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It's one report that's worth reading

The 9/11 panel wanted its findings and recommendations to be presented in a concise and compelling manner.

August 20, 2004|Patrick T. Reardon | Chicago Tribune

Nineteen months ago, when historian Philip Zelikow was named executive director of the 9/11 commission, his goal was to produce an authoritative report so clearly written that any American could understand it -- and would want to read it.

"It's a report, above all, to the American people. It should be readable," Zelikow says. "In a way, having material like this was both horrifying and a precious opportunity. This is a very important story in American history. We had an almost unique public trust in telling that story to the American people."

Less than a month after the release of the report, it's clear that Zelikow, his staff of 80 and the 10 commission members -- who collectively wrote, edited, rewrote and structured the document -- succeeded far beyond their expectations.

For the second week in a row, "The 9/11 Commission Report," selling for $10, is No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list. It has been at or near the top of the bestseller lists at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com since its publication July 22, the same day the report was delivered to President Bush and other government officials.

The book's publisher, W.W. Norton, did an initial print run of 600,000, but the demand has been so great that 1.1 million copies are in print.

"Many people have told me the report reads like a novel," says former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, a commission member.

The commission sought a clear, direct and easy-to-read report to reach as wide an audience as possible, with the hope of generating widespread support for its recommendations, says Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former governor of New Jersey.

There was another reason as well. "I wanted this to be a document that, 100 years from now, when some child wanted to know about 9/11, they're going to pull this off the library shelf and be able to read it," Kean says.

Initially, Norton feared that it would lose money in publishing the report -- and would have, Kean says, if the first printing hadn't sold out.

Norton Chairman W. Drake McFeely says the firm took the unprecedented job to show that it was possible to put a work of such importance into stores on the date of the report's public release. What that meant, though, was Norton editors had no hand in preparing the book for publication and no pre-publication look at its contents.

"We were pleasantly surprised at how well written it was," McFeely says. "Somebody thought hard about the narrative structure of this report. Somehow, they have done what good writers do with books."

Indeed, the book not only meets the commission's goal of being readable, but it is by turns poignant, chilling, fascinating and instructive. Of all things, this government report is a page-turner.

Time magazine calls it "one of the most riveting, disturbing and revealing accounts of crime, espionage and the inner workings of government ever written." In the Washington Post, cultural critic Philip Kennicott compares the writing to that of a memoirist: "The tone is restrained. A carefully chosen adjective here or there gives color, but there is nothing baroque. The dominant tone is wise and sad, not angry."

The literary success of the report has surprised and gratified the commission members and staff. "I knew it was good. I knew it was well written," Kean says. "I did not expect the huge reaction and the universal praise."

Yet, Zelikow notes, even with all the work that went into crafting a narrative that carries the reader along, "It's a demanding read." That was something Zelikow and the scores of other writers didn't want or try to avoid. "You have a real challenge [in writing the report]," he says. "Even though you want to make it accessible, you can't dumb down the details. It still has to be an authoritative report. You can't blur."

And there are points in the story when acronyms pile upon acronyms, and Arabic names follow Arabic names in such rapid succession that the account threatens to bog down. Yet it doesn't, often because of a wide variety of literary devices that Zelikow and his staff employ.

For instance, they grab the reader's attention and bring focus to the narrative with frequent short sentences.

Zelikow, the director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and a former employee of the National Security Council during the first Bush administration, played the key role in ensuring that the 9/11 report's prose was readable and compelling.

From the first of his discussions with Kean about the executive director's position, Zelikow says he proposed a report that would be not only well written but also immediately available in book form.

Ensuring the readability of the report, though, wasn't easy, especially since Zelikow insisted on making its production a collaborative process.

Kean believes the report's readability will help its effectiveness. After he was appointed chairman, he looked at reports from other commissions over the years and found that few, if any, resulted in recommendations that became law. His hope, he says, is that the 9/11 report will be a model for future panels as a means of generating support for policy changes.

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