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Five essential books about 9/11

September 04, 2011

"Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs" by Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan, Charles Traub and Alice Rose George (2002). Perhaps the most stunning visual representation of the tragedy, this collection of nearly 1,000 images — shot by hundreds of photographers, professional and amateur — traces the devastation of the World Trade Center from impact to aftermath, with a clarity made all the more profound by the chaos that impelled it. The title comes from E.B. White's 1948 essay, with its terrifyingly prescient vision: "The city," White writes, "for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sounds of the jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition."

"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" by William Langewiesche (2002). Originally serialized in the Atlantic, Langewiesche's inside account of the dismantling of the Trade Center site is a masterpiece of compression, a sober look at an emotionally loaded operation and a subtle rendering of the territorial battles between police, fire fighters and construction crews that were only heightened by the tragedy. Langewiesche was on the rubble from the beginning, and his observations — understated, reflective and insightful — remind us of the power of work to root us amid horror, as well as the courage involved in doing what needs to be done.

"Pattern Recognition" by William Gibson (2003). The first — and still, in many ways, the best — book of fiction to emerge from the tragedy, Gibson's novel came out less than 18 months after the collapse of the twin towers, yet it evokes the post-Sept. 11 world of paranoia, inference and conspiracy so acutely that it's almost as if he dreamed it into being. Gibson, of course, was ideally suited for the challenge; his books had dealt with such issues since the 1980s, making "Pattern Recognition" a kind of speculative fiction in reverse, a novel in which the line between future and present has irrevocably blurred.

"In the Shadow of No Towers" by Art Spiegelman (2004). A longtime resident of Lower Manhattan, Spiegelman felt the attack on the World Trade Center viscerally: His daughter had started high school across the street from the twin towers just days before. "In the Shadow of No Towers" refracts his anxiety, his belief that the world, in some fundamental sense, has ended, through the filter of 10 full-color broadside comics that originally appeared in the German paper Die Zeit and LA Weekly because they were too incendiary for the mainstream American press. The strips here literally jangle with chaos, with the edginess of waiting for the other shoe to drop. "On 9/11/01 time stopped," Spiegelman writes. "By 9/12/01 clocks began to tick again … but everyone knew it was the ticking of a giant time bomb."

"The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright (2006). A New Yorker staff writer, Wright won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for this account of the backstory of Sept. 11, the roots of which date to the 1940s. Deftly written and deeply researched, the book traces the history of Islamist thought, the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the rise of Al Qaeda, reminding us that there is no understanding without context, without a sense of the complexity of the world.

— David L. Ulin

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