Editor’s note: This piece is republished with permission from Foundation for Economic Education.
I’m often asked by people who have never read Ayn Rand which of her works they should start with. They decide to read her for all sorts of reasons.
Some have heard mocking criticisms of Rand’s novels and ideas and, being too independent to merely take another’s word for it, set out to assess her work for themselves. Others had their curiosity piqued by admiring remarks from such well-knowns as Rand Paul, Angelina Jolie, Dax Shepherd, and even Ted Lasso (the title character of the award-winning Apple TV show). Some young readers, in search of exhilarating stories, stumble upon Rand’s epic works but are told they’re too young for the heft and depth of Atlas Shrugged or even The Fountainhead.
Where in Rand’s corpus should a curious reader begin? As someone who’s read it all, I would say that, for most people, there’s no better place to start than with one of Rand’s major works of fiction—Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, or Anthem—and I suspect Rand would agree. Although she wrote mountains of nonfiction detailing her philosophy, including a one-hundred-plus-page monograph on the nature of conceptual knowledge, Rand often characterized her philosophy as a means to the end of bringing to life her artistic vision. In an essay titled “The Goal of My Writing,” she declared:
Since my purpose is the presentation of an ideal man, I had to define and present the conditions which make him possible and which his existence requires. Since man’s character is the product of his premises, I had to define the kind of premises and values that create the character of an ideal man and motivate his actions; which means that I had to define and present a rational code of ethics. Since man acts among and deals with other men, I had to present the kind of social system that makes it possible for ideal men to exist and to function—a free, productive, rational system, which demands and rewards the best in every man, great or average, and which is, obviously, laissez-faire capitalism.1
Rand held that art is a necessary component of human life, concretizing our widest beliefs about the world and our place in it; “Art is the technology of the soul,” she memorably put it.2
In Rand’s view, art helps us focus on what’s most important. “Amidst the incalculable number and complexity of choices that confront a man in his day-by-day existence,” wrote Rand, “with the frequently bewildering torrent of events, with the alternation of successes and failures, of joys that seem too rare and suffering that lasts too long—[man] is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his own convictions.”3
What helps us keep our heads above water? The experience of seeing our values embodied in art: a vision of an ideal to inspire us and keep us striving toward our most ambitious goals. Art “serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation—and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary.”4
Of course, if you have particular questions about Rand’s views on politics, individual rights, and capitalism; ethics; the nature of knowledge; art; or philosophy more broadly, you might have good reason to start with some of her nonfiction. But nine times out of ten, I recommend first-time readers of Rand start with one of her major works of fiction. They are an enduring fount of optimism, encouragement, perspective, and delight.
That said, each offers something unique and challenging. Here are a few thoughts to help you choose from among them. I’ve listed them in the order in which I read them (which also happens to be from longest to shortest), but you should start with whichever best connects with your interests and values.
I read Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, when I was 17. I’m glad I read it when I did, because it gave me tools to formulate and pursue a purpose in life. If you’ve been told you’re too young to read it, my advice is: Don’t listen. Perhaps you’ll dive in and find out for yourself that it’s just not connecting—but that’s for you to decide. Despite its length and scope, the book is eminently readable; I was hooked within a few pages and couldn’t put it down.
Atlas tells the story of a skilled and beautiful businesswoman, Dagny Taggart, who vows to kill a man she’s never even met, a mysterious “destroyer” she believes is behind a series of disappearances that leave her—and the world—in a progressively more precarious state. The most capable men, from grocers and train conductors to composers and brain surgeons, are vanishing, leaving behind rewarding and lucrative careers they spent decades building. Is someone abducting them? Convincing them to quit? Dagny must find out and put an end to it, while simultaneously fighting to keep afloat her family’s business.
Rand wrote Atlas at the height of her intellectual prowess. It’s a mystery novel saturated with suspense and insights about what it means to be a human being and live a fully human life. Take, for instance, Dagny’s “sense of eagerness, of hope and of secret excitement” as her train plunges into the tunnels of the Taggart terminal in New York City:
It was as if normal existence were a photograph of shapeless things in badly printed colors, but this was a sketch done in a few sharp strokes that made things seem clean, important—and worth doing. She watched the tunnels as they flowed past: bare walls of concrete, a net of pipes and wires, a web of rails that went off into black holes where green and red lights hung as distant drops of color. There was nothing else, nothing to dilute it, so that one could admire naked purpose and the ingenuity that had achieved it. She thought of the Taggart Building standing above her head at this moment, growing straight to the sky, and she thought: These are the roots of the building, hollow roots twisting under the ground, feeding the city.5
Atlas is one of those books you cannot read without growing as a person, yet it’s also a thrilling page-turner. And that’s important, because it’s incredibly long. At more than a thousand pages, it can double as a doorstop. The fascinating story gradually unveils Rand’s entire worldview—a philosophy she came to call Objectivism—encompassing views on everything from the nature of existence to politics, art, and sex.
Some dislike this coupling of literature and fundamental ideas, missing the fact that every artist imparts a worldview into his work, even if unintentionally. Rand was clear, however, that the goal of her fiction was not to teach or proselytize ideas, but to capture and present man at his best—for the sheer enjoyment that she and readers could take from witnessing that ideal.
“The simple truth is that I approach literature as a child does: I write—and read—for the sake of the story,” wrote Rand.6 “The motive and purpose of my writing is the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself—to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.”7
Did she succeed in Atlas Shrugged? Find out for yourself—if you’re up for a long and deeply absorbing read.
The young architect Howard Roark wants to erect buildings “such as had never stood on the face of the earth,” but his innovative approach sparks resentment and resistance. Even the woman he loves works to undermine his career, believing people are too small-minded to accept his work—or to deserve it. But he will build or die, even if that means putting up gas stations in the middle of nowhere while his inferiors win prestigious commissions to erect towering structures.
The Fountainhead shows us a man who thinks for himself and accepts nothing he can’t make sense of. For instance, early on, the dean of Stanton Institute tries to drill into Roark the idea that “everything beautiful in architecture has been done already” and that architects “can only attempt, respectfully, to repeat.”8 “But I don’t understand,” replies Roark.
I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards.9
For many, myself included, The Fountainhead is Rand’s most inspiring story, capturing the ethos of creators from Galileo and Beethoven to Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. At its most fundamental level, it conveys the conflict between “individualism and collectivism, not in politics, but in man’s soul.”10 Although narrower in scope than Atlas (which it preceded by some fourteen years), it is also more personal. Whereas Rand’s other novels focus on societies in decay, the focus of The Fountainhead “is on man’s capacity to achieve and succeed as an individual,” said Rand’s longtime student, friend, and heir, Leonard Peikoff.11 And although not a mystery like Atlas, its seven-hundred-plus pages still fly by with suspense.
So if you’re looking for a motivating story about courage, perseverance, and independence, The Fountainhead is where you should start. It’s the novel I most frequently recommend.
We the Living
Originally published in 1936 when Rand was just 31, We the Living is her most autobiographical novel. The plot is fiction, but the background is the communist Soviet Russia wherein Rand came of age before escaping to America. At a gathering shortly before she left, a young Russian said to her, “When you get there, tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying.”12 With We the Living, she did just that.
It is, said Rand, “the first story written by a Russian who knows the living conditions of the new Russia and who has actually lived under the Soviets in the period described . . . the first one by a person who knows the facts and also having escaped can tell them.”13 “It is a novel about Man against the State,” she wrote. “Its basic theme is the sanctity of human life—using the word ‘sanctity’ not in a mystical sense, but in the sense of ‘supreme value.’”14
Kira Argounova, a strong-willed young woman, wants to be an engineer at a time and place where most people think this is an inappropriate career for a female. She falls in love with a man whose family ties to Russia’s old regime make him a target of the communists, and the two must take desperate measures to stay alive.
It is a heartbreaking portrait of the inhuman lives so many were forced to live in communist Russia, many details of which were plucked directly from Rand’s early life.15 After the Soviets came to power, she witnessed the country descend into poverty and oppression. Businesses were seized from “bourgeois” owners, including Rand’s father, who owned a pharmacy—and, in the book, Kira’s father, who owned a textile factory.
Anything beyond the most basic commodities was impossible to find or unaffordable for the great majority of people—and even the basics were difficult to get. “Have you ever tried pancakes of coffee grounds and treacle, citizens?,” asks a character in the book. Those few who somehow did get decent food often attracted the enmity of those who lacked it. In one memorable scene, a woman asks two gentlemen to leave a private train compartment so she can be alone for a moment.
Left alone where no one could watch her, the lady in the fur coat opened her handbag furtively and unwrapped a little bundle of oiled paper. She did not want anyone in the car to know that she had a whole boiled potato. She ate hurriedly in big, hysterical bites, choking, trying not to be heard beyond the closed door.16
Tragic as it is, We the Living is still inspiring—thanks to Kira who, through it all, remains unbowed. And, of course, the book is extremely illuminating—giving readers a front-row seat to the sorts of daily indignities that helped shape Rand’s hatred of collectivism and spurred her efforts to promote freedom, the basis of human flourishing. She writes, in the book’s introduction:
Volumes can be and have been written about the issue of freedom versus dictatorship, but, in essence, it comes down to a single question: do you consider it moral to treat men as sacrificial animals and to rule them by physical force? If, as a citizen of the freest country in the world, you do not know what this would actually mean—We the Living will help you to know.17
We the Living is the shortest of Rand’s novels and also, in her view, the one with the best, most tightly integrated plot. Start here if you’d like a peek behind the curtain that today obscures one of the 20th century’s most murderous regimes—or if you’re interested in Rand’s development into one of that century’s most powerful proponents of liberty.
Rand’s second work of published fiction, Anthem is a novella of just over one hundred pages that even slow readers can get through in a few hours. She likened it to “the preliminary sketches which artists draw for the future big canvases.” “I wrote [Anthem] while working on The Fountainhead,” she said. “[I]t has the same spirit and intention, although in quite a different form.”18
Anthem peers into a dystopian future through the journal of Equality 7-2521, a young man who—in an authoritarian state run by thoroughgoing collectivists—is too curious and independent to remain safe there. He is interested in science and invention but must hide his work, and even his thoughts, from the all-powerful state. “It is a sin to write this,” he reports, in the book’s opening lines.
It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we are speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws. The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!19
Written in a sparse first-person, Anthem, stylistically, is unlike Rand’s other works, so stripped down and essentialized that it hits readers as pure force and leaves them in an afterglow of near blinding clarity. To Rose Wilder Lane (credited, alongside Rand and Isabel Patterson, with launching the libertarian movement), Rand described the book as a poem. Indeed, it is an ode to the spirit of the Enlightenment, breaking the bonds of superstition and authoritarianism that, for centuries, kept men in the dark. Yet it’s also a heart-rending love story, exemplifying the power of Rand’s prose, the efficiency with which she evokes emotion. In The Fountainhead, Rand writes of Howard Roark’s architectural drawings: “The structures were austere and simple, until one looked at them and realized what work, what complexity of method, what tension of thought had achieved the simplicity.”20 The same could be said of Anthem.
Rand wrote the novella thinking it might be serialized in a magazine. Unfortunately, she was unable to get it placed. Although she had already attracted some interest with the publication of We the Living and quickly found a UK publisher for Anthem, the novella remained unpublished in America until 1946, when Leonard Read (who, that same year, founded the Foundation for Economic Education) published it as a pamphlet. It’s an exciting story, inspiring the prog-rock band Rush enough to record a twenty-minute song in homage to it (“2112”). It conveys the core of what Rand is all about, though without the psychological depth afforded by the “god’s-eye view” of third-person narration. Nonetheless, it’s a great place to start, brief enough to savor in a single sitting—and to re-read as often as you like.
Rand also wrote short stories and plays, some of which remained unpublished during her life, including a play titled Ideal. The heroine is an actress, who at one point says:
I want to see, real, living, and in the hours of my own days, that glory I create as an illusion. I want it real. I want to know that there is someone, somewhere, who wants it, too. Or else what is the use of seeing it, and working, and burning oneself for an impossible vision? A spirit, too, needs fuel. It can run dry.21
Spiritual fuel. That’s what Rand’s fiction provides. “Throughout the centuries,” she wrote in The Fountainhead, “there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed.”22
Rand was one such creator, and we can see her unborrowed vision in Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living, and Anthem. In different ways, each of these books heightens one’s vision, enabling readers to look at life and the world as if from the top of a towering mountain—while simultaneously catching the meaning of the minutest gestures and the profundity of everyday experiences.
So, my recommendation: Start with whichever best connects with your current interests, whether that’s building a career you love based on your own values (The Fountainhead), understanding the history (We the Living) and/or essence (Atlas Shrugged) of the conflict between individualism and collectivism, or seeing that conflict in the “dramatic fantasy,” as Rand put it, of a poetic mini epic (Anthem).
Enjoy the journey, and feel free to email me with any questions. I’m always game to discuss Rand’s works!
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1. Ayn Rand “The Goal of My Writing,” The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition (New York: Signet, 1975), 163–64.
2. Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” 169.
3. Ayn Rand “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Romantic Manifesto, 23.
4. Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” 16.
5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 50th anniversary edition (New York: Signet, 1957), 24–25.
6. Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” 163.
7. Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” 162.
8. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, centennial edition (New York: Plume, 1994), 11.
9. Rand, The Fountainhead, 13.
10. Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Signet, 1961), 73.
11. “An Interview with Leonard Peikoff,” Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, edited by Robert Mayhew (Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2007), 330–31.
12. Leonard Peikoff, “Afterword,” in Ayn Rand, We the Living (New York: New American Library, 2009), 448.
13. Ayn Rand to Jean Wick, March 23, 1934, in Letters of Ayn Rand, edited by Micheal S. Berliner (New York: Plume, 1997), 4.
14. Rand, “Introduction,” We the Living.
15. See Dina Schein Federman, “We the Living and the Rosenbaum Family Letters,” and Scott McConnell, “Parallel Lives: Models and Inspirations for Characters in We the Living,” both in Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living, second edition, edited by Robert Mayhew (Plymouth, UK: Lanham Books, 2012).
16. Rand, We the Living, 8.
17. Rand, We the Living, “Introduction.”
18. Quoted in Ayn Rand, Anthem, centennial edition (New York: Plume, 2005), v.
19. Rand, Anthem, 17.
20. Rand, The Fountainhead, 7.
21. From Ayn Rand, Ideal, quoted in The Fountainhead, viii.
22. Rand, The Fountainhead, 710.