Tuesday, September 11, 2018

2018 0911: Reading 9/11

"No day shall erase you from the memory of time." - Virgil
This is what greets visitors as they enter the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Each square represents one person's memory of the sky on September 11. Incidentally, the choice of this quote engendered heated debate. Read one view here.

It was seventeen years ago that the Twin Towers fell.  I remember kneeling, stricken, in front of the TV in my then-living room, watching Peter Jennings trying to make sense of what was, in the moment, incomprehensible.  I remember standing outside of my little house in Colorado; just like in NYC, the sky was a sheet of bright blue, and just like all across America, that sky was strangely, utterly silent.  The world was silent, it seemed - holding its breath as it watched catastrophe unfold in America. I was 26 and my front yard felt like an awful kind of church. 

Today, that moment - that day - is history. It is both so far away and so intimately a part of American culture, politics, power, and identity.  I spent my professional academic life devoted mostly to teaching about 9/11 - why it happened, what happened, and how what came after related back to that fateful day, and why it all mattered.  It is vitally important that we as a society educate ourselves and our children about this event and this era. That we resist falling into stereotypes to explain away what happened. That we take ownership for how we responded and continue to respond to the cataclysmic terror that fateful morning unleashed. It is our civic duty.

With that in mind, here are a few of my handbooks and hymnals, as it were, for introducing and explaining 9/11 to those who want to learn. Please note that it's never too early to talk about 9/11, and there are very gentle ways to introduce the anniversary to even the youngest children. Frankly, I am of the opinion that we should get the stories that resonate most with us in front of kids as early and often as possible, because in so doing, we seize control of the narrative not just of 9/11, but of American identity, what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century, how even the most horrific of moments hold deep and meaningful opportunities for expressing love and solidarity, both within our own communities and around the world. Never forget that 9/11 happened - and never forget that the world rose up and spoke as one in the aftermath, saying, "We are all Americans." 

Okay, I'm climbing down from my soapbox and talking books for you. Please note: these are all works of non-fiction. If you're interested in post dedicated to fiction and poetry related to 9/11 and the War on Terror, please let me know in the comments!  This is a topic I can - and will - easily go on about for months! 

Required Reading

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright
Generally agreed to be the classic foundational work on how and why 9/11 was able to occur. Journalist Lawrence Wright masterfully weaves together biographies of bin Laden and Zawahiri and the modern histories of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel with the modern foreign policy history of the US in the Middle East. He also shines a spotlight on the failures of domestic policy and the interagency turf wars that contributed to the catastrophic intelligence failures that culminated with the 9/11 attacks. Highly readable.  Wright's work won the National Book Award, is required reading for anyone writing or lecturing about 9/11, and recently was made into a mini-series. If you read only one book about Sept 11, read this one. 

The Longest War by Peter Bergen
Bergen picks up roughly where Wright leaves off - he offers a couple of (heavily indebted to Wright) chapters on the genesis of 9/11, but spends the majority of the work neatly summarizing and analyzing the broad array of actions taken by the Bush administration in the years that followed the attacks.  A remarkably tidy and well organized read that manages to cover both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the adminstration's decision to use torture on detainees, the tempestuous relationship with Pakistan, the ways in which the War on Terror affected America's international policies and power, Al Qaeda's massive ideological and tactical failures, and more. Excellent, concise starting point if you don't remember - or weren't around for! - what happened when after 9/11.

On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal  by Tom Barbash
On September 10, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald was an international brokerage firm with an extraordinary pedigree and a massive amount of financial power, responsible for transacting over 50 trillion dollars in securities a year (that's more than the NASDAQ and the NYSE combined!). The next morning, nearly 700 of its 1,000 NYC-based employees were at their desks 8 floors above the jet that struck One World Trade Center. No one survived the aftermath. This intensely personal book recounts the events of that day and tells the stories of what happened afterwards to those who did survive, from CEO Howard Lutnick to the spouses and children of the lost. It's a difficult book to read, but an important one, touching as it does not only on the overwhelming grief and loss that so many thousands suffered but also the ways in which the very public nature of the attack affected the private lives of the bereaved. That Lutnick was able to rebuild his company speaks as well to the power of community and the resilience of the human spirit.  

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spigelman
If you can find this book, snap it up.  Spigelman, best known for Maus, his searing graphic literature dedicated to retelling his father's experiences in the Holocaust, penned this oversized, (he)art-soaked, letter of grief, anger, and anxiety to New York as he struggled to recover the events he witnessed on 9/11 and the actions taken by the US government in the years that followed (the book was published in 2004). It's a sobering and remarkable piece of history, as much for the illustrations of a very specific time as for the raw emotions that it presses between its heavy cardboard pages.

New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers
Magnum Photographers are known for being the best in the business. This book stands as evidence for such a reputation. It is, without a doubt, the most elegant and harrowing visual commemoration of the events of the day itself.   

Required Reading For the Younger Crowd - and the Young at Heart

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernest Colón
Having read the 9/11 Commission report (you can, too! All 449 pages are right here!), I can say with authority that you miss nothing by reading this condensed and illustrated version - which was approved for publication by the chairs of the 9/11 Commission themselves - instead. As a matter of fact, the unique layout and graphic approach sometimes allows readers to better absorb what was happening in multiple places at the same time, and gives faces to names that are, for most Americans, unknown and difficult to remember.  I also believe that it's our civic duty as American citizens to read this report, understand what happened and how, and contemplate what recommendations the commission made to ensure that such an attack never be repeated, so why not enjoy the format? But that's just me. 

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a small Maasai village in Kenya blessed and offered 14 cows to America as a symbol of their heartache for our nation's losses. "Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort." Lush in its illustrations and gentle in its telling, this work manages to frame the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity for sharing emotions and building community. 

Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman
This cute book - and it is very cute, with bright illustrations and a cheerful, adventurous voice - tells the true story of the fleet of ships, yachts, and boats that convened at the southern tip of Manhattan to transport the thousands and thousands stranded there in the wake of the Twin Towers' collapse. Its star is a feisty little fireboat, the John J. Harvey. Built in 1931 and retired in 1995, the Harvey was indeed brought out of retirement to help chivvy people to safety on that day in 2001. This book does recount the events of 9/11 more succinctly and graphically than the previous book I mentioned, but that's to be expected within the context of the story, which tells the history of the fireboat, lingering  on the bravery of those who manned it and on its specific contributions during World War II. Personally, I wouldn't use it as the first introduction to 9/11 to children due to the level of specificity and a tendency, as I see it, to make 9/11 seem a bit more exciting than terrible.  But it does provide general details of the attacks when you're ready to share those with your little people and keeps things moving along in an upbeat and very engaging manner. Fantastic illustrations, too!

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein
I'll end with my favorite introduction to the events of 9/11, which really isn't much of an introduction at all. As a matter of fact, the only reference to the attacks is an evocative drawing and simple sentence: "The towers are gone now..." But this tells the story of the building of the Twin Towers and the extraordinary actions of French aerialist Philippe Petit, who snuck to the top of the towers in 1974, while they were still under construction, managed to sling a cable between them, and, as the sun rose on a gorgeous NYC morning, spent an hour walking, dancing, and playing on that tightrope  - without harnesses, and without apologies. The best part? The judge who heard his case gave him the sentence of providing a free show to the people of New York, and so he did. A story that celebrates the beauty of New York, the audacity of innovation and artistry, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. I think it's a perfect introduction. Ironically, it's the only book I don't have in the stack pictured below, because we read it so many times when the kids were little that it was grubbily loved to pieces. Guess I need a new one.

I hope this post inspires you to read about 9/11 and discuss it with your friends, family, and, especially, the young people in your life.  We continue to shape the legacy of that terrible day, and we can shape it with love or weaponize it with hate. It's up to us.