In 1957, when Ayn Rand's monumental and novel novel Atlas Shrugged was published, I was a sophomore in college, majoring in chemistry. I had voluntarily cut myself off from the "outside," including literary awareness. Sputnik got my attention. Atlas Shrugged did not.
Back then, I was probably a conservative, most assuredly in the right-wing--until I read Atlas Shrugged in in 1965 (I am right in the pro-reason, pro-rights, pro-freedom sense, but not conservative). My head was a muddle, a mix of often clashing ideas I had uncritically accepted while growing up and had been acquiring in college.
Before entering medical school in 1961, I recall something that I would live to regret the rest of my life. While I was a one-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. I clearly recall walking past a sandwich board outside the student union. That board advertised a talk called "The Objectivist Ethics" given by an Ayn Rand. Neither the topic nor the speaker were familiar to me. I walked on--to my (later) unremitting regret.
My dear wife introduced me to Atlas Shrugged in my senior year of medical school. I was convalescing from some, now-forgotten malady and had the time to read this thick paperback with its tiny print. I have never been the same since.
Nothing in life that involves our volitional consciousness is ever automatic, so I can state that nothing magical happened right after reading the book. Later, I learned that It had kindled my interest into a life-long bonfire. Still, it took a lot of work and time to learn enough to replace the junk in my mind that had accumulated over the years.
There is so much in Atlas Shrugged that I have reread it more than two dozen times since 1965. I have re-read sections of it more times than I can recount. I have never read a novel like it.
However, this is a personal tribute, not a review. So, I must skip all that I want to say about the plot, characterizations, uniqueness of theme, and unmatched descriptions. My focus here is on its presentation of philosophy.
Since original publication 50 years ago, Atlas Shrugged has remained a best seller, year in and year out. It sells itself because so many people get told "You've got to read this book!" That was what my wife told me. They read it, and their enthusiasm became infectious.
I had read so-called "philosophical novels," but none was of much value. Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain comes to mind. What detritus that book is. Such cannot be said about Atlas, even by its worst detractors, if they have the least bit of integrity.
If I were to hand you a tome on philosophy, any philosophy, you would immediately glaze over and doubtless would never read a page. Now, put a philosophy into the form of superbly constructed and extremely well-written story, and you would probably read it all. That is the incredible power of philosophy presented through art.
Atlas has been followed by the non-fictional works of the full philosophy of Ayn Rand, called Objectivism, in many additional books, articles, journals, and lecture presentations. These are taking Objectivism into more and more intellectual fields and areas. All of Ayn Rand's works remain annual best sellers, and Objectivism is spreading throughout our culture.
That is why I am so optimistic about the America's future. One of the biggest take-home lessons one gets from studying Objectivism is profound recognition of the power of ideas and the role of ideas directing human lives. Grasping these enables one to become urgently and resolutely committed to good ideas--and to discover the pain of realizing that most people are almost totally insensitive to the importance of ideasl.
One becomes intensely aware of ideas in history as well. That is how I can be so sure that our culture will ultimately fulfill the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Enlightenment. We will rethrone reason, but , in the future, Americans will take it to its proper extents in all spheres of human endeavor. After all, there is NOTHING in the world that is competing with Objectivism, NOTHING. The dominant cultural philosophy of today, which is irrational, cannot compete in the long haul. Objectivism is moving into the culture unimpeded.
Objectivist trained philosophers are beginning to populate university philosophy departments. Their numbers are few today, but they increase annually. Furthermore, we have not begun to see their influence in the young and the adults they will become. We will; it is inevitable. The Ward Churchills and fellow travelers will become extinct.
Changing a culture takes a long time. It took 150 years to wreck America, for example. There's just no way to tell how long it will take to make America a rational culture. It will not happen on my watch, but it will happen.
We have come so very far in the 50 years since the publication of Atlas Shrugged. The next 50 years will see greatly accelerated advancement. By the centennial celebration of the publication, even the man on the street will feel its influence.