This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, 9/11. Naturally, anniversaries are tough for survivors and those significantly impacted by such events, so my heart goes out to them. It’s also given me cause to look back and think about how we write and read about what happened that day.
I’ve always been of the opinion that we need time and distance from something to write about it in a way that truly resonates (which is why I’ve avoided reading any of the rushed-to-market books about the Trump presidency or coronavirus). Very few books about 9/11, so far, have moved past the informational and into the emotional. Perhaps one day they’ll be as common as historical WWII novels, but for now, here’s a short list of truly moving books about 9/11.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Although Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close doesn’t take place at the time of the 9/11 attacks, the impact of them echoes throughout Foer’s novel. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Oskar, whose father was killed in the attacks one year prior. Oskar discovers a key in the bottom of a vase, presumably once belonging to his father, and he undertakes a quest all across New York City to discover what it unlocks. Oskar is traumatised by the events of 9/11, he experiences depression and insomnia (which he describes as “wearing heavy boots”), and his search for closure made manifest in the key gives him purpose to go on each day. Bring tissues!
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon isn’t exactly known for his moving prose – heck, he’s not even known for being particularly readable – but Bleeding Edge is a book about 9/11 with an interesting take. Pynchon takes the already-surreal events of that day and transposes them onto a dream-like detective novel, with poignant parallels that continue to resonate even as time goes on. The story follows an ex-certified fraud examiner (from the brilliantly-named agency Nail ‘Em and Tail ‘Em), as she chases down conspirators making the most of the dot-com bubble burst, navigates separation from her ex-husband and manages custody of their two children, all as the threat of 9/11 looms on the horizon.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Normally, books about 9/11 (or, indeed, any tragic event) have a sympathetic narrator at their heart, someone you can root for and cry for. Not so in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation! Moshfegh has created a character so unlikeable that her Goodreads reviews are plagued with complaints. The unnamed narrator – beautiful, rich, entirely self-absorbed – decides, around the time of September 2000, that she’s had enough of the world and she’d like to sleep for an entire year. Sure enough, she locks herself up in her apartment with enough sleeping pills to take down a rhinoceros. She, and the city (well, the world), are in for a rude awakening when she finally emerges.
The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett M. Graff
This is the only non-fiction book I’ve included in this list of books about 9/11, because it’s the only one I’ve found that has the same emotional arcs and resonance as fiction. Most non-fiction books on this subject are quite dry, I’ve found, but The Only Plane In The Sky – being an oral history – absolutely bleeds humanity and meaning. Graff pulls together hundreds of transcripts and documents to tell the stories of first responders, witnesses, government officials, survivors, and loved ones, painting a comprehensive portrait of the day that changed their lives, and the world. If you’re feeling particularly brave and emotionally stalwart-y, you can listen to the audiobook, which won many best-of awards last year.