Ayn Rand was a twentieth century novelist and philosopher who wrote two classic novels and created a new philosophy called "Objectivism." As a novelist, her writing is full of implicit and explicit philosophic content, so that her novels are not only terrific fiction, but also illustrate, in the form of concrete characters and events, what are otherwise challenging and difficult ideas. As a contemporary philosopher, she was unique in rejecting the entire modern and post-modern (Kantian) tradition. Instead, she chose to correct, develop, integrate and systematize the ideas of Aristotle and John Locke to the extent of creating an essentially new philosophy filled with her own innovative discoveries. Although she was not an academic and wrote for a popular audience, she nevertheless addressed nearly all of the major issues in technical philosophy. As a result, in recent years there has been a rapidly increasing presence of Objectivist philosophers in academia.
I was first introduced to her ideas in the early 1980s when a friend gave me a copy of her novel The Fountainhead. Reading The Fountainhead had three effects on me. First, it clarified my understanding of myself, of others, and of what's important in life. Second, it inspired me to spend three years writing a book of my own original ideas about drumming. And third, it spurred an intense interest in philosophy in general and Objectivism in particular that I've pursued to the extent of subsequently earning a bachelor's degree in the subject. Now, after having studied the history of philosophy in detail, I've found myself even more impressed with Rand's achievements.
In my opinion, there is nothing better one can do for oneself than to gain an understanding of philosophy, and no better or more pleasurable way to initially immerse oneself in the subject than to read the fiction of Ayn Rand. Starting with fiction is, surprisingly enough, the best way to begin gaining an understanding of a philosophic system because it demonstrates concretely, rather than explaining abstractly, the system's ideas.
For anyone interested, I recommend starting as I did with my favorite novel, The Fountainhead. In addition to its philosophic content, it's a great story that's easy and pleasurable to read.
If, after reading the Fountainhead, you find yourself intrigued, you'll probably want to read the novel that Rand herself considered to be her masterpiece, and that contains a brief outline of her entire philosophic system, Atlas Shrugged.
(To those interested in gaining deeper insights into the characters and ideas of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, pages 223-234 of The Journals of Ayn Rand provides a fascinating adjunct to the former, Cliffnotes Rand's Atlas Shrugged to the latter.)
After reading Ayn Rand's fiction, you may be motivated to explore Rand's ideas, as well as the general subject of philosophy, systematically and in detail. If so, here is my advice on the best way to proceed.
An excellent bridge between Ayn Rand's fiction and her philosophy is provided by two books. The Ayn Rand Reader presents a well chosen collection of Rand's fiction and non-fiction writings that pertain to pure philosophy. A useful bridge is also provided by the excellent book Who Is Ayn Rand?, which is currently out of print but is generally easy to find by searching ebay using the keywords "Who is Ayn Rand."
Rand's top protégé is a professional philosopher named Leonard Peikoff, who, after studying with her for thirty years, wrote a non-fiction treatise on her complete system, called Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. This book is the clearest and best written work on general philosophy that I'm aware of. It address all of the major issues in all the major branches of philosophy systematically and in hierarchical order, usually giving three or so concrete examples to illustrate and "bring to earth" each abstract principle. In short, it is so well thought out and written that it is pleasurable and even exciting to read, particularly after being "primed" by reading Rand's novels.
Dr. Peikoff is not only a writer, but also an exceptionally good teacher and speaker. To complete a basic philosophic education, from here I recommend going in two further directions simultaneously. First, to deepen your understanding of Objectivism, I recommend taking his excellent lecture course, Understanding Objectivism, (also available now in book form), followed by another excellent course, Objectivism Through Induction. Second, to gain an overview of the entire history of Western philosophy, I recommend taking Dr. Peikoff's wonderful lecture courses, Founders of Western Philosophy: Thales to Hume, Modern Philosophy: Kant to the Present, and Introduction to Logic. And, of course, from here you'll likely want to explore more of Rand's and Peikoff's writing on philosophy, including Rand's book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and Peikoff's books The Ominous Parallels and The DIM Hypothesis.
Looking for a shorter, simpler introduction involving less commitment? Try reading my favorite Rand novel, The Fountainhead followed by my two favorite brief lectures by Peikoff, My Thirty Years With Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir, and Why Should One Act on Principle? At 90 minutes and $4 each, these lectures represent a very small commitment of time and money, and are what personally motivated my to begin my exploration of these ideas many years ago.