February 21, 2013

Non-Contradiction: The Atlas Shrugged Book Club


Here’s another division of the citizens of the world into two kinds of people: those who love, and those who hate, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

I was in high school when I read Atlas Shrugged, and I haven’t touched it since. The Atlantic thinks that’s such a common case that they’re launching a “book club of sorts” for the book: The Atlas Shrugged Book Club.

Conor Friedersdorf, who is spearheading the initiative, hopes “that everyone will come away better understanding of both why so many people love and hate Atlas Shrugged.” Friedersdorf isn’t, as far as I can tell, a die-hard Objectivist who thinks it’s such a good book. In fact, he finds it surprising that few readers of the book come away from it, as he does, with a middle-of-the-spectrum response. Fortunately, the sharp responses that it does provoke provide a great reason to have a book club: you go into it knowing that at least the book will generate passionate discussion.

Since the book club is being conducted entirely online, the format is unconventional. Selected readers’ comments accompany in-depth critical responses and analyses from Friedersdorf and a small group of colleagues. Readers respond in the comments section, or send their thoughts via e-mail to Friedersdorf for possible inclusion in the following week’s posts.

And  controversy has already erupted in the comments section — about not just the book, but the very worth of discussing it. “Life is too short to read bad books,” says one reader, and that about sums up my philosophy too. When I first read about Friedersdorf’s idea, I thought: “Life’s too short to waster further time discussing bad books, too.”

But The Atlantic conversation is proving me wrong — so far, at least. The first part of the discussion (focusing on Chapters 1 through 5) went live on February 18th, and Friedersdorf and his colleagues’ reactions to the book are honest, earnest, and surprising. One says, “For the first time in my life I want to burn a book.”

Friedersdorf notes that a discussion is relevant, in part, because over a million people have bought the book — in the past two years alone. That shocks me, especially for a book that seems near-universally disparaged. But then, I remember kind of liking it in high school (which feels like a perilous confession). Anyway, maybe The Atlas Shrugged Book Club will explain what’s going on.



Jay McNair is an intern at Melville House.