The media is devoting a lot of time to looking back at September 11 and its aftermath. For example, last Saturday, NPR’s Weekend Edition looked at how comedy reacted to the events and rebounded (irony didn’t die). And my local classical station (KMFA) is asking listeners to send in the music they found comforting at the time.
Music has always been important to me. Songs have inspired many of my stories, and I’ve been an amateur musician my whole life: voice and piano lessons, church choir, band from elementary school into college. These days I’m learning to drum. But I can’t remember any specific music I listened to after September 11.
What I do remember is what I read. My choices might surprise you, so before I tell you what those books were — and solicit readers to mention the books that mattered to them — let me tell you about my experiences on September 11.
I lived in Washington, D.C., and my first news of the attack came from a phone call by a friend to my Aikido dojo, where I was getting dressed after a morning class. He told me about the planes flying into the World Trade Center, and I immediately tried to call my sister, who lived with her family three blocks from the Trade Center. I got no answer.
I went out to my car and listened to the radio. Bob Edwards described the second tower coming down. Then, stunned, but not sure what else to do, I got on the subway and went to work in downtown Washington. It was only after I got to work that I heard about the Pentagon — not to mention all kinds of rumors about bombs at the state department (about six blocks away). Those didn’t even register on me; I was obsessed with getting hold of my sister. I didn’t have her work number, so I was searching the Internet to see if I could find it, while everyone around me was wondering if we should just all go home.
It finally occurred to me that my sister might have called our parents in Texas. And then it dawned on my that my parents might be a bit worried, what with one daughter in Manhtattan, the other in D.C. So I called them, found out my sister and her family were fine (all had gone off to work and school far from their neighborhood before the attack), and assured my folks I was fine.
And then I walked the six miles home, because I figured the D.C. subways might be the next thing attacked.
To say the attack affected me emotionally would be an understatement. The idea that people — that I — could die not for any reason personal to them (me), but simply as collateral damage, horrifies me. Like most people, I’d prefer to die in bed at the end of a long life, surrounded by people I love. Failing that, I’d like my death to mean something. The image of people leaping out of the Trade Center haunted me, though I applauded the people who crashed the plane in Pennsylvania. I’d like to think I’d have fought back like that.
Once I stopped obsessively reading every news account (I even watched television news, which I hate because it is superficial and in times of crisis ridiculously repetitive), I turned to fiction for comfort. Two books, both of which I’d read many years earlier, helped a lot: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Although Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize, his work may be less well known these days. It Can’t Happen Here is a 1930s novel that assumes the election of a fascist U.S. president in 1936. It’s considered satirical, but from the radio personalities to the politicians — not to mention the reactions of every day Americans — it sounds all too familiar today.
Catch-22 is probably better known, since it was one of the books highly esteemed in the counter culture 60s. The main character, Yossarian, is convinced someone is out to kill him, and even though this is a World War II novel and he’s a U.S. bombardier flying missions, he doesn’t just mean the Germans.
That is, the books that gave me comfort after September 11 were not books about standing up to an outside invasion, nor were they fantasies that allowed me to spend some time in another place and not think about the real world. Rather they were books that dealt with U.S. weaknesses. Although I was scared of the possibility of being the victim of a terrorist attack, I was more scared of the bad ways in which my country might react.
The idea that we actually have a government agency called the Department of Homeland Security still creeps me out. I find the name Orwellian, never mind some of the policies.
I read It Can’t Happen Here shortly after the attack, but I read Catch-22 about a month later on my first post-September 11 airplane trip. I was reading it as I stood in a lengthy line for security at the Baltimore airport. It made it possible for me to get on a plane.
Both books have semi-happy endings: There’s a strong resistance movement in place by the end of It Can’t Happen Here and Yossarian is still alive at the end of Catch-22. Anything happier in either book would not have been realistic.
I guess that means that I find the most comfort from the idea that people will continue to find ways to oppose the evils of the world.
So what books did you find comforting after September 11? And for those readers who don’t live in the U.S., what books have comforted you when you had crises or disasters in your own countries?
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.