Thursday, June 7, 2012

Atlas Shrugged as Required Reading..., uh, not a good idea.

I'm an Objectivist.  It almost goes without saying that I love this book, which I picked up on John Stossel's recommendation a couple of years into libertarianism.  I promptly devoured several other books by Ayn Rand, and a couple unrelated books.

But god fucking damn, it's not a good book to force somebody to read.  I'd argue -no- book is good to force somebody to read, but this one particularly so.

See, I recall being forced to read somebody else's philosophy encapsulated in book form.  The Awakening was a dreary trudge through an intellectual wasteland that took me many many hours because I'd have to keep starting chapters over because I would literally zone out while reading, and lose any comprehension of it.

And The Awakening was a relatively short book.  Seriously, had it been anything else, I could have chewed it up in a couple of hours.

If you don't already agree with the premises in Atlas Shrugged, it comes across as trash filled with strawmen political.  This isn't because it's trash filled with strawmen political, but because the villains in it, based on real-world people and real-world philosophies that are hard to believe today ever existed and were taken seriously, have aged -very- badly.

Well, up until the last couple of administrations, which have started to make it seem prophetic, rather than a period piece commenting on current events.  As Ayn Rand would comment about later, when she had the book reviewed by a railroad expert to ensure she got the details right, he told her most of the regulations she introduced in the book already existed in some form.

Without the context in which the book was written, she seems pointlessly harsh on her villains - kick the dog harsh, even.

And then there's the first hundred pages.  Y'know, the book gets -fantastic- after the first hundred pages.  I read what was at the time the whole of the Wheel of Time series about a dozen times.  A hundred pages is chump change for me.

But it's not chump change for most readers.  A hundred pages is where most forced reading ends.  And I'm willing to bet only a tiny minority of readers assigned the book ever finish that first hundred pages, and resort instead to Cliff's Notes and the internet, and come away from the book with the impression that Ayn Rand can't write to save her life.

And the problem there is that she can.  She wasn't setting up a Goosebumps story.  She was setting her book up for an epic.  Those accustomed to epics get accustomed to large set-ups; it's necessary, or you end up with garbage.

Robert Jordan spent about five hundred pages of his first thousand page book setting up the rest of the story (according to my brother, spending most of this time in the first book practicing simile; his description of Jordan's writing style is that 50% of anything he writes amounts to "He stood there, like a man who would stand there").  And then continues to dedicate a couple hundred pages of each book setting future books up.

This is a level of investment in a book most readers are completely unwilling to make.

And no amount of forced reading is ever going to convince them to make it.

So, to anyone reading this in a position to do so -

Don't make your students read Atlas Shrugged.  Unless your goal is to make them hate you and hate Ayn Rand, you won't achieve it.

Encourage them, if you want.  But mandatory reading turns even good books into garbage.  Stick to garbage books, like anything written by James Joyce, for that purpose.

1 comment:

  1. "He stood there, like a man who would stand there"

    Genius :)

    I agree about Atlas. I finally read it several years ago and loved it over all. Lots of good principles and ideals illustrated. Its tough to get through, though, unless you really want to. Had I been forced to read it I probably would have balked.