May 28, 2003
There is no book which has had a greater influence on me than Atlas Shrugged.
I first read Atlas when I was 15. My favorite teacher ever, Jim Duquette, was a major fan of Ayn Rand — a rarity among high school educators, I believe. He was a rarity in almost every way possible — a truly extraordinary teacher. Fearless, funny, super-energetic, a little bit crazy, strict but soft, demanding yet understanding. He had such a zest for life, and for learning, and for, as he said, “getting at the meat” of things. He passed away last year, and I regret that it had been years since I had visited him or talked with him. He ranks as one of the top 5 influences on my development, and probably will hold that standing for the rest of my life.
A big reason why I treasure Mr. Duquette so much is because he introduced me to Ayn Rand. When I read Atlas Shrugged, it was like I was reading an epic permission slip for me to be what I had become — confident, individualistic, unrelenting in pursuit of my achievements, and unbending to the pressures and whims of others.
I had long been a bit of a self-imposed outcast among my peers — I was very smart, I was cocky and sarcastic, and I was unique almost to a fault.
An example (and you’re going to think I’m really weird): For most of my youth from 5th grade on, I wore button-down “dress shirts”. (Eventually this evolved to unbuttoned dress shirts with a t-shirt underneath, which is quite often still my major mode of “fashion”.) Anyway, in 6th or 7th grade I decided for some reason to start rolling one sleeve of my shirt up, while leaving the other down. If I had to explain it now, I’d say I was challenging the norms and expectations of my peers — a fancy way of saying I was just doing it to be weird, which is what I thought of it at the time.
I wore my shirt like that, every day, for quite some time — I can’t recall if it was weeks or months, but it was quite a while. When people would ask me why I had one sleeve rolled up and the other down — and they did ask me, regularly — I would usually respond with, “Why do you have both sleeves rolled down (or up)?” The answer was, of course, that they were conforming to the norm, and some would say something to that effect — “Because that’s how you’re supposed to wear them,”, or “Because that’s the normal way to wear them.” Most, however, would just express frustration, or say “You’re weird.”
That was not the first or the only time I was weird on purpose, but I remember it the best of all of them, because it was so overt, and because it was really a significant test. The pressure to conform is practically almighty in K-12 school, and at some level as a child, I recognized that I had no interest in submitting to such a thing. Which isn’t to say I never followed a trend, or felt embarrassment, or conformed to what my friends and peers wanted of me — I did each of those things sometimes — but more often than not I consciously or unconsciously resisted those pressures, and I sought to look, act, and speak up in a way that broke the norms, or challenged the expectations of those around me. I can’t begin to estimate the number of times I was told “You’re weird.” Or, for that matter, the number of times I saw the look in a teacher’s eyes that indicated that I made them nervous — not fearful of physical harm, but nervous because they knew they did not control me. Sort of an “Oh my God, what do I do with this one?” look.
And it was hard, being like that. Challenging people is either my nature or I learned it very young, because I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember — and most of the earliest stories of me are stories of me disobeying or resisting in some way. And if you’ve been through school, you must know how hard it is to not be accepted, or to stand up against peer pressure. I basically made an effort to not be accepted, and stood up to peer pressure every time I could. And it was hard. I’m not complaining — I’m just sayin’.
But then I met Ayn Rand, through a little huge book called Atlas Shrugged. And Ayn taught me that being unique, standing out, achieving and being smart, and resisting peer pressure were all good things. She taught me that pursuit of my happiness — in the broadest sense of the term — was supposed to be my main objective, and it wasn’t my job to do what others wanted me to do to make them happy. She gave me permission to be me — she showed me me, in the characters of her book, and she showed me the people who had tried to mold and control me as well. She laid out clearly what was wrong with what they were trying to do, and why it was right for me to do what I was trying to do.
But that was only half of the bargain, and the other half of the bargain almost certainly helped me more than the first. Part A of the bargain, which I had intuited all my life, was “you get to do what you want, you get to decide if you’re right or wrong, and being selfish is not just OK — it’s the right thing to do.” That’s the “permission to be me” part. But for Part A to work, you have to do Part B — you have to live morally. You get to decide if you’re right, but you have to actually be right. You get to do what you want, but you have to do the right thing. Being selfish is the right thing to do — as long as you are living a good and productive and moral life.
Part A of the deal went pretty quickly for me. I had already been training to be an utterly unique egomaniac for a long time. I got my permission slip, and just went back to being weird me, with that much more zest. And as you can tell, I never looked back. But Part B has become a lifelong journey.
Up until then, I was basically winging it. I didn’t have a philosophy to speak of — I just did what I felt like doing. I didn’t have much of a moral structure — I knew the basics, like don’t hurt people, etc., and I had honesty as a characteristic deeply ingrained in me, but that was about it. I didn’t have any rules for myself, unless you count “be weird” and “make trouble” as rules. ;-)
Ayn Rand didn’t so much teach me the rules — she showed me why there are rules, and why it’s important to figure them out and follow them. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is called Objectivism — it’s a whole school of philosophy that started with her — and its two main premises are essentially (I paraphrase heavily), “Reality is. Deal with it.”, and “Human achievement rocks!”
The extension of “Reality is. Deal with it.” is that there is a system to how things work, from the physical to the psychological to the philosophical to the sociological and so on. The system is a knowable and definable thing. That’s “Reality is.” Ayn Rand says it most often as “A is A.” “Deal with it” means that your job is to follow the rules of the system in the correct way. Not the rules that are handed down from people, or written in rulebooks and religions — the natural rules. In other words, doing what’s right — what you, as an entity in a system defined by rules, are supposed to be doing.
It’s not as lame as it sounds, because what you’re supposed to be doing is maximizing you — being the most you, the unique you, that you can possibly be. That ties into the other premise of Objectivism — “Human achievement rocks!” Ayn believed that mankind was pretty damn amazing, and that when unleashed — when let free — humans are capable of phenomenal achievements. She thought that when individuals work toward their greatest achievement — doing what it is they love best, and doing it the best they can — that the greatest good could be achieved. She thought that that was the proper moral system.
I couldn’t agree more. Practically since the first year I read it, people have been telling me that I would grow out of my “Ayn Rand phase”, and now as often as not people will try to look down their nose and say “Oh, I used to really like her when I was young/a teenager/in college, but then…” Fill in the blank — “…I grew out of it”, “…I got out in the real world and learned that it’s not always black and white like she says”, “…I grew to realize that sometimes you need to compromise…” , etc.. Well it’s 15 years later, I’ve read the book 4 or 5 times now (once every few years), and my “Ayn Rand phase” is getting along just fine — showing no signs of stopping. So as not to offend all the people who told me I’d grow out of it, I’ll continue to entertain the idea that it’s just a phase — but just between you and me and the world wide web…I think it’s permanent.
I don’t agree with everything Ayn Rand said or believed in, I don’t necessarily hold all the same values that she held, and her and I come from very different backgrounds and as a result see the world in a very different way — but I believe that most of the tenets of her philosophy are true. I think she was right a lot more than she was wrong. And I value Atlas Shrugged as much as or more than I ever have in the past. If someone demanded a one-book-only essential reading list from me, it would say Atlas Shrugged. I’d probably put a smiley face next to it.
(There’s a lot of clarification and explanation I’d like to stuff into here, but it will have to wait for another entry. I could go on at quite great length about this topic, and likely will in due time.)
On that note, onto the news that prompted this entry: it looks like Atlas Shrugged is finally going to be made into a movie. People have been trying to make that happen for over 30 years, and there have been three and a half failed attempts during that time, most recently in 2001. But it sounds like some pretty hardcore folks have hold of it now — people with money, names, and serious dedication to making it happen. The screenwriter has done bunches of big-name book-to-movie adaptations, and has read the book 4 times in the past 6 months. They’re talking about making it big budget, with known stars — the whole shebang. And they’re all into it because they are into Ayn Rand’s vision, and sharing that vision with as big an audience as possible.
I’m trying not to get too worked up about it just yet, but this would be pretty sweet if it pans out. Atlas is an enormously popular book — I’ll never tire of the fact that it ranked the second most influential book in an important survey, after The Bible. The idea of getting tens of millions of people all worked up about it via a big Hollywood movie makes me smile. I don’t want to start musing about the potential impact it could have until I see more confirmation that it’s actually going to happen. But, woo hoo! :-)
Some articles (each as good as the next, all with worthy tidbits):
The Objectivist Center: Film Company to Bring “Atlas Shrugged” to the Screen
Box Office Mojo: ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ Take Five
Box Office Mojo: ‘Atlas Shrugged:’ Who is James Hart?
(about the screenwriter)