Readings for the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy for a previous generation, September 11, 2001 was a landmark day in our shared history. I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate returned early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set to a news station.

At that point it was unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls to the academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. On the way I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and “Big Sister” from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon, and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our English professor, too, was engrossed by the rippling montage of rubble and smoke being projected onto a screen behind him.


As the anniversary approached this year, I picked up a coffee table book of photos, Reuters’ September 11: A Testimony from the library and was struck by how dated everything appeared. For an event so fresh in my memory, it actually looks like something that happened a long time ago thanks to everything from the fashions and car designs to the photographic quality. You also get the sense that, even in the early Internet age, things like missing person posters and public tributes to the dead were primarily paper-based then. The photos barely capture the scope of the devastation. One image of firefighters among the wreckage looks like a film set or architect’s model, the human figures like ants among the dusty girders. This was published in late 2001, so it was put together quickly. Photographs tell the story, with extremely brief captions on facing pages. Nearly half of the length is devoted to documenting the three crash sites, with the rest chronicling memorial services, national and international commemorations, and New York City gradually returning to business as usual.


On the way back from our mother’s wedding this summer, my sister and brother-in-law and I passed the entrance to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania so drove in for a look. The 1,000-acre site is administered by the National Park Service. On the airless June day we were there, the Tower of Voices was not making its eerie music, but it was still a peaceful spot for reflection. You can listen to a recording of the windchimes on the website. There is also a visitor center with a permanent exhibition that we will have to go back and see another time.


I also recently reread Rowan Williams’s superb book-length essay Writing in the Dust (2002), which I’d read twice before. Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the air filled with dust and smoke, he did the same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated, ensured everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God.

Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautioned against labeling the Other as Evil and responding in a simple spirit of retribution. Prophets’ words are never welcome, of course, and time has shown that Western policies have only made things worse. I must have read this from a university library; I then did a peculiar (and probably illegal, in copyright terms) thing and typed out every single word of it into a Word file so I could keep it forever.

Here are some of Williams’s words of wisdom:

“The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”

My original rating (2013):

My rating now:

 


Other 9/11-themed reading I have done:

The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)

A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world.

 

The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available to read here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] our lives and our deaths count equally.”

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)

Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.

 

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)

On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice. She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding it live up to its democratic ideals.

 

The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)

Waldman’s debut imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry. As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions in this canny psychological exploration.

 

(Most of the above text is recycled from an article I wrote for Bookkaholic web magazine (now defunct) in 2013.)

 

I can think of at least six more novels I’ve read that would be appropriate for this list, yet even including them here would be a spoiler. Generally, if you’re reading a novel set in New York City in 2000 or so, you should be prepared…

This year I meant to read Mitchell Zuckoff’s comprehensive journalistic study, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, but ran out of time. Eleanor highly recommends the audiobook of the oral history The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. This Kirkus list has two additional nonfiction suggestions.

 

Where were you on 9/11?
Have you read anything related to it?

26 responses

  1. I haven’t read anything … yet, though it’s inevitable that I shall at some point soon. It is one of those seminal events where that day is indelibly marked in our personal history, even those of us in a completely different continent.

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    1. It did seem to resonate around the world, in a way some other terrorist attacks have not.

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      1. Of course. The visual impact made it particularly involving and shocking.

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  2. I was on my honeymoon in Brazil at the time and we were in a picturesque, isolated village on the day and only heard the news once we got back to our hotel in the evening. A day or so later, we were having drinks on a terrace in Salvador de Bahia and a plane flew close overhead and everyone panicked.

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    1. Wow, that’s memorable timing. And it’s understandable that it made people nervy about flying.

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  3. I was at home with my 11month old, and had turned on the telly just after the first plane hit, and stayed glued in horror. At that time, we had hi-fi loudspeakers that were slim, square and very tall either side of the telly/hi-fi unit, and not long after my daughter lay on her back put her feet on one speaker and just pushed it over, totally breaking all the innards. Small beer, but it resonated strongly.

    I’ve read a couple of novels that strongly reference 9/11. Iain Banks’s Dead Air begins with it, and Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is a very dark comedy about a divorcing couple who believe each other were killed in the tragedy and are shocked to find their exes are still alive.

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    1. Wow. I’ve always thought that people with children must be able to mark time differently, by their growth! So for you, it probably does feel like 20 years because of your daughter’s age now, whereas for me it really doesn’t feel like it happened over half my lifetime ago.

      I don’t know those two; interesting that Banks chose to open a novel with 9/11.

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  4. When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman is the only one I’ve read where 9/11 features heavily – and I didn’t even know it did for the first half of the book.

    Also, I’m just writing about Kingsolver and didn’t know she’d published collections of essays – good to know!

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    1. Ah, good one. It wasn’t even one of the novels I had in mind! We did it for book club earlier this year.

      Kingsolver has two essay collections and they’re both excellent. I’d like to find them to reread.

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  5. I was actually hard at work in downtown Washington, D.C., close to the Capitol (the possible target of the third plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa.). Since I was frantically trying to meet an almost-but-not-quite impossible filing deadline, I mostly registered my co-workers shouting the news and crowding the hallways. It wasn’t until my building was evacuated and I listened/watched the news that the impact of the event really sunk in.

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    1. Oh my goodness, that must have been terrifying. I’ve read a memoir by a former White House pastry chef who had to evacuate the building through an underground tunnel that day. I went to college in Frederick, Maryland, so we were relatively close to everything that was happening, plus another girl in my dorm lived in Shanksville.

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    2. I suspect you were closer to it than I, especially with a dorm mate from Shanksville. As I said, when it happened I was pretty oblivious; the only thing that terrified me was my filing date (we’d been told there would be no filing extensions and it was a huge case). It was only later that I realized what had happened. I had friend who worked a block from the White House who did have a terrifying time — essentially all were evacuated as it was happening (and quickly; the women were told to take off their high heels so they could move faster).

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  6. I hadn’t realised about the Kingsolver essays (how?) so will look out for those. I haven’t read anything about 9/11, it’s come into the odd book I’ve read but tangentially. I can’t really bring myself to, still. I was living in SE London, working close to home, saw the second plane hit live on a TV or Internet news site, not sure which now, at work. I was sent home to my flat, the back windows of which looked over to Canary Wharf. In London, at least, there was a strong rumour the one tower that was there at the time was a target, and I kept visualising a plane flying into it, traumatised forever by seeing that second plane. I had to keep my curtains shut for ages. My friend Matthew worked in one of the buildings around it and was evacuated, I knew that but then didn’t hear from him for ages as he struggled home to central London on over-crowded tube trains. We spoke for 3 hours that evening on the phone and then got together in early October – and our 20th anniversary of getting together is this year, married seven and a half years. I wonder if we’d have got so emotionally close had that day not happened. And it makes it easy to remember how long we’ve been together (I appreciate that’s a trite thing to say!).

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    1. That’s a lovely story of how you got together. I think for a lot of people it was a wake-up call to appreciate some relationships and formalize others.

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  7. I was getting ready for work, with Good Morning America on as I had it every morning. I remember it was a Tuesday because I was going in later. I saw the second plane hit on live TV and remember Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer being just shocked and it shocked me too, and I started thinking about all the possible planes in the sky and where they might be targeting. I’ll never forget that feeling. I’ve not read any books centering on 9/11.

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    1. I know some people don’t like to read about traumatic events of which they have personal experience. Reading is my way of processing things, so that explains why I started reading a lot about illness, death and medicine some years ago, and why I can’t seem to get enough of books about Covid-19 these days. I wondered if you might have read some Jacqueline Woodson and encountered it that way (I won’t say which book so as to avoid spoilers).

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  8. It’s hard to believe it’s already been 20 years since 9/11. But my 20 year old daughter is proof… She was 4 months old at the time.
    I’ve read several books that at least mention the event, but not any that centre on it.

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    1. Like I said to Annabel above, your children must be a good way to mark time. Whereas I can feel like years fly by with nothing to show for them.

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      1. True, they are! But sometimes I still can’t believe it – I think I must be calculating their ages wrong. or something. Lol
        My son’s age is how I know how long we’ve lived in this town – we moved here when he was 6 months old. So, yes, it comes in handy!

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  9. I was at work in France when it happened and my boss had the TV on (for a sports event) and we saw the second plane hit the tower and then both falling. We all kept saying « WWIII is happening » and a few weeks later I was flying to New York City, the plane was almost empty but a passenger had been stupid enough to let his suitcase on a seat, the stewardess kept asking whose bag it was, so I shouted to the man and he said he was sorry, but the stewardess had totally lost it. Strange times.

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    1. I think that image of the second tower being hit is ingrained in many people’s minds. That must have been such a nerve-racking time to travel.

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  10. My husband started reading Submission last night – hasn’t got far enough to give an opinion on it yet. I started listening to Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 but the upload I did to my iPod didn’t work so, frustratingly, all I got was background about how the book was written and what the appendices contain. Will have another go tonight

    Where was I on that fateful day? In the office in Wales, getting irritated because my manager in the USA was late for our meeting. They were all glued to the TV understandably.

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    1. Audio might be a good way to approach a dauntingly large book like that. I hope that you find Fall and Rise worthwhile and that your husband enjoys The Submission.

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  11. We lived in Hamburg at the time and I’d been helping at the afterschool book fair at the International School, chatting away to my American friends. It must have happened while I was cooking dinner because I didn’t hear until my husband got home. I’m not even sure we watched it on television until the children had gone to bed because we thought it was too scary for them. Next day at school, there was a uniformed ex-military security guard on the door and we were later issued with ID passes. The school decided they needed to talk to the children about it in case they were traumatised and they were encouraged to draw. Every single picture my 4-year-old son drew for at least a year featured a plane flying into a burning building and he only used black, except for the flames. I’m really sad for him. I think the school was too heavy-handed, but there were many Americans there, some parents had high profile jobs with US companies and the terrorists had lived in a suburb of Hamburg, so there really was a feeling that it could be a target. It seems odd to me that my youngest (now 21) doesn’t remember it; she’s fascinated about it as a historical event the way I was always fascinated by the assassination of Kennedy, which happened when I was a couple of months old.

    This year my husband taped a week’s worth of documentaries about 9/11, much of which was amateur footage that captured the horror and panic in New York. There’s a horrific photo of someone falling that was used in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I had never seen when I read the book; I don’t remember them talking about ‘jumpers’ back then and certainly not showing footage. The photo shocked me, but the book was great.

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    1. It happened about 9 a.m. EST, so that would have been mid-afternoon in Europe. It’s amazing how the ripples went out worldwide.

      One of the most wrenching photos in the Reuters book showed people at the windows and on ledges — it’s unbearable to think that they all died, by jumping or during the collapse.

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      1. Yes, it would have been 5pm I’m Hamburg. Now you’d find out instantly because a friend would send a WhatsApp message, but not back then. Now I would probably have heard on the bus or train. The most upsetting thing for me in the documentaries is the recording of a woman phoning the emergency services and being told “Stay where you are, we’re coming to get you.” It makes you wonder if she would have survived if she’d risked her life to reach the stairs and escape. And if the woman manning the phones regrets that advice. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

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