Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves
By Andrew Ross Sorkin | Viking | 600 pages, $32.95

“I must admit,” Sorkin wrote us this morning, “I was completely bowled over by the turnout. It was quite incredible to reassemble so many characters from the book in one room all together. For a book that shows so many of these characters with their warts and all in the midst of the greatest panic of their lives, I am tremendously grateful that they came out to support me.”— “Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Book Party Was Filled With CEOs, Warts and All,” New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog, an item on a book party for Too Big To Fail at the Monkey Bar, October 21, 2009

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail is an extraordinary work of reportage by a once-in-a-generation journalist. It is also something else: an example of access journalism par excellence. That’s not a flaw, necessarily, but it is a fact that colors nearly every paragraph of this sprawling book. As such, Too Big To Fail demonstrates both the potential and the limits of the form.

Anyone who finds TBTF less than satisfying as a work of nonfiction, and I’m among them, must first acknowledge that this book places vast amounts of new information into the public record, information that probably only Sorkin could have gathered in such quantity. When it comes to fact-gathering virtuosity, TBTF is in a class by itself. What’s more, the facts have held up. What more do you want from a journalist? It is a fair question.

A thirty-two-year-old New York Times columnist and editor, Sorkin burst onto the scene earlier in the decade via a series of blockbuster scoops on mergers and acquisitions. He followed that up with the creation of DealBook, a franchise within a franchise at the Times that breaks and aggregates financial news, amassing more than 200,000 loyal e-mail subscribers and many more regular readers.

For his first book, Sorkin and his team interviewed more than two hundred people, gathering anecdotes on most of the key players in the financial crisis: Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, Fuld, Blankfein, Dimon (especially Dimon), and many more. The scenes are woven deftly together with previously reported and properly attributed material to form a streamlined chronology of the months leading up to Lehman’s failure and AIG’s rescue, as viewed from the executive suite. An instant best-seller, Sorkin’s is the breakout book of the crisis. Early reviews in the financial press start at euphoric and go up from there. And there’s a reason for that.

Without TBTF there would be many things we did not know. Who, for example, leaked the June 4, 2008, story about Lehman’s last-ditch talks with a Korean government entity, imperiling a deal that could have been a critical lifeline? (Sorkin says Lehman brass believe it was Erin Callan, the company’s CFO.) What does financial Armageddon look like? (Sorkin provides a deadly snapshot: “The Lehman board had already begun its meeting when the bankruptcy lawyers from Weil Gotshal, towing wheeled suitcases stuffed with documents, finally arrived.”) And what did Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein say during a critical meeting at the New York Fed, on the very day the government decided to bail out AIG, sending billions of dollars to his own company? (“So, when is the money going to be paid out?”)

(Disclosure time: Goldman gave the business-press section I run at the Columbia Journalism Review, known as The Audit, $25,000 last year. Sorkin was a big help in creating The Audit as one of several advisers to cjr before I arrived in the spring of 2007, and has since attended private breakfasts of funders and journalists hosted by The Audit to discuss journalism and financial issues. End of disclosure. Void where prohibited. See box top for details.)

The book even includes glimpses into the thoughts of various big shots. Want to know what Tim Geithner was thinking during a particularly tense 6 a.m. jog along the river in lower Manhattan?

This is what it was all about, he thought to himself, the people who rise at dawn to get in to their jobs, all of whom rely to some extent on the financial industry to help power the economy. Never mind the staggering numbers. Never mind the ruthless complexity of structured finance and derivatives, nor the million-dollar bonuses of those who made bad bets. This is what the saving the financial industry is really about, he reminded himself, protecting ordinary people with ordinary jobs.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.