The book industry has proven itself to be surprisingly supple in the wake of transcendent national events. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in l963, the bombing of a federal courthouse in Oklahoma City in l995, and even the arrest and trial of a sports legend, O. J. Simpson, all saw the fast production of best-sellers slapped together over a hectic period of days. Many of these books are burdened with the kinds of omissions and mistakes that are the handmaiden of quick work, but on rare occasions -- such as The Torch Is Passed: The Associated Press Story of the Death of a President, a compilation of the dispatches written by reporters over a 72-hour period after JFK's murder -- the work emerges as uniquely eloquent, enduring a test of time entirely of its own.
Now, the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- our collective shorthand now merely says "the events of Sept. 11" -- has created upheaval in virtually all corners of the country. But few industries have been as quick to respond to the changes in the country's mood as the nation's book publishers.
Within hours after the attack, Anne Rice announced that she was temporarily foregoing an upcoming promotion tour for her new book, Blood and Gold, figuring that the time was not right for a new work of blood and gore. Salman Rushdie similarly cancelled a string of personal appearances to promote his latest, Fury. His publicist said the author, who himself has an intimate relationship with terrorists since he was marked by Iranian fundamentalists in l989 for making fun of Islam with his massive The Satanic Verses, was "devastated by the events" of three weeks ago. But a report in the Montreal Globe raised the possibility that Rushdie, still a lightning rod, might have been prohibited by the Federal Aviation Authority from flying in and out of the United States even before the attack on the World Trade Center.
The effort, among publishers, to anticipate the sensibilities of the book-buying public has also seen the recall of the novel A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, by British author Christopher Brookmyre. The book's cover bore the words: "Terrorism -- it's the new rock n' roll."
Yet alongside the books that are now doomed or delayed are works that are already out there, suddenly in enormous demand. Angus Kress Gillespie's l999 book, Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center, was originally published by Rutgers University Press, and was not unlike the vast majority of the more than 50,000 books that are published in the U.S. every year: it had an original run of 3,000 and in the past two years had only sold about two-thirds of that number.
In the days following Sept. 11, the final 1,000 copies sold out. Customers placing orders with Amazon.com pushed it to the huge server's Hot l00 list -- the normal terrain for authors like Rice and Stephen Ambrose. Rutgers announced it is launching a new l5,000 run for Gillespie's work. Every copy of that new run is already sold.
"I think people are looking for anything that may give them answers," says Judith Lafitte, the co-owner of Octavia Books in Uptown New Orleans. "And the kind of books we are getting the most requests for have something either to do with Islam, Afghanistan, or even Osama bin Laden."
The yearning to learn more about bin Laden is only the most recent manifestation of a long-standing tradition among book-readers. In l940, with the U.S. on the cusp of war, booksellers were shocked to see Adolph Hitler's memoirs Mein Kampf push its way up the best-seller list. Judging by the preorders at Amazon.com, Simon Reeves' The New Jackals, a l999 work exploring bin Laden's terrorism network, and Yossef Bodansky's Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, a 1999 work that had its paperback version already scheduled for release just days after Sept. 11, are the two most popular books on bin Laden.
Like Gillespie's work on the World Trade Center, Reeves' work was the kind of book that made it into virtually every university library across the country, but few living rooms. With an original run of 5,000, there were still plenty of copies of the book available as recently as last month. After Sept. 11, the publisher, Northeastern University Press in Boston, ordered l5,000 new copies into print.
Booksellers say trying to gauge this suddenly changing market is proving to be an enormous challenge. "We have not seen a decline in any particular kind of book," says Dave Lindberg, manager of BookStar in the French Quarter. "But there has very much been an increase in our religion and self-improvement titles."
Not surprisingly, as both local and national book readers are searching for clues to our future, they have turned to the prophets of the recent and very distant past. Rabbi Harold Kushner is seeing a sudden surge of interest in his early l990s best-seller When Bad Things Happen To Good People, a gentle tour through life's landmines and how to navigate them. But the 16th century French physician and occultist Nostradamus, who seems to have predicted just about everything at one time or another, has enjoyed perhaps the most stunning comeback, not for the first time making it to the best-seller list in the wake of an epic tragedy.
"I had some copies of Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies on the shelf here for the past six months or so," reports Barbara Rushing at the B. Dalton Bookstore in Lakeside Mall, "and I could not have given them away." Just days after the Sept. 11 attack, however, Rushing's remaining copies were sold and a new order for an additional 20 is stuck on a very long order list.
Readers seeking to understand the complexities of life after Sept. 11 are also trying to locate Ahmed Rashid's balanced Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. Critics have applauded these books, both released this year, for their sober, even-handed approaches to often entirely bewildering topics.
For all of the scholarship on what makes the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden tick, however, author Diana Eck's latest treatise on religious diversity in America might provide the most refreshing insight on these times. A professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, Eck studies the fantastic growth of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities across the country in the past three decades and concludes in A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, that America's greatest strength is not its economic or military might, but the freedom it has given its people to worship any way they wish.
Although Eck is critical of an endemic lack of interest or understanding on the part of many Christians in this country toward people who worship differently, she is nevertheless excited about the possibilities. "We have this challenge in the United States to do something that has never really been done before," Eck remarked recently in an interview, "which is to create a multi-religious and democratic state."
Many in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack have wondered "where did we go wrong?" as they seek to explain why the United States is so vigorously despised among certain Islamic fundamentalists with a yen for brutality. Eck's book presents a moving account of where we've gone right, and how our religious variety might be the thing about us most worthy, among certain radicals, of contempt.