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From Terrorism to a Beloved Race Horse, Eventful Year in US Publishing

From books about terrorism and politics to a best seller about a beloved race horse, it was an eventful year in U.S. publishing.

If the terrorist attacks on the United States were the nation's biggest news event of the year, they may also have been the most important story in American publishing. Within days after the September eleventh disasters, previously published books about Islam, terrorism and the World Trade Center shot to the top of U.S. best seller lists. And within weeks, books about the attacks themselves began to appear.

Bill Goldstein, the Books Editor for New York, says those so-called "instant" books ranged from first hand accounts of the disasters to commentaries by prominent spiritual leaders. "All of these books are designed to raise money for charity, and I think a lot of publishers don't want to appear to exploit this tragedy in particular," he says.

A book published just before the tragedies also became a top seller. "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War" was written by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad. The book's message became even more timely when Judith Miller became the target of a possible anthrax threat, receiving a letter containing suspicious powder. Although the powder ultimately tested negative for anthrax, it underscored one of the themes of her book. "I think we all have to understand that it is a new world, and just as we discovered how to protect ourselves against mail bombs, we will have to learn how to deal with this threat," she says.

The controversial 2000 Presidential election also generated an array of new books, some claiming George Bush hadn't legimately been elected President, others charging that Al Gore had tried and failed to steal the election. Most of the books were serious in tone, and some expressed outrage.

But Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach ended up writing a funny book called "It Looks Like a President Only Smaller:" "At the beginning there's a fairly sincere effort to write about what happened. By the middle, the situation became the theater of the absurd. The classic example for me was that the morning after the election itself I decided to write what I thought was a very satirical, fanciful piece in which I imagined Bush and Gore examining ballots in South Florida and arguing over whether an indentation in the ballot is actually a vote or not, and of course events took us to precisely that kind of absurd situation," he says.

Current events weren't the only subject on readers' minds this year. Presidential biographies were also popular: "He was physically courageous, but a man of great moral courage," he says.

Historian David McCullough's book about America's second President, John Adams, has been leading U.S. best seller lists for six months. It was joined a few weeks ago by another best selling Presidential biography. "Theodore Rex" is the second volume in a projected three part series about early twentieth century President Theodore Roosevelt.

Author Edmund Morris believes the year's tragedies and upheavals may help explain the popularity of books like his. "In times of crisis, we always look to a President who seems to embody the dignity and strength of the United States. We rally around our President, and we like to read about our Presidents," he says.

At least one novel generated news headlines this year as well. Jonathan Franzen's critically acclaimed book, "The Corrections" is about a troubled family from the American middle west. It got a big boost on best seller lists when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her popular television book club. But Jonathan Franzen expressed misgivings about having Oprah Winfrey's corporate label on his book. She in turn cancelled his appearance on the show. Then came more recognition, when "The Corrections" won this year's National Book Award for Fiction.

Jonathan Franzen accepted the award by including Oprah Winfrey in his expressions of gratitude. "I'd also like to thank Oprah Winfrey, for her enthusiasm and advocation on behalf of 'The Corrections.' I'd like to thank the many, many reviewers and booksellers, all of them readers, who helped bring the book to national attention. I'd like to thank all readers everywhere for keeping alive what I believe is the most lovely thing that human beings make, which is the book," he says.

Almost every year brings a few surprise successes in publishing. One of this year's most notable was "Seabiscuit," Laura Hillenbrand's story about a short legged, bent-kneed race horse. "He came along in a time when America and much of the rest of the world was mired in the worst financial depression they had ever had, and people were hungry for rags to riches stories. And you get a homely little horse like this who comes from nowhere. And he became such a big celebrity that in 1938 he was the number one newsmaker in America."

"Seabiscuit" landed on U.S. best seller lists early this year. This holiday season, as bookbuyers sift through commemorative books about September eleventh, weighty Presidential biographies, and the usual mix of thrillers, romances and mysteries, "Seabiscuit" continues to be a top seller.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001