Atlas Shrugged – revisited

I read Ayn Rand’s 1957 masterpiece, “Atlas Shrugged,” in high school. I remember the appeal of her story describing the power of an individual making the choice to act counter to the crowd and the system. It was a welcome message to me then and I have kept the yellowing paperback with me over the past thirty years. I now wonder if what I took from the book then was simply what I wanted – teenage validation of a naive self-image of independence and self-sufficiency.

As I worked yesterday with the radio playing in the other room, I heard the words, “Atlas Shrugged.” The words cut through the white noise of the news of failing economy, betrayed trust and political change like the sound of your own name overheard in a crowded room. I immediately stopped and turned my attention to the radio but the story was done. I don’t know the context but somehow I understood that the it’s time to reread the book. This time to discover the depth and power of Rand’s intended message and not to be satisfied with wading in the shallows.

I’ve just begun but have already found in the first few pages validation that this book promises to speak to our times. I reread these three paragraphs several times as the awareness of institutional and leadership betrayals of the past several months colored the white spaces between the words. I expect this book to be full of new insight and nuance written in a voice that we haven’t heard over the din of the crowd for a long, long time.

The great oak tree had stood on a hill over the Hudson, in a lonely spot on the Taggert estate. Eddie Willers, aged seven, liked to come and look at that tree. It had stood there for hundreds of years, and he thought it would always stand there. Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk deep into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string. He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength.

One night, lightning struck the oak tree. Eddie saw it the next morning. It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel. The trunk was only an empty shell; its heart had rotted away long ago; there was nothing inside – just a thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind. The living power had gone, and the shape it left had not been able to stand without it.

Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain or fear. But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk. It was an immense betrayal – the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed. It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else. He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house. He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.

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