This is the latest incarnation of an email I’ve sent to a few friends to give some context and offer helpful leads in their investigations. Feel free to copy or adapt it for your own use!
Hi, Anonymized. You mentioned that you were looking around the web for information on Objectivism and Rand. Heh, that should prove entertaining: there are a lot of cranks and confusions to get tangled up in. So now I feel compelled to defend the honor by offering a few carefully-selected links for your propagandistic enjoyment. :^)
Seriously, though, it is a large topic and an extremely challenging one to assess fairly. She and her philosophy are recent enough that the signal-to-noise ratio regarding them are pretty horrid compared to the (still not exactly sterling) levels found with centuries-dead philosophers and their ideas — and this goes for both detractors and defenders. With that warning, though, it isn’t hopeless. Wikipedia, for example, is really weak in the more detailed articles, but the top-level entries for Rand, Objectivism, and the Objectivist movement are pretty reasonable to check out (with an extra dash of salt, of course).
However, if you want a clear overview from which to form your own judgment, I would suggest checking out some material from Rand herself, along with the top specialists in Objectivism. Summaries and explanations for any topic can range from elevator-pitch length, to a couple minutes for a hallway appetizer, all the way up to full volumes on the subject and then technical treatises on ever-narrower aspects of it. Probably the most productive way to approach a vast topic like this would be to begin with the anchor of an “elevator summary” and then spiral over the system at increasing levels of detail and completeness, amplifying on and further integrating what you’ve seen with each pass.
So with that path in mind, here is the best single-sentence summary of Objectivism I know of. It is by Rand, from an about-the-author appendix to her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, and while it is extremely broad, it really does nail the fundamental spirit of the system:
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
Then spiraling over that same domain again but in a different and more detailed way, there is a little single-page summary of the essentials of Objectivism by her, and the people at the Ayn Rand Institute also have a one-page discussion of what is important and distinctive about the philosophy.
Slicing through from another direction, here is Dr. Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, with a very nice series of bite-sized articles (one, two, three, and four) introducing people to the spirit of Objectivism as a moral philosophy for human life and happiness here on earth.
Taking it up another notch, you might enjoy this nice 11-page summary of the philosophy that was written for a general audience. It is from an excellent quarterly journal of culture and politics that presents analyses from an Objectivist perspective (the editor Craig Biddle wrote it to introduce and set some context for the journal).
Shorter and more technical, but probably the most impressive link I have on this front is a brief overview of Rand and Objectivism (a mere 2500 words), authored by Greg Salmieri and Dr. Allan Gotthelf for a dictionary of modern philosophers. They accomplished so much in so little space, and so brilliantly — reading it feels almost like reading a poem.
Finally, there is this brief summary in about ten pages (fairly dense with more references to the history of philosophy) by Rand’s top student, Dr. Leonard Peikoff, taken from the appendix of his first book. (His second book is a wonderful summary 50 times as long. :^)
Those are still only a taste, of course, and would (should!) leave lots of questions and concerns to be explored. The next pass in the spiral might best involve actually going through a book by Rand herself. A friend who went off to Chicago a few years back dropped me a note out of the blue asking for a lead on that, so I’ll recycle my response below.
> I’ve never read Rand, but would like to. Where do you suggest I start?
How cool. Hmm, it depends a bit on your purposes. You didn’t specify fiction or nonfiction, or ask about any particular branch or domain in philosophy (e.g., theory of knowledge, ethics, politics, aesthetics), so I’ll stay away from purely nonfiction works that are more focused or dry and technical. That leads us to either of two great places to start, based on time and tastes:
1. The Ayn Rand Reader (500 pages, 194k words, about $14)
In the introduction, co-editor Leonard Peikoff talks about how Rand has a lot of published material and many time-pressed readers wouldn’t know where to begin or how to select a representative sample. “The present book is designed to meet these needs. … this anthology is intended as an entree for those who know little or nothing about her. Each of her four novels and [her nonfiction work in] every branch of philosophy are represented within its pages, even if only in brief excerpts. Whoever finishes the book, therefore, can say in all conscience that he knows the essence of [Rand] — and that he knows it by means of actually having read her.” (Please be careful, though: this book contains major spoilers and you’ll seriously miss out if you read Rand’s novels some day.)
2. Atlas Shrugged (1100 pages, 561k words, about $12 for the size that doesn’t require a magnifying glass)
Rand’s artistic and philosophic magnum opus, a novel that has rightfully earned a place in the Western canon. It is no hyperbolic exaggeration to call this an innovative and gripping story that both embodies and presents an entire, revolutionary system of thought in an astonishing display of literary and philosophic integration. As far as I know, that feat is unprecedented in the history of literature, and it would be impressive independent of whether or not the ideas made any sense at all. What’s over the top from my perspective is that in almost two decades of poking and prodding and holding her ideas up to the harshest scrutiny I can find in myself or others, I have yet to discover an essential that she didn’t nail. The chick was that good.
While you are waiting for one of those meaty tomes to arrive, you could entertain yourself with her little blockbuster gem of a novella, Anthem, written a decade before another big dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984. It is still in print and selling well, but also out of copyright and available on the web, and you could probably read the whole thing in about two hours. While stylistically unlike anything else by Rand, I can see why she described it as dear to her spiritually, a poem, a hymn.
Updates: a few tweaks; added Onkar’s New Statesman article series (HT: Ergo); added spoiler disclaimer on the Reader (HT: Aeon)