The Arts in a Time of Crisis
What the World is Reading

Paris: Turning to Books

After the horror and emotion of the images of Sept. 11, rebroadcast over and over again, a need for information and understanding has sprung up all over the world. People are rushing for the newspapers, but unlike what happened during the Gulf War, they haven’t deserted the bookstores. “Traffic has declined in the department stores and malls by 15 percent at the most, but revenue hasn’t fallen as much as that,” says Bertrand Picard, book manager at the FNAC department store in Paris. Denis Bénévent, owner of the Arbre à lettres bookstore chain, says he hasn’t detected a decrease in either traffic or sales.

Readers are looking for books that have a relationship to the events of Sept. 11. Books about Islam or Islamic influence, the World Trade Center, and even Nostradamus are heading the best-seller lists in a number of countries around the world. The first reaction of the book-buying public in the United States was toward Nostradamus. A few days after the destruction of the world trade towers, Nostradamus’ prophecies were No. 1 in sales on, and five books about the French astrologer were among the 25 top sellers. The same sort of thing took place in Latin America and other countries, although not to the same degree in France. But the Nostradamus effect seems to have subsided rapidly, as it was due to an unfounded Internet rumor about a stanza by the astrologer that supposedly predicted the attack in New York.

The reading public has now turned to books about Islam, technological threats, or Afghanistan. Roland Jacquard’s biography of Osama bin Laden, published by Jean Picollec, was a masterpiece of timing. It was originally to have come out in May, but was delayed for technical reasons. Then it was to appear in October, in a limited printing of 3,000 copies. On the night of Sept. 11-12, the publisher redesigned the cover, adding a streamer—“To understand Sept. 11”—moved up the sale date, and doubled the print order. By the time the book had been on sale for a week, some 26,000 copies had been printed.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington has been in great demand since the Sept. 11 attacks. The paperback version of its French translation, Le Choc des civilisations, was sold out by the end of the week. The book is also in second place on Amazon’s best-seller list in Germany.

A book by Guillaume Bigot, Les Sept scénarios de l’apocalypse (Seven Scenarios for the Apocalypse), attracted little attention when it was first published, with just 1,000 sold. Flammarion publishing house has now decided to print another 2,000 copies. An essay by Gilles Kepel, Jihad: Expansion et déclin de l’islamisme (Jihad: Expansion and Decline of Islamism), had sold 20,000 copies since its large-format publication in April 2000. Now another 1,500 copies have been sold. Félin has reprinted 1,000 copies of Christophe de Ponfilly’s biography of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the assassinated leader of the anti-Taliban resistance. Michalon is bringing out L’Antiterrorisme en question (Anti-terrorism in Question) by Nathalie Cettina. At the Procure bookstore, the Middle East section—usually chock full—is nearly sold out.

Meantime, a different kind of book—Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders—has gained a new lease on life. Several Parisian bookstores said demand for Sur Ordre, the translation of Executive Orders, had slackened by the second week after the attacks, but not before the book had passed the 200,000-copy mark.