There you go: buy a 400 page book, and then discover that it’s a 100 page book plus 300 pages of “original material” with commentary and other stuff. Disappointing, not because it’s really only 100 pages, but because I had packed it for the beach – and I can definitely read 100 pages in under an hour, leaving me without much to do but counting grains of sand and waves crashing onto shore.
Anthem is yet another one of Ayn Rand’s messages of individualism. For those of you who don’t know her (anyone?), she is a philosopher that created this school called Objectivism. The goal of Objectivism is to assert the individual’s rights with respect to the collective or society and to affirm that it is immoral for society to downsize the individual for the good of the all. Worse, it is inefficient: society, according to Ayn Rand, grows faster and better if everyone is left to their own devices.
In 2008, that message sounds like so much duh! In her time, the early part of the 20th century, it was quite necessary: Communism was teaching quite the opposite, that the collective mattered and not the individual. And Communism was enjoying widespread acceptance, especially in the intelligentsia that formed the background to Rand’s life and work.
Of her books, Atlas Shrugged is the one closest to a novel. It has characters, a story line, a plot: it works. Anthem is more of a rant, a very brief story about a young man in a post-apocalyptic society. He tries to fit in with the all-absorbing collective, but doesn’t. He is rebellious and smart, and he will find a way to do incredible things where the collective just wants to plod on.
He falls in love with a woman and the two end up eloping, leaving the collective and building a life of their own in a house abandoned during the apocalypse, located in a forest declared untouchable.
What the modern reader notices is not Objectivism and its by now quite affirmed principles, but the shameless racism and stereotyping. It is not by coincidence that the first thing we get to know about the protagonist is that he is a tall aryan, and that his stature is alone a ground for mistreatment in a collective dominated, presumably, by short hairy guys (like me).
His wife, of course another tall aryan woman, is remarkable because she is so terrifyingly submissive to him. In a philosophy devoted to individualism created by a woman, you’d think there would be place for a self-affirming, strong woman. Instead, once this protagonist breaks with the collective and joins the male, she flings herself at his mercy (literally) and lets him make all decisions.
You can forgive Ayn Rand a lot of trite and dull writing. After all, she was primarily a philosopher, and her ideas dominate her books. Once in a rare while, her ranting stops and she find a lyrical moment, and then she can really hit her stride and leave a mark. Mostly, though, you read through the pages and find she simply repeats the same concepts over and over again, and her stories are an incessant repeating of the evil of the collective and the superiority of the individual, mixed with an unhealthy dose of persecution of the strong by the weak.
In Anthem, the full last chapter is devoted to a monologue of the male protagonist (who gives himself the name Prometheus) on affirming his individual strength and the evil of the collective. It’s so repetitive and dull, you can safely skip it entirely. The odd thing is that Ayn Rand spent a ton of time stripping the book-let of the unnecessary, and didn’t even notice how unnecessary her final rant really was.
I say: skip, and if you must read her, go for the Atlas. Then again, if it’s for school, can’t beat the 100 page sweet shortness.