The National Book Award Scam

It may not be hep to say it. After all, Our Great Nation is still adapting to a post-9/11 age of terror in which irony is as forbidden as Mary Jane and Certain Assumptions must remain True and Unquestioned by the 48% of the population who still insists that George “You forgot Poland!” Bush is the best man for the job.

But the 9/11 Commission‘s recent nomination for the National Book Award is a travesty to quality nonfiction. The “work” isn’t even a book proper. It was a report generated by an independent government authority. As such, there will no doubt be a mad and unfortunate dash among the 9/11 Commission’s many members over who has rightfully earned the award. But beyond this, what can one say about a document with a structure clearly pilfered from U.S. Department of Justice Interdepartment Memo 2004-85721-97 (an undisputed classic also referred to as “Potential Applications of Telemetric Devices in Post-Operative Middle American Scenarios”)?

Unless you’re a reader who thinks turgid bureaucratese beats out investigative journalism any day of the week, the report has only its astonishing facts to draw upon. And while these facts are substantial, it cannot detract from one glaring problem: how it was written.

Take the following passages:

“The Justice Department is much more than the FBI.” (Chapter 3) Much more? Discarding the glaring redundancy here, where’s the qualitative adjective that guides the topic sentence?

“KSM first came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement as a result of his cameo role in the first World Trade Center bombing.” (Chapter 5) Cameo role? We reserve cameos for movies, thank you very much. Does someone at the 9/11 Commission fancy himself the next Alex Garland?

Chapter 6’s Title: “From Threat to Threat.” Even a half-hearted scrivener understands that you don’t use the same noun twice, particularly when you’re trying to evoke the halycon phrase “From Here to Eternity.”

“Although boasts among prison inmates often tend to be unreliable, this evidence is obviously important.” (Chapter 7) By any reasonable estimate, this is an anticlimactic sentence. It suggests that the 9/11 Commission intends to explain why the prison testimony weighed even a modicum into their decision and then fails to follow through on the promise.

“He was flown by helicopter back to the White House, passing over the still-smoldering Pentagon. At 8:30 that evening, President Bush addressed the nation from the White House.” (Chapter 10) Well, where else would the President address the nation from? It’s already been established that he’s been flown back to the White House. This is lazy exposition.

I’d quibble further, but already I crave a bottle of aspirin. And the last thing I wish to do is cause the reader additional anguish. These cursory examples are but a handful of the full travesty unveiled upon an unsuspecting public. Bad enough that the predictable Garrison Keillor and his damn Woebegone stories are on tap to propel the ceremony. But should the National Book Foundation dare to crown The 9/11 Commission Report its winner, it will send a clear and resounding message that pulpish, slavishly written and hastily executed work matters most. I urge all concerned parties to contact the NBF at (212) 685-0261. This seminal lapse in judgment demands proper accountability.

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