We're Still Numb
By Peter Givler, Association of American University Publishers
It's difficult to know what to say, I think, because it's difficult
to know what to feel. We're still numb. As I write this, the day
after the bombings, the view from my office window is almost ordinary.
The sun is shining, the sky is blue. I can hear sirens coming
and going, but there are always sirens coming and going in New
York. To the south, the smoke hanging over the city looks like
a bank of fog, incongruous on such a sunny day, but not threatening.
There's hardly any traffic. It could be a quiet Sunday morning
in Manhattan, except that it's Wednesday, and we're all haunted
by nightmare images. Buildings spouting flame, smoke and debris
boiling up as if from a volcano, bodies pinwheeling.
I'm also haunted by a story. The evening of the day John Kennedy
was assassinated, John Coltrane gave a concert at UCLA. The time
for the start of the concert came and went. The audience kept
waiting, in a state of mind you can imagine. An hour and a half
late, Coltrane and the band walked on stage, set up and started
to play, no announcements, no introductions. They played "My
Favorite Things" for 45 minutes, stopped and walked off stage.
A friend who was there said that people were weeping, and clapping,
and wouldn't stop. Finally, Coltrane brought the band back out
and they played "My Favorite Things" for another 30
That story has always moved me deeply. It says something about
our primal need for art, about the difficulty of expressing our
deepest griefs, about the power of elegies, and the gratitude
we owe those who, when we're speechless with sorrow, can speak
the words we know but cannot say. And that story, which is also
about a gifted musician deciding that the best tribute he could
offer to a slain President was to do what only he could do best,
reminds me that continuing to do what we do best, however feeble
and ineffective it may feel right now, is also our best and most
We are publishers and, whatever else that says about us, at the
very least it means each of us has made a personal decision to
pursue a career dedicated to the civil dissemination of ideas.
With that commitment-probably preceding it-came a commitment to
the power of language as both an instrument of communication and
a tool for discovery.
We are makers of books, but even more we are people of words.
Keeping faith with that commitment isn't always easy. When I was
an editor at the University of Wisconsin Press I was offered a
manuscript on the bombing of the Army Math Research Center on
the UW campus. The bombing took place in 1971; I got the manuscript
in 1983 or '84. The manuscript had problems. It was not written
by a scholar, or even a journalist, but by a member of an antiterrorist
unit in the South African National Police, an organization not
known for its progressive social policies, or its commitment to
human rights. The author had been sent to Madison to research
the bombing because the SANP recognized it as a milestone in the
history of terrorism: the largest and most destructive car bomb
ever built. So the manuscript was long on the bombers, the bomb,
and the blast, and short on thoughtful social or political analysis.
Still, there had never been anything written about the bombing
beyond the newspaper stories at the time, and I thought the book
told a fascinating and frightening story: how three feckless and
not very bright young men managed to build a formidable weapon
out of hardware-store materials and blow up a public building.
One of the bombers, moreover, was still at large at the time I
had the manuscript. I was advised that I should float the idea
of publishing it past a then-senior administrator at the university,
a man who at the time of the bombing had been active in the investigation.
So I wrote up a descriptive memo and sent it on. A few days later
I got a phone call from the administrator. He still had sitting
on his desk, he told me, a scrap of metal from the van that had
contained the bomb. The bombing was the worst experience of his
life, he said. He still had nightmares about it. The widow of
the one victim of the bomb, a graduate student working late in
the building, was still living in Madison. She was, he put it,
emotionally fragile. Publication of a book about the bombing would
only reactivate a very painful trauma for a lot of people. He
would appreciate it if I didn't pursue it. I would like to think
that if the manuscript had been better I would have fought harder
for it, but maybe if I'd been a better publisher I would have
fought harder for it anyway. Who knows? I didn't fight, and that
The experience did bring two things home to me, though. The first
is what an enormous footprint a single violent event stamps into
the landscape. People are altered forever by it. It can change
the lives of an entire community. Its effects continue for years,
even decades. The second is just what an awesomely effective form
of communication violence really is. We often talk as though it
isn't, but we know it is, and we get its message loud and clear,
every time. This is its message: fear, and silence. There's nothing
to be done about the fear except live with it, but it's our peculiar
responsibility to be people whose profession is breaking the silence.
Most of us aren't poets or musicians. In times of unspeakable
tragedy we have to turn to those who are to help us find a voice
for our grief. What we can do for ourselves, though, is make sure
the fear, and the anger that goes with it, do not keep us from
doing our best at what we do best: bringing other people to the
words that will give them discovery, and knowledge, and if we're
really good at it, a scrap of understanding.