As the year 2002 began, Americans were reading books on Islam, terrorism, and biological warfare, still trying to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001. What were they reading in the months that followed?
The American publishing industry is talking as much about what didn't happen this year as about what did. Elizabeth Maguire, an associate publisher at Basic Books, a press that specializes in international affairs, social issues and other non-fiction topics, said that as the year began, the aftermath of September 11 seemed to be boosting sales at her company:
"It seemed like a good year for serious publishing. But I think as the year went on, it looked like people were craving more intimate stories, and I think that's why some of the big hits of the year, like The Lovely Bones, have really taken people by surprise," said Ms. Maguire. "They explore human emotions, that book is about grief and the aftermath of a tragedy, but they do it in a very intimate way."
Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, is told by a 14-year- old girl who's been murdered and now watches over her loved ones on earth from heaven. Also cited as a book of comfort this year was Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto. It describes how a group of terrorists take over a Latin American diplomatic party, then gradually forge bonds with their captives. Published in 2001, Bel Canto received this year's PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award, and has been a best seller ever since. Ann Patchett wrote the novel before September 11, but said she still believes in the story's core ideas. "I think this time more than any other time we have to find compassion and really consider everyone involved as people," Ann Patchett said. "So yes, I wrote as some people have said a 'feel good' novel about terrorism, but I think it has its place in the present moment."
As for books more closely tied to September 11th itself, Elizabeth Maguire believes too many may have been published on the subject, causing some to be overlooked.
"We published a wonderful book by Terry Golway called So Others Might Live, and it's a history of the New York Fire Department.
"It's not a September 11 book," she continued, "but we've found it's been difficult to get the readership this beautiful book deserves, because people have a kind of exhaustion now."
A few books linked to September 11 were huge successes, however. Lisa Beamer made best seller lists with her memoir Let's Roll. The book takes its title from the words her husband Todd Beamer spoke to fellow passengers on the hijacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Mr. Beamer is believed to have been among those who fought back against the terrorists. In her book, Lisa Beamer writes more about her husband's life and the religious faith that influenced them both. "I thought it might be good to paint a bigger picture of him than just the person that we know from the September 11 media, and just what allowed him to do what he did and who was he up to that day," she said.
Another man who emerged a hero to Americans after the September 11 attacks was former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He published a top selling book this year called Leadership. It looks back on his own career, and explores the traits of effective leaders, both the widely admired and the notorious. "If you think about leadership, leadership can be for either purpose," Mr. Giuliani said. "Leadership can be for good, for ennobling people, for uplifting people, for saving people, protecting people. Or leadership can be to lead people toward terrible things."
While Rudolph Giuliani's book is a huge commercial success, The Washington Post reported that books by other high profile authors didn't do as well as expected this year. These included novels by authors Stephen King and Tom Clancy. It was books by relatively unknown authors, like Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones, that instead topped best seller lists for weeks and months at a time. Lesser known writers also monopolized this year's National Book Awards. At the awards ceremony in November, fiction judge Bob Shacochis paid them tribute. "This was the year of the thunderclap debut. I would very much like to salute the whole crowd of miracle babies," he said. "These debuts and spectacular second novels secure the promise of a new generation of brilliant writers for the new American century." One of the few well-known nominees, Robert Caro, won the non-fiction National Book Award for Master of the Senate, the third volume in his four volume study of President Lyndon Johnson. But one of the so-called "miracle babies," first time novelist Julia Glass, received the fiction prize for Three Junes. In her acceptance speech, Julia Glass saluted the power of the book.
"Books transmute themselves into something completely different when you read them. A book can be a sailing vessel, a magic rabbit hole, a fabulous rich dessert, the wise grandmother you lost when you were too young to need her to be around you," said Julia Glass.
Some observers have also been surprised by the durability of the book's time honored format. There have been predictions in recent years that electronic books would soon replace the traditional printed page. But Elizabeth Maguire of Basic Books said so far that doesn't seem to be happening. "The most significant electronic influence on the book trade has been in how you buy books and the growth of Amazon.com and B&N (Barnes and Noble).com. I do think that in time electronic means of transmitting books will become more prevalent. But we all still like that old fashioned technology. The technology of book is very simple and user friendly," added Ms. Maguire.
Elizabeth Maguire said that for reference questions or academic research, electronic publishing will probably become increasingly important. But for fiction and essays, she believes readers still seem to prefer a book they can hold in their hands and store away on a book shelf when they're finished.