The March 31, 2009 issue of TIA Daily (editor@TIADaily.com) ran a feature article entitled “Obama and the Ayn Rand Factor” in which editor Robert Tracinski correctly characterizes “ . . . the astonishing surge in the sales of Ayn Rand’s epic 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged as the biggest under-appreciated political story of this year,” He goes on to cite some telling Amazon statistics:
“. . . [T]he ranking page…showed the novel surging into the top 20, climbing as high as #16. Remember that this is a thousand-page-long, 52-year-old novel that is heavy on philosophical content. And these rankings surely understate actual sales, since the novel is listed under at least three separate editions, each showing strong sales in its own right.* * * Atlas has been steadily in the top ten in "Literature & Fiction". . . . and has been switching between the #1 and #2 spot in "Classics" . . . .” (Italics mine)
Later in his article, Tracinski sums up what Ayn Rand would call the “plot-theme” of Atlas Shrugged:
“As I wrote on the novel’s 50th anniversary, Ayn Rand ‘saw the dramatic potential in asking a single question: what would happen if the innovative entrepreneurs and businessmen—after decades of being vilified and regulated—started to disappear? The disappearance of the world’s productive geniuses provides the novel’s central mystery, both factually and intellectually . . . . The philosophical question raised by this plot is what is the role of the entrepreneurs and innovators in a society? What motivates them, what are the conditions they need in order to work, and what happens to the world when they disappear?’” (Italics mine)
What is “really radical” about Atlas, Tracinski says, is Ayn Rand’s answer to the question her plot raises: That the novel is “. . . a thorough philosophical defense of individualism.” (Italics mine)
Tracinski’s emphasis on the philosophical underpinnings of Atlas is well-placed. As I read more and more accounts like his about the surge in popularity of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, I am not surprised that there seems to be no equivalent surge in her equally timely and politically relevant nonfiction (such as Capitalism:The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness).
A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by Iwan Morelius, a foreign Libertarian journalist and Ayn Rand fan. (See http://henrymarkholzer.blogspot.com/2009/05/ayn-rand-and-erika-holzer.html. While he is very familiar with Rand’s nonfiction, his interest throughout the interview was focused almost exclusively on fiction. His last question to me was: "Erika, I recently reread all of Ayn Rand’s books published in Sweden and found them well worth reading again. Written so many years ago, early 40s and 50s, they are all still so relevant. Can you talk about why that is?"
My answer in part was this: “Ayn Rand, thanks to the philosophy she brilliantly dramatized in Atlas Shrugged, is so relevant to the times we live in that not a day goes by when . . . I don’t reflect on . . . just how prescient she was . . . . Iwan, it’s a case of life imitating art!” (Italics mine.)
So why am I not surprised at this remarkable surge in sales of a 52-year-old thousand-page novel—a surge that has had no significant counterpart in politically relevant Randian nonfiction? Is it just because Atlas has so many parallels to the all-out assault on free-market capitalism and individual rights being waged by Obama and his gang? Or is some other phenomenon at work here?
If Ayn Rand were alive today, I’m confident she would point to a more subtle explanation—one that she discussed with me in detail. Back in the mid-60s, when my husband and I were Rand’s lawyers, the three of us took a break from business one evening to talk about writing (one of many such conversations). This occasion was particularly memorable because Ayn drew a fascinating distinction between the impact that art—fiction, as opposed to nonfiction—has on its readers.
“Reading nonfiction,” she told us, “is mainly an intellectual exercise whereas fiction involves the reader in a personal experience. It’s the difference between reading a technical manual on flying a jet airplane as opposed to experiencing the actual sensation of hurtling through space in one. The manual may be educational, even stimulating, but the plane ride is happening to you.” Expanding on her thesis, Ayn added, “If a novel is well done, the reader feels the dramatized events of the story on his own skin, so to speak. He is impelled to rage against some injustice. To root for characters he cannot help identifying with.”
“Boy, do I know what you mean!” I exclaimed. “Some years ago I came across an old news report about a lynching in Mississippi and I remember feeling disgust and horror. But later I saw a classic movie, The Oxbow Incident, and my emotional response was so much more intense. I mean, I was with the victim every step of the way, seeing things from his perspective—and yes, I did feel fear, like it could be happening to me, and rage at the injustice of it all.”
“Exactly,” Ayn agreed. “The difference in response comes from the very nature of a concrete news item. It’s more impersonal. It doesn’t necessarily lead you to draw a moral or a universal abstraction beyond its narrow facts.”
That more and more Americans are reading and responding so favorably to Atlas Shrugged in these troubled times is an encouraging sign. The parallels between events in the novel and the fascist-collectivist programs of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid axis may have initially attracted new readers, but the personal impact that Rand’s powerfully dramatized novel is sure to have on them is likely to be more profound and lasting . . . an effect that just might carry over to the next election.