On September 15, Dan Brown's sequel to The Da Vinci Code and Jon Krakauer's biography of Pat Tillman were released, the day after Edward M. Kennedy's memoir went on sale. Immense stacks of the books littered Elliott Bay Book Company, so even the idiots could find them. More idiot-proof stacks of books filled gaudy window displays in Borders and Barnes & Noble. QFCs that day had tables with the books pyramided on top and a big yellow sign trumpeting a 40 percent discount. It was almost easier to buy the books than to not buy them.
Over the last decade, adults have only cared about publishing on the release of hugely popular children's books like Twilight or the Harry Potter series. Which is why it's so extraordinary that September 15 was possibly the biggest day the adult publishing industry has ever seen, a day in which tens of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of people who probably never buy books at all, walked into bookstores with specific titles in mind.
Kennedy's battle with a malignant brain tumor helped elevate his upcoming memoir to the biggest political autobiography since Bill Clinton's My Life. Krakauer's follow-up to Under the Banner of Heaven (his best-selling true-crime novel and historical account of the seamy underbelly of the Mormon Church) is about the sketchy death-by-friendly-fire of a football star and American icon. Brown's cryptographic thriller starring symbologist Robert Langdon is—with the possible exception of the conclusion to the Harry Potter series—the most anticipated book of the new millennium. It immediately broke sales records on its release, with one million copies sold in the first 24 hours, easily crushing Bill Clinton's record for single-day adult sales.
On the big day, I bought all three books at Elliott Bay Book Company. The bookstore sold 20 copies of The Lost Symbol that day. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a strong showing for a store that famously doesn't discount titles in the way of the big-box bookstores. (The books were available for as much as 75 percent off at some retailers.) And Seattle's reputation as a city of literary snobs is accurate: Several local independent booksellers report that the Kennedy and Krakauer books are outselling The Lost Symbol, at times by a huge margin.
I read all three in a week: That's 1,424 pages, six pounds of words. The urgency of plowing through the same books that everyone in the world has to read Right Now made the act of reading feel less like a thoughtful endeavor than watching a popular movie that is favored to win the Oscars. Nobody is watching those movies because they're feeling especially curious about the Holocaust; they're watching them to earn cultural currency at the water cooler.
Dan Brown sends critics into seething fits of epilepsy. He's popular, but nobody can claim with a straight face that he writes quality prose; his sentences are clumsily constructed transporters of trivia and plot points, and they barrel into each other awkwardly. During action scenes, they move too quickly, and so the sequence of events can be confusing or underdeveloped. During expository scenes, they stutter to a stop before it's time, abruptly creating cliff-hangers to force our protagonists to run again.
"I can't believe we didn't see it! It has been staring us right in the face... Dean Galloway," Katherine said. "If you read the ring it says—"
"Stop!" The old dean suddenly raised his finger in the air and motioned for silence... "Leave me in darkness for the moment. I would prefer to have no information to share should our visitors try to force me."
"Visitors?" Katherine said, listening, "I don't hear anyone."
"You will," Galloway said, heading for the door. "Hurry."
His vocabulary is meager and threadbare: Every character in The Lost Symbol "chuckles," either menacingly or warmly, on what seems like every other page, leaving the reader to pray for the sudden appearance of a guffaw or a chortle or even a braying whinny.
But nobody expects good writing from Brown. They expect action and suspense. They expect whole airplane rides to disappear. The Lost Symbol is narcotic in its way, perhaps because of the way the writing shines when Brown writes about consumer products. He lovingly describes Langdon's "collector's edition Mickey Mouse watch" that his parents gave him to remind him "to slow down and take life less seriously." People don't just drive trucks—they drive shiny, GPS-equipped Escalades. They talk on iPhones and Blackberries and make references to the much-coveted secret formula for Coca-Cola Classic. The book's burnished surfaces glow like a brand-new catalog.
Symbol begins, promisingly, with a severed hand providing a ghastly clue that might just unlock the ancient mysteries built into Washington, D.C. Many of the standard Brown-isms are on display, like his fetish for skin disorders. The Da Vinci Code had an albino monk and Symbol has two oddly skinned characters: a man with tattoos all over his body and a tiny CIA agent who suffers from "a dermatological condition known as vitiligo, which gave her complexion the mottled look of coarse granite blotched with lichen."
Whereas Code was a lean whippet of a thriller, Symbol sprawls too far and overreaches too often. Brown makes an unpleasant foray into winking self-awareness with an editor who desperately wants Langdon's long-awaited next book, and parts of the story involve What the Bleep Do We Know!?–style feel-good physics. A climactic plot twist involving the evil tattooed man is so painfully obvious, it makes everything that came before seem dumber. Much in the way that The Da Vinci Code served as an unauthorized fictionalization of an earlier book (the pleasantly loony Holy Blood, Holy Grail), Brown lifts a major plot twist from a science-fiction movie and nods to his source in the same passage. ("In 1989, TLV technology made a dramatic appearance in the movie The Abyss, although few viewers realized that they were watching real science.") But you know what you're going to get when you buy a Dan Brown thriller: improbable plot twists, unexciting main characters slowly cracking codes, and a tidy, exposition-heavy ending. Symbol has so much more of these elements that it gets a little boring in the latter 200 pages—which, for a Dan Brown book, is a cardinal sin.
Ted Kennedy (and his ghostwriter, Ron Powers) displays a Brown-ish eagerness to please in True Compass. His (their?) tone is easy and genial and forgiving, as an old man should be at the end of his life, and politically like-minded readers can't help but be charmed by his calm good cheer. Compass doesn't ring with the twinkling Irish bravado of, say, Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes, but the stories fly by with competence and clarity (an early anecdote about how as a child Kennedy found his arm elbow-deep in the mouth of a hungry zebra is appropriately absurd and hilarious).
Kennedy displays a disappointing lack of self-awareness (he admits to drinking to excess on various occasions, but offhandedly denies a drinking problem, even as he discusses drunkenly leading people in "childish chants of 'Eskimo Power!'" on government aircraft), and political junkies looking for juicy tidbits will no doubt feel unsatisfied. Kennedy relates a story about a clueless Ronald Reagan twice derailing a conversation about the shoe industry by telling the same meandering story about cowboy boots, but he ultimately equivocates by concluding these memories with a lukewarm "I feel that Ronald Reagan led the country in the wrong direction."
While Kennedy shows some signs of contrition for the events at Chappaquiddick and a few political failures, that's about it in terms of insight—the sexy gossip will no doubt come in a thick biography sometime soon. Compass succeeds in the way that it intends to succeed: It's a fond, rose-colored recollection by an enormous figure in American history, and it's appropriately sentimental: "Atonement is a process that never ends. I believe that. Maybe it's a New England thing, or an Irish thing, or a Catholic thing. Maybe all of those things. But it's as it should be." It's genuinely touching.
Readers expecting political fireworks in Where Men Win Glory will be let down. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists have long postulated that the United States government assassinated Pat Tillman because he had grown displeased with the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being handled. Although he acknowledges Tillman's disillusionment with America's response to September 11, Jon Krakauer doesn't support the execution hypothesis.
More disappointingly, the first part of Glory is a poorly structured mess. Krakauer tries to tell the story of Tillman's rise in professional football concurrently with the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan until they intertwine on September 11. Although the reader knows that Tillman will ultimately die in Afghanistan, the juxtaposition of the two backstories can be awkward, as when Krakauer writes a bridging sentence that attempts to connect the deaths of 17 United States soldiers with a personal triumph for Tillman: "Three days after the attack on the USS Cole, Tillman made nineteen tackles in a 14–33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles." Since Erik Larson's cunning The Devil in the White City, it has become de rigueur for authors of nonfiction books to intertwine two narratives into one cohesive whole, but Afghanistan is too large a subject to fuse easily with Tillman's story. The immense lesson in geopolitics makes the biographical sketch seem frivolous.
Krakauer also indulges in some unprofessional hero worship, and his clear affection for his subject muddies the storytelling in a way that didn't weigh down his previous books—especially the raw, unsentimental portrait of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild. This results in some uncharacteristically bad writing: "Although imbibing was certainly one of Tillman's great pleasures, his favorite beverage wasn't alcoholic. It was coffee, which ran through his life like the Ganges runs through India, lending commonality to disparate experiences and far-flung points of the compass."
Halfway through, Tillman joins the U.S. Army Rangers, and Krakauer the journalist takes the reins again. The book becomes a superbly reported account of all the things that can go wrong when you give righteous young men weapons and send them into a foreign land under false pretenses. The Krakauer of the second half—more analytic and less florid—paints the tragedy of Tillman's life far better than the too-respectful Krakauer of the first half ever could.
All three of these titles try to elaborate on myths and legends: the Kennedys, the football player who went to go get bin Laden, the sequel to the biggest-selling adult fiction book since, well, the Bible. And each of them are confounded—and, in some ways, defeated—by the huge expectations they brought to their publication. For one week, the publishing industry wrestled with the kind of enormous financial and cultural expectations that the film industry deals with every week of the year. These expectations are too much for publishing to bear. Event books like this—enormous, mass-market affairs that are hyped to the heavens before their release—almost never satisfy in the way that they should. If there's something to learn from this steroidal week in publishing history, it's that books are best when they're quiet, less urgent, and not so much of a spectacle.