Saturday, January 9, 2016

Publishing mysteries

Every so often I stumble across a book that leaves me figuratively scratching my head and wondering how on earth the author ever managed to snag a publishing deal. The Keepers of the Library by Glenn Cooper definitely fell into that category. The whole premise behind it is so mind-boggling in its bizarreness that I'm still not sure why I bothered to keep reading. Maybe it was because the book is competently written albeit riddled with logical holes big enough to drive a tank through. Even more mind-boggling than the existence of this particular book, though, is the fact the author apparently managed to peddle several others that are based on the same notion: a library exists that contains the birth and death dates of every person currently alive on the planet and for every person who's going to be born in the next several centuries.

It is, to say the least, a truly bizarre idea. The background premise is that at some point during the Dark Ages, an idiot savant monk began writing down birth and death dates. For some reason, the abbot of the monastery where this happened decided it was a sign from God; ergo, the monk needed to be protected. Even stranger (and even more unbelievable) that ability to write down the days when people not yet born were going to die turned out to be a heritable trait -- although how they discovered that is not spelled out in the book. All the reader is told in The Keepers is that by the 14th century the monastery had several dozen monks laboring away in an underground chamber (sunlight apparently bothered them) where they'd do nothing but write, eat, sleep, and occasionally relieve themselves. The supply of monks was perpetuated through a breeding program: they'd bring in poor peasant girls with "good hips" and let the monks impregnate them. If the child was a boy, that kid was destined for the cellars and a lifetime of scribbling on parchment. Then they screw up -- they bring in a girl who's less than thrilled by the notion of spending years locked up with nothing to do but serve as brood stock until she's either worn out or dies in childbirth. She escapes while pregnant; the dudes in the dungeon promptly commit mass suicide.

A few centuries later, the library is discovered. The fact that it ends on a specific day in 2027 (which was as far as the monks had gotten before they offed themselves) leads many people to believe that's when the world ends. As that date draws closer, the belief the world is going to end leads to what one might expect: an increased rate of suicides, more people deciding it's not worth working, an increase in crime as lowlifes figure there will be no significant consequences, etc. Except it turns out that all the date in 2027 signifies is that the monks in that particular abbey stopped writing on that date. It doesn't mean the Library itself ended. The pregnant peasant girl founds a whole new line of scribblers, one that apparently relies heavily on incest for its efforts at perpetuation, although I'm not sure that thought ever crossed the author's mind. 

Holy wah. That was definitely a what the hell moment. Talk about having to indulge in willful suspension of disbelief. Young woman recognizes that breeding scribblers is a horrible way to spend a life, manages to get out, and then turns around to voluntarily replicate the mess? And for what? That's actually the part that I didn't get. Just what was the point of the Library? What good was it? It was kept secret for centuries, no one actually got to know the date of their own deaths so it wouldn't help any individual do some long range planning. And, although there was a lot of blathering about strategic importance, just exactly how would governments use the information? Okay. Say someone gets elected President. The Secret Service checks the book -- the person who's going to occupy the White House is shown as surviving for two full time terms. Does that mean they get to slack off on the security details? No -- because just knowing when someone is going to die doesn't tell you a thing about their quality of life. A would-be assassin might not kill the President but could still put him or her in a wheelchair. So you have to keep doing everything you would anyway because all the Library actually does is tell you what we all know already: no one lives forever.

As for longer range planning, how would any analyst know who's going to be important 10 or 20 or 30 years into the future? Granted, there are conspiracy theorists who seem to think Marxists plotted back in the 1960s to hide the fact of Barack Obama's Kenyan birth so he could be America's first socialist President, right down to planting fake birth announcements in the Honolulu, Hawai'i, newspaper, but out here in the reality-based world, it's pretty hard to predict that someone who's in high school now is going to be in the Senate or heading the CIA or in some other position of power 40 years in the future. When Barack Obama was 18, by his own admission he was a dope smoking slacker. He could have easily dropped out of college and gone back to Hawai'i to be a beach bum. There are lots and lots of people with potential for great things, but only a few of them actually end up in the history books.

In short, this is a book that made no sense whatsoever. In fact, even me reading it makes no sense. I knew by the end of the first chapter that the book wasn't going to be very good: the author's wordsmithing skills are mediocre at best. His lead character is a retired federal agent who, despite his supposed backstory (super good FBI agent), seemed remarkably incompetent, was prone to impulsive behavior, and did most of his thinking with his dick. On the other hand, it was rather refreshing to see a male character portrayed as being as clueless as the female heroines in books usally are and doing the dumb stuff like ditching his partner and heading off into a potentially dangerous situation without doing much recon or letting anyone know where he was going. Still, I did read the whole thing -- and now am thinking, crap, that's at least 2 hours of my life I'll never get back. Once again I'm grateful I read fast -- at least when I make the mistake of reading dreck, I don't waste too much time on it.

For what it's worth, the author of this piece of mediocre fiction apparently has more fans than I would have thought possible: this book was the third part of a trilogy and he's written half a dozen other novels that apparently sold reasonably well. There's definitely no accounting for readers' tastes.


  1. I never know what kind of a book might hold my interest until I start reading it. I've started reading my first Danielle Steel book and so far it is okay.


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