Move Over, Ayn Rand

A new poll of Americans' favorite books provides an excuse to review the shifting political zeitgeist. And for once, it's good news.

By Nathan Pippenger

Over at The New Republic, Chloe Schama has flagged a new poll of Americans’ favorite books. Conducted by Harris, it finds that the country’s favorite text is the Bible—unsurprisingly, a repeat champion (it was also the top result when the poll was last taken in 2008). It’s true, as Schama cautions, that it’s “a bit presumptuous to outline any kind of cultural DNA from a list,” but it’s a fun game nonetheless, so let’s take a look: What else has changed in the last six years?

To my eyes, there’s an interesting—if admittedly speculative—political-economic narrative to explain the changes in the list. In 2008, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged came in ninth, anticipating a minor renaissance in Objectivism that surely peaked in recent years and has recently been in merciful retreat. Indeed, Rand is nowhere to be found on the 2014 list, and think of what has happened to her reputation in the interim: After the financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, Rand reemerged as a prophet of the coming collectivist dystopia. In January 2011, newly-minted senator and one-time teenage Objectivist Rand Paul took office, and by April he was using congressional committee hearings to summarize his hero’s novels. That same month, NPR reported that Atlas Shrugged had sold over a million copies just since the 2008 election. The peak of the Randian revival surely came in August 2012, when Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate—the congressman who, in 2005, told an Objectivist think-tank audience that “[T]he reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”

How quickly things have changed! Not only has Rand vanished from Americans’ top-10 list; the film adaptations of her novels have been box-office flops. President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” quote—the ultimate poke-in-the-eye to hardcore individualists—failed to derail his reelection (despite being the obsessive focus of the GOP convention). The last-ditch attempts to stop Obamacare went nowhere, and the law now seems to be permanently in place and working pretty well. Even Paul Ryan is embarking on sober publicity listening tours (complete with credulous reporters) where he meets and speaks with poor people, instead of lecturing them on his moral superiority, in proper Objectivist fashion. Rand has hardly faded from political consciousness, but her theories and disciples were nearly inescapable just two years ago—leading Alan Wolfe to worry at the time that “should the Republicans actually win in 2012, we might need to study her in the academic world.”

Luckily, America and its academics escaped that fate. And now in 2014, with Piketty on the public mind and Rand in decline, another famous American novel has emerged on the Harris list, just cracking the country’s favorites at the number 10 spot. It not only has something Atlas Shrugged lacks (artistic merit)—it’s also a searing look at the nasty, duplicitous, petty, and unfulfilling world created by rampant inequality and money-worship. What a tonic it is to wave goodbye to Ayn Rand and say hello to The Great Gatsby.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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