What could have been a dry, impenetrable government document -- the final report of the 9/11 Commission -- has been honored as a finalist for a National Book Award.
The commission's report was among five finalists in the nonfiction category. The authorized edition published by W.W. Norton has been praised as a compelling narrative and has appeared on bestseller lists, with more than 1.5 million books in print.
The selection was the most surprising in a group of mostly lesser-known writers named Wednesday as finalists by the National Book Foundation.
Thomas Kean, the 9/11 commission's chairman, said members of the bipartisan panel were determined that the work be written as clearly as possible.
"From the beginning, I took our mandate to report to the American people very seriously, and you cannot report to the American people with language that is either dull or obtuse," Kean told the Associated Press. ". . . Unless people read the report, they wouldn't understand the problems and support our recommendations."
The report concluded that the United States failed to grasp the seriousness of the terror threat before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and that bureaucratic problems contributed to the nation's vulnerability. The report made several recommendations, including creating a new intelligence center and high-level intelligence director.
Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director, said he's often asked if the commission hired outside writers for the project. "I always smile and say, 'Folks, it was just us.' There was no outside person overseeing the writing of this."
Government reports have traditionally have been considered bland and unreadable, so the inclusion is unusual, but it is not unprecedented. In 1973, a report by a special commission in New York on a deadly riot at the state prison in Attica two years earlier was nominated but did not win.
It also was the first time in the 55-year history of the awards that all the finalists for fiction -- including two first-time novelists -- are women.
Among the other finalists, announced by author and radio show host Garrison Keillor at a ceremony here, was Donald Justice in the poetry category. Justice, who died earlier this year, was nominated for "Collected Poems."
Notably absent from the list were several big-name authors, including Philip Roth, whose "The Plot Against America" was well received by critics. Bob Dylan, whose memoir, "Chronicles," was also praised, wasn't on the list, either. Nor was Ron Chernow's lauded biography of Alexander Hamilton. Also passed over in the fiction category were Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons."
The National Book Foundation will present author Judy Blume with an honorary award for distinguished contribution to American letters. Other winners will be named at a dinner Nov. 17 in New York, which Keillor will host. Each winner receives $10,000 plus a bronze statue; finalists get a bronze medal and $1,000.
Zelikow said prize money for the 9/11 book would be donated to charity.
Nonfiction finalists: Kevin Boyle, "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age"; David Hackett Fischer, "Washington's Crossing"; Jennifer Gonnerman, "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett"; Stephen Greenblatt, "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare"; the 9/11 Commission, "The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- Authorized Edition."
Fiction finalists: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, "Madeleine Is Sleeping"; Christine Schutt, "Florida"; Joan Silber, "Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories"; Lily Tuck, "The News From Paraguay"; Kate Walbert, "Our Kind: A Novel in Stories."
Poetry finalists: William Heyen, "Shoah Train"; Donald Justice, "Collected Poems"; Carl Phillips, "The Rest of Love"; Cole Swensen, "Goest"; Jean Valentine, "Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003."
Young people's literature: Deb Caletti, "Honey, Baby, Sweetheart"; Pete Hautman, "Godless"; Laban Carrick Hill, "Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance"; Shelia P. Moses, "The Legend of Buddy Bush"; Julie Anne Peters, "Luna: A Novel."