Weekend Reading: The 20th Anniversary of 9/11
The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.
There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.
This week’s Weekend Reading looks a little bit different in format. Instead of covering multiple topics, this week’s edition focuses on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Rarely does an event reverberate as widely and deeply as 9/11, and rarely will a single topic so thoroughly dominate a news cycle. For even more on the anniversary, click back through our archives to revisit Jennifer Senior’s masterful article for The Atlantic entitled “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind” and more.
‘Reopening Old Wounds’: When 9/11 Remains Are Identified, 20 Years Later
Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times
There is something noble about the continued effort to identify the remains of the victims of 9/11, the refusal to call the work complete when there are still 22,000 body parts to test, belonging to 1,106 unidentified victims. This is quietly dignified work that seems fitting for what is still the largest missing persons investigation ever undertaken in the nation.
🗄️ From 2003: Falling Man — Tom Junod, Esquire: One of the best magazine stories ever written is also a story about trying to identify a victim of 9/11. Junod took to Twitter to express his disappointment at Esquire’s decision to lock the story behind a paywall (which they’ve since removed), but Junod’s friend and ESPN colleague Kevin Van Valkenburg shared the link to a PDF of the story. He also recommended a story by Esquire’s Alex Belth on the writing of “The Falling Man.”
📖 What Does It Mean to ‘Never Forget’? — Dan Berry, The New York Times: An anniversary as big as the 20th for an event as consequential as 9/11 asks us to consider how and what we remember. This piece deconstructs the well-meaning but overly cliche saying of “never forget” that cropped up in the wake of the attacks. It’s an interesting read that reckons with the undeniable truth of, “of course we won’t forget, but then again, of course we will.”
🗄️ From 2001: Tuesday, and After — The New Yorker: A Talk of the Town piece written by some of our finest writers, at the time and still now, that came out the week after the 9/11 attacks. Twenty years on, we’re talking about remembering, and rightly so, but the week after, it was about observing and processing. It remains remarkable two decades later.
We Rise or Fall Together
Scott Raab, Esquire
The culmination of a great idea well executed, Scott Raab’s reporting on the rebuilding of One World Trade took a decade for Esquire, and he’s now written a book on the subject, Once More to the Sky: The Rebuilding of the World Trade Center. This article is adapted from the new book, and it speaks to the power of a building, a big building that was as much a symbol as anything else, and how it can represent the perseverance of the human spirit.
If you’ve got article views on Esquire’s website left or need an excuse to subscribe, consider a few of Raab’s incredible reporting efforts:
🗄️ From 2011: Commemorative Calculus: How an Algorithm Helped Arrange the Names on the 9/11 Memorial — John Matson, Scientific American: The building of One World Trade wasn’t the only impressive engineering feat situated at Ground Zero. When the 9/11 memorial was built, 2,983 names had to be placed, but instead of going about that task as simply as possible, the planners wanted to preserve “meaningful adjacencies,” where names could be grouped according to how they had existed in the world. Some requests were simple, like two men — one unable to continue the descent and one who refused to leave his side, despite them not knowing each other — were grouped together. Others, like those within the ranks of the 700 people killed from Cantor Fitzgerald, were more complicated.
🗄️ From 2001: The Way We Live Now: 11-11-01; Lost and Found — Colson Whitehead, The New York Times Magazine: Quite simply one of my favorite things ever written about not just 9/11 but all of New York City. I revisit it when I’ve forgotten the power of words to transport me to another place, and for all of us who know the Big Apple only through visits, this is more than enough to make us wish we could be counted as New Yorkers.
Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
It’s a favorite saying of golfers everywhere that “a bad day on the course beats a good day in the office,” and for those of us who truly and deeply love the game, truer words have not been spoken. This isn’t one of those stories though. Jimmy Dunne missed a day at the office to play golf, and the day just happened to be September 11th, 2001. And the office just happened to be in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
🗄️ From 2001: Sudden Death — Steve Wulf, ESPN The Magazine: This story ran in the October 1st, 2001, edition of ESPN The Magazine, and, like the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town piece above (or, perhaps the greatest 9/11 example, Nancy Gibbs’ story for Time), I still marvel at what a writer could do in a short amount of time. But reading it again now, I’m struck by a sad truth: The price of beautiful words like Steve Wulf’s came at the expense of truth. Of course, he wasn’t lying, and he couldn’t know how wrong he would be when he wrote, “But never again will a playoff or final or bowl seem quite as ‘huge.’ Not as long as we remember what the Towers and Pentagon looked like before and after, not as long as we ponder the millions of lives touched by the 5,500 innocent people who are dead or missing.” But that’s just not how we watch sports 20 years later.
🗄️ From 2011: A Whole New Game — Eli Saslow, ESPN The Magazine
We crave the escape of sports more than ever — a decade later, attendance, ticket prices and TV audiences are at or near record highs — but we watch them differently. After 19 hijackers sneaked into our airports and disguised their way onto our planes, we are less likely to accept almost anything at face value. Instead of trusting our games, we watch and we speculate: How? Why? This is the age of skepticism, of outright cynicism, when we are not surprised to learn that our champions needed steroids to succeed or that college athletes are as corrupt as the system under which they must nevertheless abide. We were not naive before 9/11. But there is less belief now, less magic.
How 9/11 Changed…
The Washington Post Magazine
Short little vignettes, stitched together to show 9/11’s effect on numerous topics like television, art, education, photography, Millennials, country music, fashion, theater, and much more.
📖 Is 9/11 a Day, or Is It an Era? — James Poniewozik, The New York Times: In talking about the glut of 9/11 documentary films and docuseries, one critic asks tough, and somewhat uncomfortable, questions.
Twenty years later, is there anything still to say about September 11th? Of course; it would be unimaginable to simply ignore it. A tougher question is: Is there anything more to say than there was five, 10, 15 years ago?
📖 Dread, War and Ambivalence: Literature Since the Towers Fell — Dwight Garner & Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times: Two New York Times book critics try to capture what 9/11 hath wrought on American fiction, even as they acknowledge that 20 years is early still in the run of time for which 9/11 will be a major influence on culture.
Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road, he has said, was directly inspired by 9/11. Novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, in which a fictional flu epidemic has devastated the world, and even [Colson] Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One, landed with fresh force. (Zombies became, in novels, film and television, something like national mascots.) There was a sharpened sense that the unease would never end.
📖‘One Giant Nerve That You Were Afraid to Touch’ — Jesse David Fox, Vulture/New York: After 9/11, a common question was: When can we laugh again? When can we enjoy levity for levity’s sake? Is it too soon for jokes? Will they seem ghoulish? These were common, everyday questions, but they were felt on much more profound levels by comedians, who struggled to know if there was even a place for them in the world in that moment.
‘I’m Part of Something That’s Really Evil’ — The Daily, The New York Times
Before and After — This American Life
60 Words — Radiolab
Ten Years In — This American Life
What 9/11 Did to My Life — What Next/Slate
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