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History and Hope

Flood of books on attacks differ in approach and tone, but many seek perspective, answers


No modern event has been as thoroughly documented as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet the torrent of words and images continues. The publishing industry is marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks by offering readers more than a hundred books relating to Sept. 11, including about 20 picture books, storybooks and coping guides for children and young readers.

Reading more about a tragedy that is still so raw and seeing photographs of events that were witnessed by nearly everyone with a television will reawaken anger in some Americans. Others may experience the "closure" that became one of the buzzwords of Sept. 11.

By telling stories either general or specific, a number of books detail what happened on that day, eradicating historical amnesia. Others attempt to explain how and why the attacks occurred, or consider how we as a nation and as individuals have changed. The question of what we do now is addressed in discussions of political policy and debates about the future of lower Manhattan. In some of the best books, time passed and distance traveled have yielded new information and fresh perspective.

In the days and weeks after the attacks, many people gorged on information, as if a surfeit of details could quell disbelief. "Seeking information is a very basic human impulse when we're faced with a profound threat," says Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. "We try to know everything about the situation that frightens us so we can better seek safety. The pursuit of information makes us feel more secure."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 131 words Type of Material: Correction
Trade Center photo--In today's Southern California Living, the photo credit for a picture of a construction worker at the World Trade Center site is incorrect. The credit should be Eli Reed / Magnum Photos.

The crop of Sept. 11 books varies widely in subject, tone and quality, ranging from works that will become classics to others cheesy enough to inspire charges of exploitation. Media coverage of Sept. 11 has generally been so reverent that charges of profiting from tragedy have seldom arisen. But the rather taboo question that hovers over the fetish of commemoration about to be indulged is whether a national tragedy has become a commodity, as marketable as toothpaste.

Many books skirt that indictment by donating all or a portion of their profits to victims' funds. But a book can contribute to charity and still be silly or shallow. "Where Were You on September 11?," by Janette Reynolds (Umbrella Publishing), satisfies the curiosity of anyone who was wondering what Donald Trump or Sarah Ferguson were up to when disaster struck. "Faces of Hope," by Christine Pisera Naman (Health Communications), is a collection of portraits of babies born Sept. 11, one from each of the 50 states. Does either book seriously honor the dead and their survivors?

There are books designed to instill hope and polemics that aim to fill the reader with dread. Heartfelt notions morph into cliches; there's nothing wrong with the idea that hope can rise from the ashes of sorrow, until repetition transforms it into treacle.

Some books provide a historical record and will enable people who created private archives of newspapers and magazines to toss them into recycling bins. A number of stunning collections of photojournalism guarantee that the visions of Sept. 11 will be indelible.

It's impossible to know how successful many of the memorial books will be. Of the dozens published in the last year, several reached wide audiences, including "Firehouse," by David Halberstam (Hyperion), which focuses on a station that lost 12 of its 13 men in the aftermath of the attacks and has been on bestseller lists since May. Publishing industry insiders agree that the sheer number of titles coming out in August and September will likely be self-defeating.

"It will be interesting to see which books will do well, because people will be saturated with information from all the media," says Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic Press, a leading independent publishing house. "To me, the books that will work are those that do what only a book can, which is to give you a really well-reported, in-depth narrative by a fine writer that takes you into a story."

Entrekin intentionally scheduled publication of "The Lion's Grave--Dispatches from Afghanistan," by New Yorker correspondent Jon Lee Anderson in November. "The field is going to be very, very crowded, and we were happy we didn't have a book in the fray," he says. "But quality usually wins. Readers have pretty discriminating eyes."

* Great Expectations--Some of the books expected to be standouts:

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