BOB GARFIELD: When the new book Germs about biological weapons came out, the plan according to the scuttlebutt in publishing circles was to print about 15,000 copies. Now the plan is to print a quarter million copies. Such has been the impact of America's War on Terror on the sedate world of publishing. Books that once languished in obscurity are now soaring up the best seller lists as ordinary Americans tried to make sense of recent events.
As On the Media's Rick Davis reports, the scramble for answers extends far beyond Nostradamus.
RICK DAVIS:Since September 11th, the media have had a lot of explaining to do. Describing what happened is the easy part. Why is hard. Interpreting those statements by Osama bin Laden has been an elusive quest at best. Here is one example.
MALE TRANSLATOR: For our nation.... [RECORDING OF BIN LADEN STATEMENT PLAYS] for more than 80 years has been tasting this terror.
RICK DAVIS: What did he mean by "80 years?" One network analyst admitted he had no idea. An anchorman at MS-NBC made a try.
MAN: It may have referenced something called the Balfour Declaration. It was a declaration by Great Britain in 1917 that essentially favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
RICK DAVIS: A good try -- but wrong. It was the carving up of the old Ottoman Empire by the European nations. Author David Fromkin called that: A Peace to End All Peace.
DAVID FROMKIN: The allied powers re-drew the map of the Middle East and of Central Asia in ways that were not accepted eventually as legitimate by the people of the region, and that there has been conflict ever since-- about those decisions and about the peace treaties coming out of the First World War.
RICK DAVIS: Now a lot of promises were made during the First World War to Arabs and Jews alike --promises never delivered on, right?
DAVID FROMKIN: That's true in the sense that the peoples involved claimed that promises had been made to them. If you look closely you could see that tricky language was often used by the allies and that what might seem to be a promise on closer examination was not.
RICK DAVIS: When you first heard Osama bin Laden's comment and he started talking about 80 years ago --you were not one of the confused ones. You knew what it meant, didn't you.
DAVID FROMKIN: Oh, yes.
RICK DAVIS: And? It meant?
DAVID FROMKIN: The first thing I thought -- Rick, I'm an author. I mean forgive me for saying -- my first thought was my God -- that horrible man has read my book.
RICK DAVIS: Osama bin Laden may not have read it, but a lot of other people are now. Americans are searching for answers, even in the pages of that collection of often contradictory statements: The Holy Koran. David Weich of Powell's.com says sales are climbing!
DAVID WEICH: Ten times, 20 times, 30 times.
RICK DAVIS: That surprise you a little bit?
DAVID WEICH: Oh, it doesn't surprise me. I mean we're seeing a, a run on basically anything that's topical regarding these current affairs, and clearly that book is one of the ones that people are most interested in.
RICK DAVIS: That interest is a challenge to book reviewers and critics. What should they recommend? Marie Arana of the Washington Post is making a list.
MARIE ARANA: Basically what, what we're trying to answer is who are the propagators of, of the events; where does all the anger come from; and how do they work?
RICK DAVIS: Now will you be stepping back into things like Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game or Fromkin's Peace to End All Peace? Books that have been around for a long time! [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MARIE ARANA: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. Those have been out for a long time. Bernard Lewis's work which is so informative on the Middle East. But you know there, there are also suddenly these books that were ignored like-- Taliban by Ahmed Rashid or Blowback by Chalmers Johnson.
RICK DAVIS: "Blowback" -- an old CIA term referring to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. Chalmers Johnson says those policies include overthrowing some governments and keeping some dictators in power.
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Downtown Manhattan is blowback. I anticipated that something like this would occur!
RICK DAVIS: Now this book has been around for a while, as you say, since 1999. What were the sales like originally and what kind of reviews did you get? What did the critics say back then?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Richard Bernstein in the New York Times felt that I was extreme and shrill. The Council on Foreign Relations magazine Foreign Affairs declared that the book read like a comic book. I don't think downtown Manhattan looks particularly funny right now.
RICK DAVIS: Now have we in the news media -- and I take this personally, having covered the Middle East--
CHALMERS JOHNSON: Yes.
RICK DAVIS: -- and Afghanistan -- have we just failed to let people know what's going on and only now are we trying to catch up?
CHALMERS JOHNSON: I'd have to say yes! I think the press has not done a good job. At the same time I'd have to say it would have been very hard to have done a better job because the American public has been led I believe increasingly by our political leaders into a kind of complacency and self confidence that made them unreceptive to information of that sort.
The thing that has appalled me more in recent times is the American public has seemed genuinely to no longer care what the rest of the world thought of us.
RICK DAVIS: But now Americans do care! Blowback is in its fourth re-printing. A Peace to End All Peace has just been re-issued. Taliban by Ahmed Rashid is number 3 on the Amazon best seller list. And 5 other books about Islam, the Middle East and Osama bin Laden are among the top 25 best sellers.
For On the Media, I'm Rick Davis. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by Scott Strickland, and edited-- by Brooke. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.