9/11, King Works Among Book Award Nominees

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Historian Taylor Branch was on the road when he heard that his book, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68," had been named as a finalist for the 2006 National Book Awards. He received the nod yesterday for this, the third and last volume of his monumental biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Branch, who lives in Baltimore, said he welcomed the honor. "I'm absorbed in the stories so much," he said, that the writing of history "is its own reward." But recognition from the National Book Foundation "draws attention to the lessons" in the history he is chronicling. "I'm just thrilled," he said from Springfield, Mass.

The first volume, "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63," was nominated in 1989, but did not win. It did, however, cop the Pulitzer Prize.

"There are a handful of awards in our business that translate into sales," said Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf. "The National Book Award is one."

For unknown writers, such a stamp of approval can make a career. For someone like Branch, whose books already sell well, this is cake icing.

"We live in a culture where endorsement has meaning," Bogaards said. "A National Book Award nomination is a mark of distinction for a certain reader."

When the list of 20 finalists was announced yesterday, also included were two novels and a nonfiction book predicated on the events of 9/11 and a firsthand account of war-battered Baghdad.

"The judges were looking for the artistry in the narrative," said foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, who was at City Lights Books in San Francisco, where Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti announced the roster.

They were also ready to consider less conventional choices. For the first time in the foundation's 56-year history, according to spokeswoman Camille McDuffie, a graphic novel is a contender in the young people's literature category; and a lifetime achievement award is being presented, posthumously, to Barbara Epstein, the late co-founder of the New York Review of Books.

The finalists in fiction are "The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers; "Eat the Document" by Dana Spiotta; "The Zero" by Jess Walter; and the two stories that use 9/11 as a jumping-off point, "Only Revolutions" by Mark Z. Danielewski and "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" by Ken Kalfus.

In nonfiction: "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright; "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" by Timothy Egan; "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" by Peter Hessler; and "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was The Washington Post's bureau chief in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004 and is now assistant managing editor for continuous news.

"The real challenge," Chandrasekaran said, "was to write something about a conflict that's still going on and that would also be timeless and take people to a place they haven't been." He wanted "to use the Green Zone to tell the broader story of American folly in Iraq" and to examine "the disconnect between the American occupation headquarters and the rest of Iraq."

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