The executive summary of this review is: don’t read this book.
The one paragraph review is: don’t read this book unless you really need to. For example, if you need to read this for your course, or because you’re determined to read all the books on some random list of 100 books.
This was one of two novels where Rand expressed her philosophy of objectivism, the belief that “that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (or rational self-interest)”.
That’s all well and good, there are plenty of fine novels that in addition to telling a good story, also get across the author’s philosophy. But Rand’s thought process seems to have been “I’ll have the good guys (and one gal) and the bad guys, and each will stand round making little speeches, making their philosophy clear”.
There is a good story hiding in this book, but it’s drowned in the over-long tedious speeches made by two-dimensional characters, and if you’ve any sense you’ll have given up before getting to most of the decent bits. A friend who started it at the same time said that she just skipped forward once it was clear that Rand was going off on one. Rand doesn’t just make a point, she batters you with it repeatedly, in uninteresting prose.
The low point of the book is reached after about 1000 pages (you’re probably wondering what I was doing still reading at page 1000. See paragraph 2 above). The chief good guy makes a radio address to the world, explaining where things have gone wrong, and what needs to be done. It’s sixty-something rambling pages trying to explain objectivism. From the perspective of the novel this is just about the worst chapter I’ve read in any book. If the hero is meant to be selling the general populace on the philosophy, he could hardly do a worse job. It took me ages to slog through it. It meanders all over the place, repeating ideas over and over. I can’t imagine many of the population would listen to it all. And I assume that this was meant to be the high point of the book, where Rand convinces the reader of her philosophy.
What this book needed more than anything was decent editing. There were patches where it almost seemed that Rand forgot about hammering home the philosophy, and concentrated on the story. My reading pace picked up, and I actually enjoyed it. Sadly these were few and far between.
This book took the longest to read of any book I’ve ever read. Ulysses was hard work, but I felt like it was worth it. Atlas Shrugged knocks Middlemarch into second place as the least enjoyable book that I’ve completed. The other of Rand’s novels espousing objectivism is The Fountainhead, which she wrote first. I read somewhere that she felt the ideas were better expressed in Atlas Shrugged, so I won’t bother reading The Fountainhead.