First published in Canvas: December 16 2013
In May 1999, the Modern Library published its Board List and Readers List of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. The Board List contained few surprises; James Joyce’s Ulysses took first place, above F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
The Readers list however, threw up more than one shock. Compiled via an unscientific survey of 200,000 people, the list contained four novels by Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged was first; The Fountainhead second; and her earlier novels Anthem and We the Living seventh and eighth. Three novels by L Ron Hubbard (the leader of the Church of Scientology); Battlefield Earth, Mission Earth, and Fear also appeared in the top ten.
The presence of three Hubbard novels on the list indicated one of two things: either there is a literary experience that is uniquely American, or that the ballot was rigged by over-zealous advocates. Certainly, scientologists have often been accused of tampering with sales of their books, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that they resorted to nefarious means to ensure that Hubbard’s’ books were well represented.
However, it is legitimate to assume that the placing of Atlas Shrugged is genuine. Ayn Rand’s sprawling narrative of a society that is disintegrating under the crippling weight of unsustainable collectivism continues to sell well to this day, and it is hard to deny the impact that it has had on American society since its publication in October 1957. In 2009, the year after the financial crash, the novel sold 300,000 copies.
Contemporary advocates can be found in various positions of influence; particularly in the Republican Party. An early advocate was Alan Greenspan – the Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987-2006. In his 2007 memoir Age of Turbulence, he recalled his friendship with Rand as one that permitted him intellectual growth beyond the confines of economic models; chiefly an understanding of how human beings formulate their values and how this influences their actions. “All of this started for me with Ayn Rand. She introduced me to a vast realm from which I’d shut myself off.” To early critics he was less charitable, particularly when defending Atlas Shrugged: “Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfilment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”