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Author Topic: Book Thread. What are you reading?  (Read 3071 times)

Tut

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Re: Book Thread. What are you reading?
« Reply #420 on: July 14, 2018, 02:08:04 pm »
I'm currently 2/3rds of the way through Atlas Shrugged. Honestly, I've never read anything quite like this before.

This woman is deranged.
The protagonist, the author, or both?

I was referring to my good friend Mrs. Rand. I liked The Fountainhead, but I think the scope of this one is to its disadvantage. I'm in the middle of the conclusion right now, which is a 60-page speech. Still, I think a lot of the descriptions of societal collapse are vivid and arguably prescient.

After your earlier declaration of love for The Fountainhead, I was about 50-50 on whether or not this would prove too much. For someone who hasn't read, can you elaborate on the "arguably prescient"?

The villains in the story are corrupt government stooges who write vague, undefined regulations so that people will break them, and then their goons can swoop in and seize property willy-nilly. I think a lot of anti-trust laws these days are too vague, and there's no doubt that they're selectively enforced. The book seems to be more anti-corruption than anti-government at some points, and it argues against the disturbing fusion of the private and public sectors we've been seeing as of late. I'm sure Rand would've said "I told you so" if she knew that insurance companies were literally writing their own industry's regulations.

Still... the part where she loaded up a train with innocent people, suffocated them, and blew them up, and then said "they had it coming" because of their support of big government... was... slightly mean-spirited.

Tut

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Re: Book Thread. What are you reading?
« Reply #421 on: July 16, 2018, 01:49:37 am »
Finished the book.

First, the good:

1) Despite her tendency to go on and on at times, Rand has a great knack for metaphor, magical realism, and imagery. The descriptions of the collapsing society are long-winded, but almost always captivating. Things fall to pieces very gradually, mimicking how these things happen in real life (socialism always works in the beginning, when there's still a lot of wealth to seize). One great line stood out to me: "The inhabitants of New York had never had to be aware of the weather. Storms had been only a nuisance that slowed the traffic and made puddles in the doorways of brightly lit shops... Now, facing the gusts of snow that came sweeping down the narrow streets, people felt in dim terror that they were the temporary intruders and that the wind had the right-of-way."

2) The mystery is built up expertly. Lots of fake-outs, which get hilariously irritating-- they just make you want to read more. When the origin of the phrase "Who is John Galt" gets revealed, I had some serious goosebumps. In the last third of the book, the pieces start to fall together intricately, and in a satisfying way.

3) For all I've heard about how unrealistic and silly the book is, I can't put my finger on why it feels silly. It sure does seem ludicrous at times, but I'm waiting on the argument that empirically proves that. Some people say it's ridiculous to imagine a situation where incompetent fools seize control of a country's agriculture, killing millions in a massive famine... except that happened in China. Some people say it's silly to imagine a country where the best and brightest are persecuted because they are the best and brightest... except that happened in Cambodia. Some people claim that it's insane to say that corrupt bureaucrats who are impotent and inept in every aspect of their lives could rise to power in a country, plundering the nation's wealth for themselves and killing those who protest their rule... except that happened in Russia. I think that, without the context of communism, the book seems pretty dumb to a lot of people. I guess they'll learn just how realistic it is one way or another.

The most ridiculous part of the book is easily the "strike" itself, where the nation's most productive individuals fuck off to Colorado while everything decays behind them. But this is just a description of the brain drain, only with a little magical realism. Rand even accounts for this by making every nation in the world a socialist "democracy," which leaves smart people with nowhere to run. Yeah, it's exaggerated... but it's got one foot in the realm of possibility.

4) A great lead character. Why is Dagny Taggart-- a genius railway executive who constantly outshines her talentless brother-- not considered a feminist icon? Maybe it's because Rand also uses her as a channel to work through her demented sexual predilections. Still, despite a few eyebrow-raising sex scenes, I found this character compelling as hell. Like all of Rand's characters, she's an archetype and an exaggeration, but I appreciated her ruthless competence and cutting wit.

5) Rand showed incredible foresight in mocking her detractors. Her critics (who have never read her works) call her "anti-social," "psychopathic," and "egotistical," which ironically makes them sound like villains in one of her stories. This creates a feedback loop in which those who critique her fulfill her prophecies. This woman was a legit troll, and as a fellow troll, I find this whole situation funny.

Now the bad:

1) Given the existence of global warming, the book hasn't aged well. It literally ends with a judge writing a new amendment to the constitution, stating that congress shall pass no law restricting free enterprise. Really, Ayn? No law at all? So those people drinking flammable fracking water in Oklahoma have no legal recourse in your perfect world? I don't think the woman grasped the concept of unintentional externalities (as evidenced by her love of cigarettes). If she'd known about climate change, she'd probably think it was awesome.

2) A distinct lack of unique characters. Every "good" (see: selfish) character is handsome/beautiful, confident, and completely without any self-doubt. Every "bad" character has a loathsome, ugly name (Wesley Mouch), and the various bureaucrats are generally indistinguishable from one another. There are a few notable exceptions, but I think there are a lot more facets to human nature that Rand didn't bother to explore here. When a worldview boils everything down to a "two kinds of people" theory, you know it's flawed. Also, in the entire US, there is apparently only one person capable of running a bank, one person capable of mining coal, one person capable of manufacturing cars, etc. It seems extremely half-assed.

3) A sixty-page speech. This comes right before the last hundred pages of the book, and makes the conclusion feel rushed in comparison. Hey Ayn, did you know that speeches of this length are indicative of megalomania? You and Qaddafi would have been best buds. I feel no shame in saying that I skipped this part (it's the only part of the book I did this with).

4) Going off of point number two, no characters change. In Rand's world, changing is seen as a weakness, and I somewhat agree-- but one should always alter their worldview based on contradictory facts (though not based on contradictory opinions). If a villainous "looter" character had seen the error in his ways at the end, that might've made Rand's tent a little more inclusive. But I don't think she has any interest in reaching across the aisle, as evidenced by her statement that "the midpoint between right and wrong is evil." As it is, the villains do ultimately see their own errors, though by that point they're essentially beyond saving. One character, an industrialist, does go through a change-- he learns to be less generous. ayy lmao

5) Despite some predicative power, the book conjures up some caricatures that are just patently ridiculous-- not the least of which is the preeminent scientist who denounces reason. 1000 pages later, and I'm still not sure what Rand was trying to say with that character.

6) The most conclusive argument against Objectivism appears to be its followers. Rand herself testified against communists for McCarthy-- a sin I can almost forgive, considering her personal history. Paul Ryan is a Rand-lover who appears to have no understanding of insurance, health care, or government in general. Donald Trump says he read The Fountainhead, a dubious claim at best, given that the book is well beyond his attention span of 140 characters. And perhaps most damningly, Alan Greenspan was a close friend of Rand's-- the same Alan Greenspan who would shoulder much of the blame for the deregulation and subsequent collapse of the financial sector. None of this has any bearing on the quality of the book, which is still a compelling piece of fiction, but I feel it's worth noting before anyone starts to think I'm a disciple of Rand.

------------------------------------

Overall, I'm glad I've delved into these books, and I'd happily recommend them. In the pantheon of philosophers I've read, I don't think there's any question that Rand has had a far more positive impact on the world than most of them. Why my philosophy class studied an absolute hack like Immanuel Kant instead of her... I have no idea. I think it's important for people to read at least some of her writing, not only to understand her influence, but also to hear a rational, moral defense of capitalism.

Next, I'm thinking I'll read the Koran or the Communist Manifesto just to shake things up. I'm having fun reading these older works and thinking about how they've influenced the world we live in.

 

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