Halberstam to Graphic Novels: Top 10 Books About 9/11

Wed Sep 7, 2011 2:58pm EDT

Novels, journalism, essays, children's stories, graphic novels, comic books, poetry -- any form that can be put on paper and between covers has been used in response to the events of 9/11.

Books drawing on that day range from Pulitzer Prize-winning works of reportage to science fiction, from a dry congressional committee document to an illustrated story for kids. 

This is by no means a definitive "best of" list. Instead, call it a cross-section of works that illuminate, draw from, argue about or grapple with a terrible day and the reverberations that followed.

"The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States" and "The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation," Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

It's dry and lengthy, and it provided plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists who doubt the official explanations of what happened that morning in New York and Washington. But the official document of cause and effect, failures and oversights and missed opportunities is a good place to start.

Sample passage:

"In passing through these checkpoints, each of the hijackers would have to be screened by a walk-through metal detector calibrated to detect items with at least the metal content of a .22-caliber handgun. Anyone who might have set off that detector would have been screened with a hand wand – a procedure requiring the screener to identify the metal item or items that caused the alarm … None of the checkpoint supervisors recalled the hijackers or reported anything suspicious regarding their screening."

Since the official report might scare off some readers, author Sid Jacobson and artist Ernie Colon created a more user-friendly graphic version, which does a surprisingly good job of condensing the original "9/11 Commission Report" without losing its scope or trivializing it.

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"102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers," Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn

You could probably fill a list just with books written by New York Times reporters who covered 9/11 for the paper. This is one of those: a detailed chronicle of what happened inside the World Trade Center towers between the impact of the first plane and the collapse of the second tower. 

Much of the 9/11 literature reaches for the Big Story, while "102 Minutes" focuses on the hundreds of little stories that played out in the towers that morning. (The original hardcover's subtitle was "The Untold Story," not "The Unforgettable Story.")

"A bomb, Dianne DeFontes thought, when thinking became possible again. At 8:46:30, an impact had knocked her off a chair in the law office on the 89th floor of the north tower, 1 World Trade Center. The door swung free, even though she had bolted it shut."

"Firehouse," David Halberstam

Small human stories were also the province of veteran journalist David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who used "Firehouse" -- published in 2002, five years before his death -- to chronicle the Engine 40, Ladder 35 firehouse. That Upper West Side company that sent 13 men to the World Trade Center, and lost all but one of them.

His book is a tale of ordinary men doing heroic things, and the grief felt by those they left behind; the storytelling is gentle and affectionate, using little details to tell a story of enormous loss.

"Later when Angela spoke of Sept.11 and of Frank's phone call, she said that he knew what he was going into, that they all knew. Even without the collapses, she said, he was experienced enough to know that with such big planes hitting towers like that, with all that fuel exploding, that it was going to be the worst thing they ever had faced. They knew, she added, that not all of the men were going to be coming back."

"The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright won the Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award finalist for this book, which uses the 9/11 attacks as a starting point for a detailed look at the rise of Al-Qaeda, the roots of Osama Bin Laden's militancy and the Western intelligence failures that failed to anticipate the threat.

Wright delivers incisive large-scale reportage on the issue of terrorism, giving an enlightening look at how individual terrorists were raised and radicalized. A passage on the young Osama bin Laden is typical of the latter:

"When they played soccer, Osama would bring along tuna and cheese sandwiches for the other players, even on days when he was fasting. His commitment and composure commanded respect. Out of modesty, he stopped wearing regular soccer shorts and took to playing in long pants. In deference to his beliefs, the other players followed suit."

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Jonathan Safran Foer

The best-known piece of 9/11 fiction is, as they say, soon to be a major motion picture; Stephen Daldry's film, which stars Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and John Goodman, is due out late this year. The novel, a follow-up to Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated," centers on a nine-year old boy searching for the lock that will open with a key left to him by his father, who died in the World Trade Center.

As does most bestselling fiction, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" drew mixed reviews that ran the gamut from "ambitious, pyrotechnic, riddling and above all… incredibly moving" (Salman Rushdie) to  "overextended and sentimentally watery" (John Updike). But while Foer can be awfully showy at times, at its best his high-wire act is both invigorating and affecting.

"As for the bracelet Mom wore to the funeral, what I did was I converted Dad's last voice message into Morse code, and I used sky-blue beads for silence, maroon beads for breaks between letters, violet beads for breaks between words, and long and short pieces of string between the beads for long and short beeps, which are actually called blips, I think, or something. Dad would have known."

"Falling Man," Don DeLillo

Two of the thorniest and most brilliant New York-based writers, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster, drew on 9/11 in strong fiction. While Auster's "Brooklyn Follies" deals with the event only peripherally -- its action ends just before the planes hit -- DeLillo makes the event central to his National Book Award-winning novel, whose central character is a lawyer who survived the attack.

The dark and (typically, for DeLillo) unconventional novel starts on the street outside the towers and ends inside the building at impact; it draws on the dead, the wounded and traumatized, a hijacker, a performance artist and an array of others etched in unsettling and vivid prose.

"The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherwordly things in the morning pall."

"Saturday," Ian McEwan

British novelist McEwan ("Atonement") wrote a newspaper article about 9/11 that inspired Mark Knopfler to write the song "If This Is Goodbye"; he also used this 2005 novel to explore, albeit obliquely, the pervasive sense that things changed forever on that fall morning.

"Saturday" follows a neurosurgeon over the course of one weekend day -- and while 9/11 doesn't directly figure in the narrative, it deeply informs the mood of the book. His protagonist, Henry Perowne, is living with the certain knowledge that the world is different, that the '90s now seem like an innocent decade ("and who would have thought that at the time?"), that things that one seemed innocent are now imbued with threat.

"It's already almost eighteen months since half the planet watched, and watched again, the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter, at which time there gathered round the innocent silhouette of any jet plane a novel association. Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed."

"In the Shadow of No Towers," Art Spiegelman

Spiegelman helped bring graphic novels to the attention of serious readers with "Maus," in which he dared to use the medium to deal with the subject of the Holocaust. When the World Trade Centers fell, the lower Manhattan resident said he found himself once again "reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide," resulting in this dramatic, angry large-scale work inspired by early newspaper comics.

If the approach can sometimes seem unnervingly flippant, attention to the entire package -- 10 two-page spreads, two essays and reproductions of eight turn-of-the-century comics that somehow seem appropriate -- shows an artist struggling to comprehend the event and its aftermath in the best way he knows how. 

"Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey," Maira Kalman

Even children's literature tackled the difficult subject of 9/11, but few did it with the grace and the drama that celebrated author/artist Kalman brought to this true story of a fire-fighting boat that was launched in 1931 but had fallen into disrepair before it was put back in service on Sept. 11.

Kalman uses a variety of styles to convey both the more innocent heyday of the boat and the horrifying reason it had to be used again. (Note: Some parents have complained that the book is geared for children too young to be dealing with 9/11 … but that's obviously an individual decision.)

"Anything Can Happen: A Poem and Essay," Seamus Heaney

Irish poet Heaney's 2000 translation of "Beowulf" was a visceral and beautiful tour de force; this slim volume also uses classic literature to wrestle with 9/11 and, in subsequent updated editions, with the wars that followed.

The key text, a Heaney poem originally titled "Horace and the Thunder" but later retitled "Anything Can Happen," was inspired by the Roman poet Horace:

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter

Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head

Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now

He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky.. It shook the earth

and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,

the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.

Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,

Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune

Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,

Setting it down bleading on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven's weight

Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.

Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.

Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

See all TheWrap's 9/11 Coverage

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