Ten Books That Changed My Life #2: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand
Changed my life in October 1994

I spent my high school years reading approximately two books a day, many of them quite lengthy. I eschewed having a lot of friends then because, well, I simply had no interest at all in most of the high school social games. I generally kept completely to myself, but made a point to be friendly and social enough to enough people so that I was generally left alone to follow my own path.

This left me with a lot of time to think and to try to figure out how the world worked – or at least figure out how I believed that the world worked. To be honest, I felt very lost at the time, even to the point that I was despondent that the world made little sense to me.

Then I read Atlas Shrugged and, with that one book, I began to assemble an overall understanding of the world around me.

What’s it about?

The book tells the tale of an America slowly rotting away due to technological regression and a lack of leadership. The leaders of society and industry are slowly disappearing, and the remaining ones seem to be fighting a losing battle against a slow malaise.

The central story focuses on Dagny Taggart, a hard-working railroad executive who fights diligently to protect her railroad from the growing malaise. Yet her actions seem to be one step forward, two steps back, and society itself is becoming an irritant to her. The phrase “Who is John Galt?” in particular aggravates her, as it is a social meme that basically means “Don’t ask questions because there are no answers.”

Eventually, Dagny discovers that John Galt is not a meme, but an actual person, one who has convinced the most productive members of society to go on strike, leaving the rest of the world to fall apart.

For a different perspective, the Wikipedia entry for Atlas Shrugged is detailed and well written.

How did Atlas Shrugged affect the person I became?

I started to question the fundamental structure of society, government, and economics. Prior to reading the book, I generally accepted that society in the United States was the way things should be; after the book, I began to dive into economic, social, and political theory an an effort to understand why things were the way they were. I jumped wildly from theory to theory, shifting my worldview wildly from week to week before finally beginning to build a structure that made sense to me, but it was Atlas Shrugged that made me begin to question how things worked.

I began to appreciate the power of the individual. One of the primary themes of this book is that intelligent, hard-working people are the ones that make the world work, and these people deserve the rewards of their intellect and effort. Even today, the people that impress me most are the ones whose actions have a genuine positive effect on the lives of people.

I began to be disillusioned by celebrity. Why should I respect anyone who represents values that I don’t agree with? Why should I look up to people who don’t contribute to a greater society? To me, Norman Borlaug is a hero, not William Hung, and I consider it an indictment of society when more people are familiar with Hung than Borlaug.

I realized that it was up to me and me alone to make a success out of my life. This is perhaps the biggest lesson that this book taught me. Before I read this book, I had this belief that just because I was intelligent, the world owed me something. After reading this, I began to wonder what value I really had to offer to the world. I might be intelligent, but if I spent all my time in the corner ranting about how the world owed me something, I would be wasting my life. I needed to use my intelligence for my own benefit, to get off my lazy behind and do something with it, or else it would just fester and rot.

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  1. Leo says:

    Did you really read two books a day? How exactly did you do that? Fast reading or many hours reading or both? Enlighten us a little.

    It’s not a goal I’d want to achieve (the pace of reading would be too frenetic for me) but it’s just an interesting statement that makes me curious.

    BTW, great series of posts. Can’t wait for the other 8 books.

  2. TB says:

    Two books a day isn’t that difficult. I can speed-read which allows you to read one page in under ten seconds (to do this, you don’t read every single word but instead you allow your eyes to “scan” the words, taking in the most important phrases which will allow you to understand and follow the story). I don’t know how I got this skill…I just assumed it was the normal way to read until my mother told me otherwise!

    I am not that quick that I can read two books a day though. If I did nothing else in my day, I would probably still only read one book a day.

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    During high school, I read independently between eight and ten hours a day. I was a fast reader, but there’s no secret, just no life.

  4. Jeremy says:

    I’m glad to see this one made it on your list. Actually, I have a nice hardcover copy of this book collecting dust on my end table right now. I started it this summer and really enjoyed it but for whatever reason I stopped reading.

    I may be able to finish it next week as I’m being sent out of town on business and they are taking my laptop for the week for repairs. So I’ll have plenty of time to read with nothing else to do in a hotel and no computer.

  5. GHoosdum says:

    This is one I’ve never gotten around to reading. It fits with the type of material I tend to enjoy, though, so I do plan on picking it up for a read soon. I definitely agree with your outlook that you and you alone determine your level of success. I just wish more people shared that viewpoint.

  6. LuckyLily says:

    Read this in high school, but it was hard to get through the last part. “The Fountainhead” has always been one of my favorite books.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    LuckyLily: John Galt’s radio address is a bit long, but if you read it as an essay on the philosophy of objectivism, it goes down a lot easier.

  8. Nuno Castro says:

    “I had this belief that just because I was intelligent, the world owed me something. After reading this, I began to wonder what value I really had to offer to the world.”
    Really nice indeed. I also had this change of thoughts in the recent past.

  9. Bonita Kale says:

    Very interesting, Mere Christianity and Atlas Shrugged. I (along with half the class) read Atlas Shrugged in high school; it was very “in”, and devourably interesting, even — or especially — John Galt’s speech. Having read it, I decided that enlightened selfishness was the rational approach to life -if- there was no God. And probably there wasn’t. But enlightened selfishness didn’t seem to my younger self to be very practical or satisfying. So I went to the library and looked in the books about religion to see what the other side had to say — and found Mere Christianity. I think I still have my “Who is John Galt?” medallion, but I’ve been a (perplexed, feeble, doubting) Christian for a very long time. My younger self was a fool, as are all children, but she had a couple of things right.

  10. Ursula says:

    You’ve picked two of my favorite books, that had profound impacts on me as well: Atlas Shrugged and Mere Christianity.

    I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 23 yrs old, and promptly went out and re-registered my party affiliation — I had been a registered Socialist since I was 18, honestly believing the “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” mantra. But Atlas Shrugged very powerfully made me realize how wrong that was.

    I’ve never been a practicing Christian, but I believe in some type of power or force or supreme intelligence. The only religion I’ve ever seriously practiced was Buddhism for about 10 yrs or so. Living in the ultra liberal and ultra irreligious San Francisco Bay Area, my entire culture around me teaches me to mock, or at the very least have no respect for, Christians. I can’t remember what prompted me to read “Mere Christianity” but I was glad I did. I was very moved and impressed with it, and came away with a great respect for the religion. C.S. Lewis, with that one little book, is an amazing ambassador for Christianity! That book prompted me to explore the positives that Christianity and the Bible have to offer (I’ve always liked reading books from all different religions, but shunned reading anything Christian-related till I read Mere Christianity).

    I like your taste in books, and I like your financial perspective as well, Trent! Glad I found your blog; it’s a keeper!

  11. Mrs. Micah says:

    It’s interesting. I don’t like Rand’s distaste for the poor or for those who try to help others. Yet her books still had an effect on me when I read them in highschool. I was a big fan for a couple years, even with the disagreements. I’ve become less of a fan over time.

    I think her principle that has the most merit is that of judging people as individuals. She says racism and any anti-people “ism” is a form of intellectual laziness.

    One is not intellectually sophisticated enough to do more than classify oneself as great because of what people like one have done (i.e. “Germans are the uber-race because of Wagner and Mozart and all the good things that came out of Germany.”) or other people as bad/great based on something they haven’t personally done.

  12. Chris says:

    Atlas Shrugged is an incredible book. i’m shocked at Ursula (comment #10) who find similar value in Mere Christianity. Rand and Lewis are like oil and water. It’s impossible to hold both intellectual positions simultaneously.

    I’d love to read more about Rand/Lewis, but I don’t think it has a place on The Simple Dollar!

  13. Adrian says:

    For inspiring individualistic philosophy, give me Nietzsche over Rand any day. Atlas Shrugged has to be one of the driest, most self-important tomes ever.

  14. joshua schatzle says:

    A little more reading in Lewis would demonstrate that Rand’s economic theory in general. Rand’s value of the individual is shared by Lewis, who decries collectivism at every turn. He asserts that collectivism enslaves the individual to the collective and mutilates the spirit of charity, which is only retained when the individual is valued as an end in himself. Rand isn’t particularly charitable, but at least her assertion on the individual as an end in himself, i.e., having worth simply because he is, is in keeping with Christian theology and makes possible charitableness. In seminary I had been told, like many, that Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, was at utterly incompatible with Christianity, but as economic theory goes, that’s just not the case. I enjoy this spirit dialogue and am thrilled to see some in our generation still thinking. Anyone interested can link my blog for more dialogue: http://joshuaschatzle.blogspot.com/

  15. Eric says:

    I read the fountainhead first, and it changed my life. Atlas Shrugged was great for all the reasons you mention and more, but it is a political book. The Fountainhead is very personal.

    I wonder how I would have felt had I read Atlas first. I wonder if I could have gotten through it without the fountainhead as a foundation.

  16. Alvaro says:

    As Eric, I´ve read “The Fountainhead” earlier than “Atlas Shrugged”. The first was presented to me by a dear friend who knew about my young interest in architecture -an architect himself-. More than architecture, the value it gives to the individual and its possibilities is really inspiring, as it goes with the spirit of the early modernism. That was something that didn´t felt later with Atlas, very much more pessimistic and materialistic.

    Nevertheless, really liked Rand and most of her ideas; having read also “We the living” and “Anthem”, but none has impacted me as much as “The Fountainhead”

  17. chuckypita says:

    Atlas Shrugged is the GREATEST BOOK OF ALL-TIME! I’m so happy to see that you found solid principles in that book that you continue to live by.

    Best of luck with your blog – it really is a tremendous website!

  18. Andrew says:

    I read “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Passion of Ayn Rand” several times at different periods in my life. All were wonderful books. I’ve found that as I have grown over time, I think of the different and sometimes tragic human aspects of the stories. For example, John Galt is a heroic figure but also a tragic figure who withdraws from the world. In “The Fountainhead,” Dominique Fracon, owns a piece of artwork of incredible beauty that she believes the world is unworthy of and she destroys it.

  19. sreeram says:

    I am currently reading this novel (completed over 450 pages). 80% of the book is hatred. Remaining part is excellent (i admire few parts/pages/dialogues) in terms of philosophy.

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