We all have our stories of that day. Here's mine.
I was living with my girlfriend on Elizabeth Street, a mile or so from the towers. You could see them from our bedroom window, like the world's biggest nightlight.
It was the impact of the plane that woke us, and then the sirens. All morning, we beat a path up and down the stairwell to our roof. Looking, watching, and then confirming what we had just seen by seeing it again on television.
By midday, after the buildings had fallen and the ash cloud was settling on the neighborhood, panic began to set in. Around that time my editor at the San Francisco Chronicle called and said, "Uh, hey, John, you going to get that review in today?"
Really? You need that copy... now?
There was reason to press for copy, sort of. The book I was reviewing was The Ash Garden, Dennis Bock's elegant novel about the long aftermath of trauma and war. Its pub date was 9/11.
But I couldn't read. I couldn't write. I felt, in that moment, that books didn't matter.
It seems now that every single 9/11 absolutism has been broken. Irony didn't die, humor didn't die, and we certainly haven't become more thoughtful as a nation. I also reversed my feeling about reading after 9/11: books never mattered more to me.
Once the spectacle had been absorbed, and the dead had been mourned, September 11 was a moment so large it had to be understood. Journalists, who had seen this coming, stepped up.
Their books began arriving in 2004. There was Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's 102 Minutes, that terrifying record of what happened inside the building; Steve Coll's The Ghost Wars, which offered a history of America's proxy war in Afghanistan; Eliot Weinberger's record of the rush to war in Iraq, What Happened Here. And so many more.
Between 2004 and 2006 an avalanche of 9/11 books hit stores. Histories of Pakistan and the Islamic jihad; tales of the hunt for bin Laden; political memoirs; essay collections.
I read dozens of them and, in an awful way, it felt good. I took comfort in having so many places to turn to for answers to my questions. Who exactly were our allies? What did they do in our name? Why were young men in Egypt and Pakistan willing to die simply to take an American life?
All of my questions were American questions, though, by which I mean they were questions conditioned by my citizenship. My dollars, my country, our soldiers, our allies. Even when I was trying to read my way out of the parochialisms of being American, I often read right back into them.
The book that broke this habit for me was Anthony Shadid's Night Draws Near, a chronicle of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as seen through the eyes of everyday Baghdadis. Mothers and children, people whose refrigerators were blown open during shock and awe. For the first time since 9/11, here was a book without a filter, a book that didn't assume war was a good solution.
Ever since I finished Night Draws Near I've often bristled at the way our cultural pages assume we're Americans first, humans second. We read less about the world and more about ourselves—instead of reading about the places we are invading, we read about our invaders. The book on the cover of the New York Times book review the week Night Draws Near came out was by George Packer and it was about America in Iraq. It's a natural instinct, I suppose, but in terms of empathy it feels like a closed loop.
So, a year ago, when I started working on Granta's 10 Years Later issue, I thought about what has been missing from our discussions of the world since 9/11. I wanted to take away the framework of nationality to, hopefully, see just how far the ripples have traveled. We wound up with pieces by Iraq war veterans, a Guantánamo detainee; reports from Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan; fiction set in North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
John Freeman is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle and the editor of Granta magazine.