churches and political platforms: commercialism, selfishness, and rational certainty.

If college is a time to survey the intellectual landscape in order to discover one’s own identity, if it is a time to read the great works of literature and philosophy, then it is eminently a time to read Atlas Shrugged. Atlas is a novel about what it means to be moral—and the answer, presented in an intense, page-turning, emotionally moving, intellectually challenging form, is one that will otherwise not be given a fair hearing. And it will be unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before.

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