A few years ago I decided I should try to read Atlas Shrugged. I felt as if I was missing out on a part of my political education. The novel, and Rand’s philosophy, seemed to have changed the lives of a lot of important people–probably some who were a lot smarter than me. It came in first in the readers’ poll of the top 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. Alan Greenspan was a Rand acolyte, and he was a Very Serious Person. Maybe if I read the book my life would be changed, too! So I gave it a shot.
I managed to get through about a hundred pages before I had to give up. The book was just terrible. I would have thrown it across the room if I’d had the strength to chuck the thing that far. Rand can write a decent paragraph, but her characters bear no resemblance to any human beings I had ever met. I couldn’t even get to the philosophy part, because the philosophy was clearly going to be based on the characters (or the characters were based on the philosophy), which meant the philosophy would be as bad as the characters, as far as I was concerned. Because good writing matters to me.
I sometimes wonder if that’s a mistake, when it comes to judging philosophy or anything else. I am willing to believe Dan Gilbert about anything after reading his delightful book Stumbling on Happiness; I’m pretty sure that’s a good judgment. But what about Malcolm Gladwell? He is another delightful writer, but he’s come in for his share of criticism. Here is Steven Pinker’s assessment of Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw from the New York Times a few years ago.
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
I loved What the Dog Saw! Now what do I do? Good, clear writing is a reasonable marker for good, clear thinking. But there obviously has to be more. I have a feeling that Ayn Rand could have written a terrific novel, and I still wouldn’t have bought into her philosophy, as I understand it.
And the fact that the Republican vice presidential candidate is so enamored of Atlas Shrugged terrifies me. Maybe this is another bad idea, but I think a candidate’s literary tastes say a lot about him. If you enjoy novels with two-dimensional characters like the ones Rand created, you’re not going to be able to see the complexity of human existence, which seems to me to be critical to wise leadership.
So, anyone want to guess what Mitt Romney’s favorite novel is? Click here to find out. I dare you.