Oppenheimer book cover

American Prometheus

At the weekend I saw the new Christopher Nolan film, Oppenheimer. It’s a powerful and superbly told biopic about J Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the United State’s attempt to build an atomic bomb, before the Nazis got there first.

This is a story that I’m very familiar with, having seen everything from the 1980 BBC version of the story (starring Sam Waterston) to fictionalised versions of elements of the story in series like Manhattan and the 1989 film Fatman and Little Boy with Paul Newman, John Cusack and no less than Dwight (Murdoch in The A-Team) as Oppenheimer!

Anyway, I hadn’t read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that the Nolan film is based on. American Prometheus The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin was published in 2005, and was based on over 25 years of work prior to that.

So you might think that in 2023, it would be relatively easy to pick up a copy. Over on Amazon UK, both the Kindle e-book version, and Audible narrated versions are readily available in digital form. But Amazon itself doesn’t seem to have copies in stock, and only directs you to a couple of pricey third party suppliers.

Waterstones does list it, but notes that they have to get it from the publisher. It’s not actually in stock right now. And if you check in-store availability, it’s very limited. The only copy I can see at time of writing, is in their Tunbridge Wells store – not especially handy for someone who works in London.

Blackwells does at least have copies in stock, but if I want to pick up a copy in store, I have to travel to Canterbury, Exeter, Manchester or Newcastle. It’s not listed as being available in either of their big Oxford and Cambridge stores.

Bookshop.org doesn’t even seem to list it at all. Multiple searches of “American Prometheus”, the authors and even the ISBN number failed to return the book.

I appreciate that a 700 page serious biography of a scientist is unlikely to be selling massive numbers of books, but when a filmmaker like Nolan adapts it, you’d think that the publisher would print some extra copies. Amazon does note that the edition it does not have in stock is a “Tie-in” edition, because the cover includes a banner that reads “The inspiration for the major motion picture Oppenheimer” across the top. But Atlantic Books seemingly hasn’t printed too many new copies.

A “Waterstones Weekly” email actually references the book with a member of their Gower Street branch team extolling it. It’s just a shame it’s not in stock there – or pretty much anyway aside from Tunbridge Wells!

I’ve no doubt that in due course, copies will flow through retail channels a bit more easily. But in the week after a massive opening weekend in the cinema, it feels like someone is missing out on easy sales. Don’t forget that this film was “dated” more than a year ago now – so release date wasn’t secret.

Note: These are my findings at time of writing, and they’ll no doubt change. Over in the US, Amazon.com has plenty of copies readily available! I’ve no doubt that chains like Barnes and Noble are also well stocked.