Rand, famous for books on free-market ideals, enjoys resurgent popularity

10/9/12 - In a story about Ayn Rand in Sunday's Living section, a source incorrectly stated that Rand attended Alan Greenspan's swearing-in ceremony as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. While the former Fed chief credited Rand with being a significant influence and they were friends until her death in 1982, Greenspan wasn't sworn in until 1987.

It's the love story of a guy, a girl and the free enterprise system, set against the tumultuous backdrop of a crashing economy, weaselly politicians, a pathetic citizenry and a godlike protagonist.

And if it's a tad preachy, that's OK, too, because it's the philosophy underlying the plot that has made "Atlas Shrugged" one of the 2012 campaign season's hottest reads and placed its author, Ayn Rand, squarely onto mainstream America's pop culture radar.

"Atlas Shrugged" was published more than 50 years ago and Rand died in 1982. But when Americans heard that Republican vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan is a fan of Rand, sales of "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" (Rand's other magnum opus) saw an uptick as Americans decided to check out who this woman with the oft-mispronounced name is, anyway.

The basics: Ayn Rand (real name: Alisa Rosenbaum) was an author, playwright, screenwriter and essayist who developed a philosophy called objectivism.

Among the tenets of objectivism, according to the Ayn Rand Institute (www.aynrand.org): That reality "exists as an objective absolute"; that reason is "man's only means of perceiving reality"; that every man "must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself"; and that the "pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

Rand also opposed government interference in individuals' lives, supported personal liberty and argued for laissez-faire capitalism as "the ideal political-economic system."

Rand articulated her beliefs in both nonfiction writings and, most popularly, in two landmark novels: "The Fountainhead," published in 1943, about an idealistic and uncompromising architect; and "Atlas Shrugged," published in 1957, about what happens when society's industrialists, businessmen, artists and inventors decide to go on strike.

Several news reports noted that sales of the novels on Amazon.com - and particularly of "Atlas Shrugged" - jumped significantly over the past several weeks. While that certainly was partly because of Ryan (who reportedly gave copies of "Atlas Shrugged" to his staff as Christmas presents and says he entered public service because of Rand), Don Watkins, co-author of "Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government" (Palgrave Macmillan, $27) sees something else happening.

"I think, really, to understand today's world and how we got here economically and politically, you have to know her view," said Watkins, who also is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. "You don't have to agree with her ideas, but you have to be familiar with them because she's such a part of the debate."

Watkins says sales of Rand's novels have been increasing since her death in 1982, but that there's been a renaissance since 2009.

"It's not just people reading her," he added. "Her ideas have really started getting injected into the debate."

For that, credit the rise of the tea party - protesters at tea party rallies could be seen holding signs referencing John Galt, the hero of "Atlas Shrugged" - and a continuing national debate over how much government we need or want and whether the redistribution of wealth is a valid function of government.

"Her pre-eminent support of capitalism in her works has been extraordinarily influential," Watkins said, and Rand remains "the only person to praise capitalism in moral terms, to argue that capitalism and freer markets are not only economically superior but morally superior."

Rand's novels were published more than a half-century ago. Ever since, reading them - and, then, either adopting or rejecting the ideas contained in them - has been, for many, a literary rite of passage.

"I read 'The Fountainhead' when I was going to architecture school," said Gemie Knisely of GK3 Architecture. She was 20 then and learned about the book from a classmate.

"I liked it, probably, more for young girl reasons," Knisely said. "It's kind of a romance. So I enjoyed that."

Knisely also liked that the story revolves around architecture and architects and explores creativity. She still considers "The Fountainhead" a favorite book, but said she hasn't read Rand's other books, mostly because "I've been too busy."

Attorney Mark Ricciardi counts Ayn Rand as one of his favorite authors. He first read "Atlas Shrugged" during his 30s and "The Fountainhead" five or 10 years later.

Ricciardi said the latter "opened my eyes to the effect that architecture has on our everyday lives."

"Atlas Shrugged," Ricciardi said, "changed my views only a little bit because I was pretty much onboard with the importance of free enterprise and capitalism. But I think, through the dramatic presentation, it made it just a little more understandable."

David Damore, an associate political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said "Atlas Shrugged" plays into "that sort of conservative political paradigm" of a society made up of "self-made individuals" on one side and "moochers and people who are happy being mediocre" on the other.

Rand has been an influence on conservative/Libertarian economic thought since the '70s and '80s, he said.

"If you look back, when Alan Greenspan was sworn in as chairman of the Federal Reserve, she was at his swearing-in ceremony," Damore said. "So I think she's been a conservative economic intellectual voice for quite a while."

But embracing Rand's economic philosophy also requires some conservatives to occasionally cover their ears and discreetly look the other way: She also was an atheist and, as a vehement advocate of personal liberty and a just-as-vehement opponent of governmental intrusion into individual's lives, would object to social conservatives' opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

That might explain why Ryan, a Roman Catholic, seems, according to some pundits, to have distanced himself a bit from Rand since becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee.

"How he missed that in the writings, I don't know," Damore said. "But I think that's one thing that makes that story very interesting."

In her novels, Rand chose to wrap her philosophy in a fictional coating. So: How good a novelist was she?

Las Vegas novelist H. Lee Barnes, who said he read "Atlas Shrugged" many years ago, likens Rand's characters to "little bits of cardboard, and she just marches them across the page."

"Her characters are kind of oversimplified. Human beings are far more complex than that, and humanity is far more complex than that.

"As a craftsperson, I don't think, really, she was a very good writer," Barnes said. "But her appeal is mostly people buying into the objectivist philosophy, and if they're searching for answers to the political problems of the day, that probably makes sense."

But, Barnes said, "I really think that people who like her work as fiction, they really haven't read a lot of fiction."

Felicia Campbell, an English professor at UNLV, said she read the novels during college, "when I was a kid, and they're better then because you're really young and naive and don't know what the world is like."

"Back then, I thought the whole thing was kind of glamorous," Campbell recalled. "I thought it'd be fun to be Dagny Taggart (of 'Atlas Shrugged'). I'm not sure I would read her now. I know too much about the world, and her depictions are incredibly romantic."

On the other hand, Barnes said, "Atlas Shrugged" has "got one of the catchiest titles that has ever been used."

"I'd like to steal it," Barnes joked. "But I'd have a different kind of book."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.