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Power to uplift remains

My Atlas Shrugged is a 19-year-old paperback from the public library. It has the heft of a phone book. I had tried a used-book store, but was told they can't keep Ayn Rand's books in stock.

God knows where my first copy is. Lost a thousand addresses ago. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 16. I had transferred to a new high school and read it while sitting by myself at lunchtime. I was a 110-pound C student whose only salable skills were mowing lawns and igniting fireworks, but I also was, in Rand's words, "a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest achievement, and reason as his only absolute."

But what am I now? I expected, on my first rereading of Atlas Shrugged after nearly 40 years, to feel flip and jaded. Rand, after all, was more demagogue than artist. Her novels are Cold War manifestos. The world she despised crumbled when the Berlin Wall did. Her characters even make speeches after making love: "I will sit at my desk, and work, and when the things around me get hard to bear, I will think that for my reward I will be in your bed that night. Did you call it depravity? I am much more depraved than you are: You hold it as your guilt, and I _ as my pride. . . . If I'm asked to name my proudest attainment, I will say: I have slept with Hank Rearden. I have earned it."

What am I now? Where did I leave my absolutes? Rereading Atlas Shrugged, silly sex and all, makes me want to ask that. What am I now? I would like to be that person I was then. In the school cafeteria. Reading each word is if it were a key. Absorbing myself so completely I lost sense of loneliness. Wishing I could be heroic, with happiness as my moral purpose. I am he again now, as I write this. I feel it, here, alone in blue fluorescence on a Saturday evening, lost inside Atlas Shrugged. Or maybe I wish it. I am either close to an old, forgotten joy, or to false echo, breakdown.

My library copy may not have many reads left in it. The lower third of the cover is gone, with a jagged tear across the middle. The pages _ all 1,084 of them _ look and feel like parchment. The type is so small it looks like the fine print in a life insurance policy. "Oh my God," said a friend who saw it on my desk, "I read Atlas Shrugged eight times."

She had a faraway, questioning look.