A few years ago, I was sitting at a sushi bar in downtown Washington, D.C., reading a battered paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged while I munched on a California roll. The man next to me saw the cover and said, "Ah yes, Ayn Rand . Something everyone reads when they're young." He was infinitely condescending. "And sometimes even when they're older," I replied, but left it there.
And yet he was right. My sister got me to read The Fountainhead
when I was barely a teenager. I have a clear memory of reading Atlas Shrugged
for the first time while sitting beside a stream near Boulder, Colorado, which dates it to the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. You hear it again and again: People read Ayn Rand
in high school, and it changed their lives.
When rereading her in later years, I am always aware of why she so appeals to teenagers—the simplicity of good and evil, the contempt for shades of gray, the evocation of the heroic. Many times I come across a passage that now makes me mutter, as I did not when I was a teenager, "C'mon Ayn, that's not real." So why was I sitting there, a man in his fifties, rereading Atlas Shrugged
? Why am I so confident that people will still be reading Ayn Rand
a few hundred years from now?
The answer goes to the old Greek fable about the hedgehog and the fox—the fox knowing many things, the hedgehog knowing one big thing. Rand saw herself as a knower of many things, the creator of a complete philosophical system. I don't know enough about the details of Objectivism
to judge whether she succeeded. What I do believe is that Rand knew a couple of Big Things about the nature of human life that were luminously True and at the same time immensely optimistic. That's a combination that can reverberate in human minds for a long time if the means of expression are as vivid as the truths are powerful. To me, that was Ayn Rand
's genius. She was able to paint a few great truths in primary colors.
Charles Murray is a W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.