Our Shifting Cultural Landscape Choices in Books, Movies and Web Sites Show Americans Balancing a Need to Know and a Desire to Move On

Article excerpt

Byline: Hilary Shenfeld Daily Herald Staff Writer

The week of Sept. 3 was a pretty ordinary one.

The following week, of course, changed the way many of us look at the world. After Sept. 11, the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, people just didn't care about the same things anymore.

The information we sought on the Web, the books we started to read and, to a lesser extent, the movies we wanted to watch, all reflected that difference.

Despite the still-hourly updates on the latest anthrax scare or most recent bombings on Afghanistan, we've now had time to absorb the horror and even allow room in our minds for other interests.

We may be accused of possessing short attention spans, but there's no denying the national zeitgeist already is edging back to more standard patterns.

We're still searching the Internet for the latest news on Cipro, smallpox and the war, but we equally want to know about everyday events like Halloween, new video games and current entertainment.

Our book choices also are mixed between topics such as the Taliban and celebrities like Tiger Woods and Bill O'Reilly.

"It's because 50 percent of the marketing muscle is back," said Richard Laermer, author of a forthcoming book, "trendSpotting" (Perigree), which examines trends and public opinions. "A lot of our buying habits come to us from what's being marketed."

In fact, he speculated that we will be back to our old selves - and information choices - by Thanksgiving.

"I know people in many cities who say they just want to have a good time," he said. "People want to get back to normal."

That's a far cry from the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when we thirsted for anything related to terrorism and the World Trade Center.

Searching for an answer

In the days following the attacks, we essentially had few other options because of saturation coverage in just about every media outlet, Laermer said. The week of Sept. 11, it was all-terrorism, all-the-time; people were consumed with Nostradamus, the 16th century seer who supposedly predicted the fall of the Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan.

Anyone who wanted to find out about President Bush's tax plan, Rachel's pregnancy on "Friends" or East Coast shark attacks simply was out of luck.

With its immediate access to information, the Internet became a prime source for people seeking out the latest news as well as background on the key players involved in the attacks.

News sites saw a 32 percent jump in traffic in September, with CNN.com, MSNBC.com and Time.com getting the most hits.

Searches at Google, the Internet search engine, centered on the attacks, with surfers looking for information on the Pentagon, American Airlines and the World Trade Center.

The week before, queries involved the U.S. Open tennis tournament and Martha Stewart, whose television show started its ninth season.

"Searches have always been driven by current events," said Mark Joyner, an Internet expert and author of an e-book called "Search Engine Tactics." And in today's wired age, more people than ever turn to the World Wide Web instead of an encyclopedia or news channel .

"It's almost the first place you look now for information," he said.

Books tell the real story

Americans have also turned to the printed page to help them understand the changing world.

The week of Sept. 10 saw titles about military history, the World Trade Center, bioterrorism and prophecy climb into Top 10 spots.

"I want to be more informed," said Mary-Anne Belter, a 45-year- old Palatine resident who had just picked up "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," written by Judith Miller and two other New York Times reporters. "I want to be prepared, to see if there are things I can do."

The book's publisher, Simon and Schuster, always expected the book to do well, but no one could have predicted how enthralled the public would become with bioterrorism. …