Reading 9/11, from A to Z

Compared to other media, the book publishing industry has been slow to offer something of value to the national debate over 9/11 and the wars (both figurative and literal) it has spawned. But that doesn't mean the industry hasn't been busy. In fact, well over 300 books were issued in the year following the attacks. And although we're more fixated on Iraq and North Korea than on Al Qaeda these days (anyone remember them?) there's no end to the publishing push in sight.

A good chunk of the growing 9/11 genre -- yes, looking back over the past 18 months, we seem to have spawned a new literary category -- features trite and predictable titles in which heroes implore you to "remember the sacrifice," while insiders at the Bush White House remind you that "terror will not win." Readers have had to sort through a flood of titles dealing with some element of the attacks, though most, unfortunately, look to have been quick cut-and-paste jobs. Given the windfall, how is one expected to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Well, that depends on your politics and your stomach for some serious down-home Americana. Everything from Bill Gertz's anti-Clinton screed, "Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11," to AOL's collection of Internet messages, "Because We Are Americans: What We Discovered on September 11, 2001," to the anti-USA Patriot Act essay collection, "It's a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America After September 11," to books featuring quilts inspired by the carnage at Ground Zero, have lined bookstore shelves. Whatever your taste, there's likely a book out there for you.

Some books, like Bob Woodward's 800-lb gorilla "Bush at War" and William Langewiesche's rapid-fire "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," are largely non-partisan, serious literary attempts at understanding the issues at hand, while others, like "Faces of Hope," a photo collection of babies born Sept. 11, 2001, are just plain embarrassing.

Immediately following the attacks, the publishing industry kicked into high gear, pumping out a succession of thin titles such as the unwieldy and sensationalistic-sounding "09/11 8:48 am: Documenting America's Greatest Tragedy, September, 2001," which was available in electronic form online and also made the local Barnes & Noble in New York before September was out. Not surprisingly, plenty of these early books were of the interchangeable "hero" ilk, like "September 11, 2001: A Time for Heroes and In the Line of Duty: A Tribute to New York's Finest and Bravest."

Scrolling through online booksellers and publishers Web sites, it's alarming and perhaps revealing how many 9/11 books were published in the first two months after the attacks. A handful were published in September, while October seems to have been a quiet month where publishers presumably took stock of what they had and rushed photo books and eyewitness accounts to print -- all of which seem to have hit during the first week of November. Publishing is a business just like any other, so it's not surprising the industry jumped at the chance to increase profits and gain notoriety for its book lists. Still, even a cynic might be surprised at how quickly the machinery of capitalism moved in to wash away the grief.

It was also somewhat of a gamble, as no one knew how the public would react to such a quick turn-around of an event that seemed too fresh to be captured on paper. But books dealing with the attacks translated into big business in 2002 -- at least initially. By year's end, Publishers Weekly reported that 16 titles relating to 9/11 appeared on weekly best seller charts over the course of the year, although 11 of them only managed to stick around for four weeks or less, which doesn't say much for their staying power. Conversely, two books released in 2002, Langewiesche's "American Ground" and "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" by Chris Hedges, are both nominated in the general non-fiction category for the National Book Critics Circle Award, showing the great disparity in the quality of books released.

While publishers worked overtime to get writers to squeeze out manuscripts in the fall and early winter of 2001, a few houses managed to catch breaks on previously released or soon to be released titles. Simon & Schuster was one of the first publishers to land a best seller when Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad's "Germs" -- a book already slated for the fall -- found an unexpected audience after the anthrax scares, eventually selling more than 370,000 copies. 

Yale University Press also scored with Ahmed Rashid's "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia." Originally published in the United States in March 2000, it sold a modest 13,000 copies before 9/11; it ended up selling 270,000 copies before the end of the year. Similarly, Oxford University Press rushed Islam scholar Bernard Lewis's "What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East" into print after The New Yorker printed an excerpt. The book eventually scorched its way through 10 printings, selling 150,000 copies.

For several months after Sept. 11, academic and small press titles led the way in publishing worthwhile reading on the subject. Books such as Noam Chomsky's "9-11" (Seven Stories Press) and Gore Vidal's "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" (Thunder's Mouth Press) offered readers astute -- if highly partisan -- observations on how we had arrived at this moment in history. Other intellectuals like Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham and The New York Times' Thomas Friedman both published collections of articles they had written on the subject.

One of the more creative takes was "Before & After: Stories from New York," which featured slice of life essays -- most of which originally appeared on Mr. Beller's Neighborhood -- written by New York writers both before and after the attacks. While not undertaken in the same creative spirit, the writers of The New York Times, New York Magazine, German magazine Der Spiegel and Reuters news service also published their own eyewitness accounts of the day.

Even fiction writers got into the game, the most successful and well-conceived being Ulrich Baer's "110 Stories: New York Writers After September 11," a collection of literary fiction, poetry and short non-fiction by Paul Auster, Jonathan Ames and Art Spiegelman, among others.

It's an exhausting count, and one that has been near impossible to keep up with, even as the pace has slowed over the past few months. Over time, the tone of many of these books has become noticeably more partisan. While writers like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomksy have led the anti-war camp on the left, others, like Fox television's Sean Hannity, who penned "Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism," have adopted the view that if you don't support the war on terror you're patently anti-American.

Naturally, the highly specialized niche markets that the media has created only adds to the fray, with liberals and conservatives pushing their agendas through their own magazines, Web sites, television shows and book imprints. Chomsky and Lapham preach to one choir, Bennett and Pat Robertson preach to the other, and there's a shrinking middle ground on which all views can be heard.

Humor, something that wouldn't have been welcomed just after the attacks (and which several hysterical writers proclaimed dead, along with irony), also has found its place. Bill Maher took a swipe at clichéd warnings to live life as normally as possible, terror alerts be damned, when he titled his book "When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism". The hilarious and scathing comic collection by David Rees, "Get Your War On," also mocks the language of the war on terrorism. Some of his comic strips can be found online.

You also won't have a hard time finding books that claim to be "inside" accounts of the White House in the days and weeks following the attacks, like Bob Woodward's best-selling "Bush At War." Woodward, while not without his flaws, offers such a truly informative take on Bush, Rice, Powell, Rice, Rummy, etc., that reading the transcribed meeting notes almost becomes cumbersome. Bill Salmon's "Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism From Inside the Bush White House" attempts to tread on the same ground but can only stand as the anti-Woodward; judging by the book's content, one would guess Salmon had little, if any, inside access. He spends more time editorializing about Bush's religious faith than exploring policy or saying anything you won't find in tomorrow's newspaper.

Not surprisingly, there are also quite a few conspiracy books. Most cast a wide net of paranoia, trying to expose the existence of a vast global cabal of businessmen and politicians who supposedly control the world. French writer Thierry Meyssan might have received the most press in this category; his "911: The Big Lie" attempts to prove that the damage to the Pentagon was actually the result of a carefully planned truck bombing or missile strike, which was made to look like a plane crash. The culprit? A faction of the U.S. military, of course.

If you're looking for a bit of home-grown conspiracy theory, there's Len Bracken and Andrew Smith's "Shadow Government: 9-11 and State Terror". This book traces all the unanswered questions and weird occurrences surrounding 9/11, including the government allowing bin Laden's relatives to fly out of the United States while U.S. airspace was still locked down; the mystery of Mohammed Atta's passport reportedly being found in the WTC wreckage; and the by now familiar Enron-Bush-CIA-bin Laden connection whose purpose was to set up an oil pipeline in Afghanistan.

At the other end of the spectrum, writers such as Friedman, Lewis, Woodward, Langewiesche and Rashid have done their best to illuminate, in as objective a tone as possible, a whole range of incredibly complex issues and worldviews. While the first books to come out were little more than knee-jerk reactions to a horrific event, the subject has recently been treated more seriously and with more intellectual rigor than it had been during the fist confusing weeks and months.

Some writers have paid a price for this objectivity, however. Langewiesche has had to endure an entire coordinated campaign dedicated to refuting "American Ground," which tells the on-the-scene story of Ground Zero from 9/11 until the cleanup was completed. A Web site has been set up by his detractors criticizing the accuracy of his account, and firefighters regularly protest his readings. The campaign is very active (I wrote a favorable review of the book and received several irate emails from New York City firefighters demanding I retract it and apologize to the Fire Department). Langewiesche is one of the few to portray the firefighters working the cleanup crews as what they are: flawed, brave and hurt men trying to summon the courage to face the unthinkable destruction of "the pile" day after day.

Odds are that very few of these books will have the staying power to pass the test of time, but that's the nature of our disposable media culture in general. The definitive take on the events of 9/11 -- its historical causes and long-term effects -- likely won't be written for years to come, after the war on terror has drawn to a close (here's hoping it ends). At this point, with looming wars on two continents, a fractured NATO alliance and vague terror alerts, we are still too "in the moment" to fully assess our place in history. But though we may have a long way to go before our times are fully understood, we are already well on our way to defining its terms.

Paul McLeary is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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