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Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter

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A Fascinating Philosopher... Bad Storyteller

  • Sep 25, 2009
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Almost everyone knows Ayn Rand because she's the author of books like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  Over the years she has become more well known for creating and pushing the philosophy of Objectivism.  Nearly thirty years after her death Objectivism is still strong.  There are times when it seems cult like.  And while Objectivism is certainly worth looking into, it's often inhibited by the fact that Ayn Rand often made controversial statements that were a little, uh, odd (such as suggesting that all sex is rape).  As a philospher and as a thinker she's far more interesting than she is as an author.  As an author she's supremely boring, writing some of the dryest books you'll ever read.  Ever.  If you want a cure for your insomnia, just curl up by the fire with a copy of Atlas Shrugged.  If you're like me, you'll also do it with a friend you hate, thus preparing you for the ultimate bad trip.

So I can't really write a review about Ayn Rand without talking objectivism.  And from a certain standpoint, Objectivism doesn't seem that bad.  There are parts of it which many of us might be able to agree with.  One of the basic ideas of Objectivism was... well... to be objective.  That nothing was true just because you perceived it as true.  Admittedly, Ayn Rand was not a big faith based person.  Rather she saw Faith as an excuse not to use rational thought.  In some ways we can agree.  2+2 doesn't suddenly equal 5 just because you have Faith that it does.  When it comes to small questions like this we can believe it and trust it.  But Ayn Rand wasn't a big believer in thinking there were some questions that didn't have an answer.  And sure most of us can agree in some ways.  But one has to wonder what would happen if Ayn Rand would ask a question that didn't have much of a rational explanation.  Did she just dismiss it?  Maybe.  Ayn Rand was a thinker.  A pretty big thinker.  As a result of her ultra rational thought process, however, she also believed that human emotions were also bad because they could lead to irrational decisions not because they always do.  In her books this really comes out because her characters are all robotic and lack emotion.  And the characters that DO have emotion (you know, the ones who are actually human like Peter Keating in The Fountainhead) are usually portrayed as being the people you don't want to be.  Again, in some ways we can kind of see where Ayn Rand is coming from with stuff like that.  In the height of some of your most emotional moments--when you were wrought with panic or fear or something like that--some of your decisions may not have been too bright.  It's because you weren't calm enough to think through them.  When things get crazy our brain, as you no doubt know, releases adrenaline... because of this adrenaline rush sometimes time feels like it's moving faster than it actually is.  In short, you start moving faster because something inside says you have to act quickly.  What I'm basically saying is that for Ayn Rand, being human was no excuse for a bad decision.  It comes out in her fiction a lot.  When Dominique Francon gets raped in The Fountainhead, for example, there's no reflection or anything.  

So did Ayn Rand understand human beings?  Well, she claims that she did.  She just didn't like it.  She certainly makes a very valid point about how sometimes emotions can hamper rational decisions and rational thought (you have to undergo training to be calm as a police officer when bullets are flying for a reason, you know).  It's the idea that for whatever reason Ayn Rand didn't seem to be a big fan of emotion.  When we say that Ayn Rand was really big on rational thinking it's no stretch to say she took it to an extreme.  For some this makes Ayn Rand the ultimate skeptic.  She didn't believe much that had no definitive proof. 

Another part of Objectivism was the idea of being a very self made person.  To the point of being selfish.  Indeed, she believed a lot in egotism.  If you've read books on writing or you've heard a bestselling author lecture, many of them say it's important not to write a book that gets too long and bloated because the last thing an author wants is to be known as self-indulgent and an ego maniac.  Nicholas Sparks really hammers this in when talking about writing.  Ayn Rand believed quite the opposite.  Ayn Rand believed that because she was so smart (And let's not get sucked into our own feelings, Ayn Rand WAS unebelievably smart) she was entitled to write such long drawn out works.  They weren't so much stories as they were ways for her to get her philosophy out there, and they did get her philosophy out there.  But when looking at it through that lens... yeah, it's easy to see why her books were so dry.  They were written specifically for her.  And Rand had no problems with telling people they didn't understand her philosophy if they criticized it.

And yet, there's also the political side of Ayn Rand's philosophy.  This is perhaps where Objectivism really gets confusing.  You have this woman who believed very strongly in self sufficentcy.  And in doing so very much believed that Altruism in any way was uh, bad.  To Ayn Rand you weren't getting help... you were a leech.  If you asked mom for lunch money--you were a leech.  The Simpsons parodied this when Maggie is put in the Ayn Rand School for Tots and isn't able to have her pacifier.  The woman in charge asks Marge, "Do you know what your baby is saying when she ask for a bottle?" To which Marge responds: "Baba?"  Which isn't right.  No, the teacher at the school for tots tells her, "She's saying 'I am a leech.'"  So politically it's hard to see where Ayn Rand really stood on... well... anything.  She was big on capitalism but not for the reason most Republicans are.  She believed that the Government had roll but should be limited... but she hated the Libertarians.  If Ayn Rand saw how many Libertarians idolized her today she'd probably give you a really REALLY REALLY long speech that would last for approximately twelve days about how the Libertarians are wrong.  Hell, she'd tell you how everyone but her was wrong.  She had some things she was pretty liberal about.  She believed that a woman was entitled to an abortion, that racism was fundamentally wrong (sort of, she felt that a business had the right--freedom, you could say--to refuse to hire some one based on their ethnicity).  But she also believed in small government.  Republicans will be happy to know that Ayn Rand detested socialism, but they'll also be disappointed to know that Rand would not consider anything going on today to be socialist.  She would say things would have to be far worse.

What makes Objectivism so confusing, however, is that Rand often had statements where you wondered where she was coming from.  It was confusing because she didn't make it clear.  I've talked quite a bit about some things, but it's hard to say if everything here is really touching the surface.  The philosophy goes much deeper.  It would be impossible for me to go incredibly deep into her philosophy because there's so much out there.  And I mean a lot.  So much in fact, that there are certain things, I'm sure, that Ayn Rand probably later changed her mind on and therefore, contradict some of what I say here.  Ayn Rand was a proponent of selfishness.  And she was very fond of capitalism.  She was also very fond of reason.  As a result she was a very fascinating and yet very polarzing figure.  I'm still looking into her... and I'll admit there are some things I like... but other things that can make you think she might've been so smart that she was borderline insane.  Some of her statements just didn't sound great.  Above all, however, it seems that the most important aspect of Rand's philosophy was the selfish part.  In fact, she even wrote a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness."  Ayn Rand didn't have kids, but if she did it's a wonder if she might've seen the world differently (for example that Ayn Rand would have to live for someone other than Ayn Rand).  Because of how she was, she seemed inhuman.. almost robotic.  And this came out most in her novels.

And this is where talking about Ayn Rand ceases to be interesting.  Ayn Rand was a thinker.  A philosopher... NOT a storyteller.  No aspiring writer should look to Ayn Rand unless they want to figure out how not to tell a story.  Her books are thought provoking.  They're not bad, they just lack... well... emotion.  Her characters aren't characters.  They're symbols.  This makes for a thought provoking read but for a very boring and very dry story.  When it comes to her books, they go on for a long time and get very drawn out.  She has to describe every leaf on every tree and every tree in the forest.  Her books move at an unbelievably slow pace as a result because you can get pages of upon pages of description but not a whole lot of story.  The dialog is mostly stilted and philisophically based.  Her characters, because they're symbols are mostly very stilted and jaded. 

That's not to say her books aren't interesting.  They are.  They're just very very long and very very boring.  They're long because Ayn Rand had a really big ego and because she loved the romantic style of writing.  Rather than being too thought provoking, though, Ayn Rand makes it a point at some point to strip away any interpretations and actually tells you what the point of the book is.  It's plain and direct, which I love.  But also makes it so that you aren't allowed to have much of an imagination, which I hate.  Ayn Rand isn't a bad writer, it's just that she could never leave philosophy well enough alone to string a good story out of it.  It's so dry and bland that you'll find yourself falling asleep.  You WILL get something out of it, though.  They are thought provoking books, and Ayn Rand took herself as a writer very seriously.  In Anthem (a short book... that's really saying something compared to all her other books) you can actually see how she goes about her editing and cutting stuff out.  She was pretty meticulous.  She may not have been able to step out of being a philosopher, but she at least did have principles--even when it came to her writing. 

All this makes Ayn Rand an intersting person for sure.  Her philosophy might really interest those interested in philosophy... even if you don't particularly agree with it.  Though you might find some things that you do.  She's a pretty controversial figure.  She's been polarized and people poke fun at her:

On the other hand, there are many who are quite fond of Ayn Rand and seem to worship the ground she walks on.  Regardless of where you fall, it can't be denied that she was an interesting person.

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October 04, 2009
I'm impressed with this long review, Rhodes. It at least provoke a lot of thought for you. Rand's books are really morality tales. "Atlas Shrugged" is the second best all-time selling book after the bible, which is also a morality tale, which is also extremely long and very boring except for select parts. The difference in the morality between the two is that "A S" is about the morality of real human life, whereas the bible is morality based on myth. So the big question for every individual is whether one bases one's personal morality on life or myth.
October 04, 2009
Actually... we don't know if Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is the second bestselling book of all time.  It's a claim that gets thrown around a lot but I've never actually come across sales figures that verify it.  And the only real claim I've found was from the Objectivism Reference Center which stated that while the sales have been enorumous, they reported that its sales in the United States haven't even reached the tens of millions yet, a feat that other books such as The Harry Potter Series, The Da Vinci Code etc. have.  It might have the most copies in print, however.  Sales of Atlas Shrugged always shoot up when there are tough economic issues at hand.  However, according to the Objectivism institute, the book has barely sold 7 million copies in the United States.

On the other hand, there was one study that showed it was the second most influential book out there.  But even the Objectivism institutes disputes that the study was that well done.

The Ayn Rand institute shows the same thing.  No more than 7 million copies sold. 

On the other hand, I'd sure like to know how many copies Atlas Shrugged has sold since it was first published.  Everywhere I look there's hardly a sales figure for World Wide Sales (the only consistent figure is 7 million).  If it IS the second bestselling book out there it's amazing that more places aren't reporting it.  Being the second most influential book out there doesn't really indicate sales. 

If you've found it, I'd totally want to see it.  I'm not the biggest Ayn Rand fan, but I have started reading Atlas Shrugged.  Among other books.
September 25, 2009
Hilarious graphic and a really well done review!
September 25, 2009
One nice aspect of Anthem -- it's short!
More Ayn Rand reviews
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
It's amazing how a reasonably good idea could be twisted into a philosophy of unreasoning cold-bloodedness. Rand's overreaction to Russian socialism is so opposite in the spectrum that she creates her own fascism with it. Read her if you must; don't believe a word of it.
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
She was boring in my philosophy class
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
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I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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Ayn Rand (IPA: /ˈaɪn ˈrænd/, February 2 [O.S. January 20] 1905 – March 6, 1982), was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her best-selling novels and for developing a philosophical system called Objectivism. Born and educated in Russia, Rand emigrated to the United States in 1926. She worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood and had a play produced on Broadway in 1935-1936. She first achieved fame with The Fountainhead (1943), and her best-known work – the philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged – was published in 1957.

Rand's political views, reflected in both her fiction and her theoretical work, emphasize individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the constitutional protection of the right to life, liberty, and property. She was a fierce opponent of all forms of collectivism and statism, including fascism, communism, and the welfare state. She was also an atheist, and promoted ethical egoism ("rational self-interest") as energetically as she condemned altruism ("moral cannibalism").

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