The List: Essential 9/11 reading

Andy Downing
Pedestrians on Beekman Street flee the area of the collapsed World Trade Center in lower Manhattan following a terrorist attack on the New York landmark Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.

President Twitter marked the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks by logging on to his computer machine to take aim at the usual targets (Fake News, “Crooked Hillary,” “Pocahontas,” the English language) before announcing, “Leaving the White House soon to speak at the Pentagon. My great honor!” 

So, there's that.

Anyway, to better mark the occasion, we thought we’d put together a list of the 9/11-related features that we view as essential, including a handful of tough, heartbreaking reads and one lighter piece (The Onion remains a national treasure.)

“The Falling Man” by Tom Junod for Esquire

One of the more harrowing features I’ve read about that day, centered on a much-circulated photo of a man who jumped from the Twin Towers, choosing a fall over the flames. Take the time to read this one and absorb the full gut punch.

Key passage:

Photographs lie. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers—trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly.

“The Worst Day of My Life Is Now New York’s Hottest Tourist Attraction” by Steve Kandell for Buzzfeed

Written 13 years after the 2001 attacks, Kandell, who lost a sister that morning, makes a hesitant visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It’s personal and sad and funny and poignant, and it will stick with you long after you read it.

Key passage:

There are two recording booths for people to tell their own stories of the day, or remembrances of loved ones who were lost. A man exits one of the confessionals, sees me, shakes his head, and says, "Amazing idea." I enter, sit down, and stare at the screen ahead and say Shari's name and how I was 3,000 miles away that morning and didn't even know she was working there until I got the call at 6 in the morning and that I wish I had seen her more in those last years and remembered more about her and had something better prepared to say and that I wished my kids would have known her and that she'd think it's pretty fucking weird that I'm talking about her to an invisible camera in the bowels of a museum dedicated to the fact that she was killed by an airplane while sitting at her desk and at some point the timer is up.

“Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” in The Onion

This article by the satirical paper perfectly captured the sense of helplessness felt by most in the nation, who could do little more than stand idly by as the tragedy unfolded.

Key passage:

"I baked a cake," said Pearson, shrugging her shoulders and forcing a smile as she unveiled the dessert in the Overstreet household later that evening. "I made it into a flag."

“Tuesday, And After” by various writers for the New Yorker

The publication invited a wide variety of New York writers to contribute thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, all of which are worth reading, but particularly those of Susan Sontag.

Key passage:

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be. –Susan Sontag

“Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History” by Joan Didion for the New York Review of Books

Captures the way each of us processes grief differently, and how the things that trigger it can be unexpected and brutal.

Key passage:

I put on my glasses. I began to read.

“New York was no mere city,” the marked lines began. “It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

I hit the word “perishable” and I could not say it.

“The World 9/11 Took From Us” by Omer Aziz for the New York Times

The most recent of the pieces collected here, it takes in the post-9/11 landscape through the eyes of its author, who was an 11-year-old Muslim boy when the attacks took place.

Key passage:

My life from that point forward was shaped by this great crime; I tried to distance myself from people who brought destruction to America’s cities, and came up against the twisted perceptions Americans had of brown people. Sept. 11 marked the loss of innocence, the abrupt recognition that I was different, would always be viewed as different, and that the stakes of this difference could be life and death.

Note: We wanted to include David Foster Wallace’s incredible “9/11: The View from the Midwest,” but the link to the Rolling Stone essay is currently down, unfortunately.