It's not often that words like "chilling," "eminently readable," or "Shakespearean drama" are used to describe a U.S. government document. But all those terms have been applied to the final report of the 9-11 Commission since its release this past July. Now the book's literary achievements have helped make it a non-fiction finalist for this year's National Book Award. Harold Augenbraum is executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the yearly honors. He believes the book is an impressive achievement in a range of ways.
"One is that it's very obvious that the Commission itself took care to make sure it was readable for the general public. This was a very public event and it needed to be written in a way that's accessible to the general public, that it wasn't going to be a dry report, that it wasn't boring and that it was written in a style that people would want to read. I don't want to call it a page-turner because I think that would diminish its importance, but it's written in a literary style. And by that I mean it begins with the event itself. In other words, it takes the most important part of the event and it puts it right up front. Then it goes back in time and gives you the background of how we came to this event. That's a very traditionally American literary approach to writing a biography and history, that you take the most important event, create dramatic tension around it, and then fill in the background, and bring it back up to where you started. My own opinion is that if it had been written solely as a dry report, not as many people would have read it. And the Commission wanted people to read it, because I think they wanted people to understand a public event that was part of their lives."
Bookstore owners can also testify to the report's popular appeal. Jim Harris says that as soon as it was released, the 9-11 Commission Report was in big demand at Prairie Lights Bookstore, in the midwestern community of Iowa City, Iowa.
"It caught me by surprise, because it was a government report. We just don't think of them in terms of having information that's necessarily interesting [and] that people don't have to do a lot of work to get. And the reason why is [that] this book reads almost like a thriller, and this is all information which we didn't know. The public wasn't aware of all this background of Al Quaeda, who they were, what they were doing, the threats, and it's all really interesting information."
Reporter: "Have you read the book yourself?"
Harris: "I have, and I wouldn't normally have read it. I picked it up and I started thumbing through and I became engrossed."
The 911 Commission Report has the distinction of being only the second government report to become a non-fiction finalist for the National Book Award. The first was an account of the Attica Prison uprising in New York state, published in 1973. Harold Augenbraum says publishers nominate books for the prestigious prize, then a panel of judges selects the finalists.
"What's interesting about this award is that the judges are completely independent of the people who run the award, which is the National Book Foundation. So there's no interference whatsoever. Once the judges are given their charge and given their books, the National Book Foundation leaves it up to them to decide the process of selecting the books, the criteria of selecting the books. All that we ask is that they limit themselves to the eligible books that were nominated by the publishers, and that they look for literary merit in the books.
Reporter: "Were you surprised when the 911 Report showed up on the list?"
Augenbraum: "Flabbergasted. This had only happened once before. We knew that it had been nominated and we knew that it was eligible and we knew that it was a good piece of work. But the fact that they would recognize it is I think an extraordinary event. But after we knew that it was a finalist we looked into a little bit more, and the more you understand the process of writing and the sensibility behind the writing and talk to the people involvedThomas Kean and Lee Hamilton were the chairmen of the 911 commission, and Philip Zelikow was the executive directorthe more you talk to them the more you understand how much care they took in developing the writing of the book itself. They were very, very interested in developing something that would be a really well written document collectively written. That's an extraordinary event I think. And Philip Zelikow, in talking to him, he was very proud that they've been recognized for the fact that collective writing could work out so well."
Winners of this year's National Book Awards will be announced in New York City on November 17th.