If not now, when? Ayn Rand is being hailed for her uncanny ability to project societal trends, as our limping economy and mushrooming government begin to look more and more like the decaying America her novel depicted more than a half-century ago. Her influence on today’s political debates is indisputable — even though Paul Ryan, who gave her books to his staff and says she inspired his political career, now actively distances himself from her philosophy. And the second installment of the Atlas Shrugged movie opens October 12, promising to draw even more attention to Rand and her ideas.

Not surprisingly, with all the attention, the culture is suddenly full of pundits and instant Rand experts eager to describe her ideas in a nutshell. And it’s natural to consider all this commentary in deciding whether Rand’s novels and essays are worth reading for yourself.

But be careful; unfortunately, much of the commentary on Rand gets her badly wrong.

It’s common, for instance, to hear that Rand’s is a plutocratic philosophy — “of the wealthy, by the wealthy, for the wealthy,” says Paul Krugman — one that favors “the rich” against “the poor.” Yet she rejects such categorization. The real distinction she draws in Atlas Shrugged is between thinking, productive individuals at all income levels versus the irrational and unproductive, among whom she includes worthless, political-pull-peddling CEOs.

Others claim that Rand’s open advocacy of egoism — she even wrote a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness” — is proof that she blithely endorsed cruel predation against poor and weak people. Except that Rand explicitly rejected this account of selfishness, offering in its place a revolutionary morality that rejects sacrifice of any kind — sacrifice of self to others, but also of others to self. Rand’s new concept of “selfishness” — in which “every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others” — holds that one cannot achieve personal happiness by treating others as masters to be served or as victims to be exploited. The irony is that she is accused, by commentators who miss her central point, of endorsing precisely the form of vicious “selfishness” she so meticulously exposed and rejected.

Strangest of all are the sneering attacks that Rand is unreadable. This despite legions of fans who found Atlas a riveting page-turner. You probably know someone who couldn’t put the book down — who dropped everything else for three days to race through its thousand pages toward resolution of the plot’s intriguing mysteries. What’s more, people in all walks of life — from CEOs to office assistants — describe reading Atlas Shrugged as a life-changing experience. This is why sales of the novel have continued to increase, decade by decade, and why, as October 10 marks its 55th publication anniversary, it’s still flying off the shelves like a just-issued bestseller — more than 445,000 copies in 2011 alone.

So if you’re not familiar with Rand’s work, be wary of taking at face value anything you see or hear about her ideas. (This very article emphatically included. Don’t take my word for it. If what I say intrigues you, read her firsthand and then judge for yourself.)

Regrettably, this applies also to the Atlas Shrugged movies — both to Part 1, released in April 2011, and to Part 2 (which I caught at a pre-opening screening in Hollywood). If you were hoping to skip the book and just catch the films, I’m sorry to say that they’re not even close to the real thing. I don’t envy anyone the challenge of trying to condense Rand’s complex story into a movie, but the first two installments leave out the drama and richness of her tightly integrated plot, the complexity of her characters, and the depth of her philosophical ideas.

You’d do better to make some popcorn at home and curl up with the actual book. If you want to understand the ideas of one of today’s most important thinkers — and enjoy a moving literary experience — there’s no better time to read Atlas Shrugged than right now.