Langewiesche, William 1955-

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Langewiesche, William 1955-

PERSONAL: Born 1955; son of Wolfgang Langewiesche (a pilot and author). Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1977.

ADDRESSES: Home—France; CA.

CAREER: During early career, worked as an airline pilot for twenty years; Atlantic Monthly, Boston, MA, writer and foreign correspondent, 1990-2006; Vanity Fair, New York, NY, writer and international editor, 2006—.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Award for Excellence in Reporting, 2002, for article “The Crash of EgyptAir 990,” 2004, for article “Columbia’s Last Flight.”


Cutting for Sign, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.

Sahara Unveiled: A Journey across the Desert, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1996.

Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1998.

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2002.

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, North Point Press (New York, NY), 2004.

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2007, paperback edition published as The Atomic Bazaar: Dispatches from the Underground World of Nuclear Trafficking, 2008.

Contributor of articles to Flying. Inside the Sky has been translated into Chinese.

SIDELIGHTS: Well-known as a foreign correspondent, William Langewiesche shares with readers his adventurous and decidedly unglamorous journeys to places the average traveler does not visit. Langewiesche’s first book-length work expanded on a 1992 Atlantic Monthly story about the U.S.-Mexico border. Cutting for Sign details his experiences traveling along both sides of the border, looking at the interrelated problems of border crossings, human rights abuses, maquilas (assembly plants serving American businesses), and drug smuggling. The title’s expression, “cutting for sign,” is a phrase used by customs agents that means looking for a track or other evidence of an illegal crossing. Langewiesche includes an analysis of the conflicts between Anglos and Mexicans in his former home of Marfa, Texas, as well as a regional history.

A Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book as “combining trenchant observations with an understated style.” Gwen Gregory, a Library Journal critic, considered it to be “a thoughtful introduction to the complex people and issues of the borderlands.” A Kirkus Reviews contributor presented the book as “a terse, clear, tough-minded account.” The reviewer reported that “the author shows us the appalling human reality behind business-page slogans… and he makes the border itself look as arbitrary, strange, and inevitable as the Berlin Wall in its day.”

The focus of Langewiesche’s second book is a more distant, more exotic location, but it repeats his concern for the human condition. In Sahara Unveiled: A Journey across the Desert the author recounts his journey south from Algiers, then west to the Atlantic. He hitched rides, rode on buses and riverboats, and otherwise took a low-budget, dusty approach to discovering cities, the desert, and oases and their occupants. As before, Langewiesche includes a background to the region’s history and politics, explaining the area’s French colonial past, the Islamic revolution, and the Tuareg rebellion.

A Kirkus Reviews contributor deemed the book to be “a restless, curious, at times dark ramble through Saharan outposts,” crediting Langewiesche with an outstanding ability to depict the physical impact of desert heat and with drawing a “beguiling human geography” in his cast of officials, fellow travelers, and desert tribesmen. Mary C. Kalfatovic asserted in Library Journal that the book paints a bleak picture of the future for Saharans. The author “comes across as humorless and relentlessly negative.” However, she continued, the book has a “straightforward style that unflaggingly retains interest.”

With Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight Langewiesche takes a very personal look at the joys and perils of flying from the point of view of someone who not only grew up on planes but also spent years as a professional pilot himself before turning to a career in journalism. Langewiesche’s father was a pilot and also the author of a classic book on the subject of flying; Langewiesche himself spent much of his youth flying with his father and his father’s friends before learning to fly himself. In this book, he offers readers a glimpse into what it feels like to control a plane at great heights, while using the act of flying as a metaphor for other aspects of what it means to be human. He also discusses the more physical aspects of flying, including how and why a person’s sense of direction is affected while in the air, using as an example the tragic case of a pilot flying a plane straight into the water, despite the fact that the plane itself was in perfect condition. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked: “Part exposé, part idyll, this is a meditation to savor.”

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center grew out of the unprecedented access granted Langewiesche to ground zero following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. A well-known correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly at the time of the attack, Langewiesche was swift in lodging his request for access to the site during the clean-up process. He ended up being the only journalist allowed into the area at any time of day or night from the start of the project up through its completion. He initially culled his findings, accumulated over a nine-month period, into a multi-part article for the magazine, but the wealth of material continued to expand into a full-length book. Langewiesche’s articles and the resulting book describe the process of bringing numerous agencies together for a joint purpose, and the ways in which these men and women worked together and, in some instances, found themselves embroiled in arguments pertaining to jurisdiction and other issues. He notes the different personality types involved in the project and how each seemed to have its place in the hierarchy of getting the job done. Nathan Ward remarked in Library Journal that Langewiesche was not always evenhanded in his descriptions of the various groups, tending to lump the firefighters together under a few broad strokes rather than paying them their dues as individuals. Overall the critic praised the book as “a marvelous work of committed reporting.”

In The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime Langewiesche takes a look at the issues of law and piracy on the open sea. He analyzes the difficulties in maintaining order in the middle of the ocean and how this might lead to larger global issues when combined with acts of terrorism. Although laws do exist at sea, the wide-open spaces and lack of any effective means of patrolling those open waters make it nearly impossible to actually enforce those laws. Piracy, particularly when the attacks involve smaller vessels, is still a major problem, and the depth of the waters in many portions of the oceans makes it possible for criminals to sink any evidence and make it virtually unrecoverable. In addition, Langewiesche suggests that the distances and emptiness involved on open waters makes it easy for a terrorist organization to take a seemly harmless boat and adapt it as a floating bomb in complete secrecy, with no one suspicious of its status until it has already arrived at its destination and been detonated. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly dubbed Langewiesche’s effort “an eloquent and powerful book,” while a different contributor to that publication felt that the book “brilliantly illuminates a system the world economy depends upon, but will not take responsibility for.”

The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor offers readers a critical look at the definition of terrorism, reminding them that what is deemed a terrorist act is not always committed by a terrorist organization. Looking at the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the ways in which they have been used and otherwise wielded through the decades since their initial development, Langewiesche likens events such as the dropping of two nuclear bombs on Japan by the United States in 1945 to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He does so not to imply that the motivations or sense of judgment are the same, but rather aims to remind readers that terrorism is a common act of warfare. He also stresses that the strength and wealth of the group behind any terrorist act defines the level of destruction that results; had Al Qaeda been in possession of nuclear weapons, the 9/11 attacks might have been quite different. However, the lack of nuclear weapons does not, in and of itself, make either a terrorist group or a government incapable of committing serious terrorist acts. Jonathan Raban, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, remarked: “One need read only the first three pages of The Atomic Bazaar to be reminded of William Langewiesche’s formidable talent as a journalist whose cool, precise and economical reporting is harnessed to an invigorating moral and intellectual perspective on the world he describes.” Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman asserted that the “bracing exposé of nuclear criminality blasts away the ubiquitous misinformation usually attendant on this alarming subject.”



Booklist, April 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, p. 9.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1993, review of Cutting for Sign, p. 1443; May 15, 1996, review of Sahara Unveiled: A Journey across the Desert, p. 729.

Library Journal, December, 1993, Gwen Gregory, review of Cutting for Sign, p. 153; August, 1996, Mary C. Kalfatovic, review of Sahara Unveiled, p. 98; November 1, 2002, Nathan Ward, review of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, p. 106.

New York Times Book Review, May 20, 2007, Jonathan Raban, “The Nuclear Threat,” review of The Atomic Bazaar.

Publishers Weekly, November 15, 1993, review of Cutting for Sign, p. 61; May 18, 1998, review of Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight, p. 59; March 29, 2004, review of The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, p. 49; June 7, 2004, review of The Outlaw Sea, p. 21.


Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage Web site, (January 14, 2008), brief biography of William Langewiesche.*

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Langewiesche, William 1955-

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