Heller’s book is very good and gives a thorough account of Rand’s life. On the whole, I found it somewhat less interesting than Burns’ account. Burns is a political historian and focuses primarily on Rand’s political thought and her impact on libertarianism and other pro-free market political forces. By contrast, Heller focuses much more on Rand the person. For example, Burns has extensive discussions of Rand’s conflicts and disagreements with other leading libertarian thinkers of the period, such as Hayek and Friedman. One of these two isn’t even mentioned by Heller, and the other is only noted in passing.
That said, Heller’s book does have a wealth of fascinating material for those readers whose primary interest is in Ayn Rand as such, rather than her connection to broader political or intellectual movements. The overall picture of Rand is not always a flattering one. As in Burns’ book, she comes off as obnoxious and intolerant of opposing views, and often mistreating her friends, family members and supporters. It is telling that Rand ended up breaking ties with nearly all her friends and Objectivist movement allies, often over petty disputes. From both Heller and Burns, I get the impression that Rand did not read widely in the works of other political thinkers, even libertarian ones (Ludwig von Mises excepted). That is a shame, since her own writings could have been improved by greater engagement with the work of others.
At the same time, there is much to admire about Rand as well, including her willingness to challenge the dominant statist conventional wisdom of the day, and the determination and dedication that enabled her to rise from penniless immigrant to bestselling author and influential political thinker. Even in her personal relations with members of her movement, the intolerance and dogmatism that drove people away was to some extent balanced by an intelligence and charisma that led many brilliant people to join her circle; people like Nathaniel Branden, Alan Greenspan, John Hospers, and Martin Anderson. Despite her many flaws, Ayn Rand was an inspirational figure, in ways captured by co-blogger David Bernstein. Hopefully, today’s free market advocates can learn from Rand’s successes without repeating her mistakes.
UPDATE: Josh Blackman has an interesting interview with Heller here.