Who is Ayn Rand?

This morning we conclude our preview of the Spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books with Charles Murray’s intensely interesting review of the two new biographies of Rand published within weeks of each other last year: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, by Jennifer Burns, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne Heller.
Rand is a fascinating figure whose books retain an enduring interest. Murray begins his review with this startling observation:

In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943).

Even though interest in Rand’s books never flagged, her moment arrived again in response to the advent of the Age of Obama. Interest in her books has never been stronger. And Rand is a striking figure in her own right, a Russian Jewish immigrant to America every bit as self-invented as Fitzgerald’s fictional Jay Gatsby.
Part of the interest of Murray’s review is the personal element that Murray brings to his consideration of Rand and of the biographies. Mentioning Heller’s account of Rand’s 30-year use of amphetamines, for example, Murray writes:

As anyone who has had the experience knows, a good way to get a really, really distorted sense of reality is to swallow a couple of Dexedrines. If you want to take them anyway, don’t go around bragging [as Rand did] that you never “fake reality in any manner.”

Heller sympathetically describes Rand’s novels as melodramas of ideas. Whatever their limitations, Rand’s novels have had a positive influence on prominent Americans, Alan Greenspan probably foremost among them. We learn from reading Murray’s review that he belongs on that list of prominent Americans as well. (For a contrasting estimate of Rand, see “Ayn Rand: The engineer of souls” by Anthony Daniels in the February 2010 issue of the New Criterion.)
This issue of the CRB may be the best in the magazine’s ten-year history, but the magazine is consistently excellent. There is nothing like it in the world of conservative periodicals. Please consider subscribing here.
UPDATE: Ed Driscoll writes to note that earlier this year he conducted a 12-minute video interview with Jennifer Burns that is accessible here. Last fall’s Cato Institute program jointly featuring Burns and Heller was broadcast on C-SPAN 2 and is accessible on video here.

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