20 years after 9/11 Books

Books on 9/11 | Making sense of collapsing towers through words

In 2002, to mark a year of the audacious attack on American soil on September 11, Granta brought out an edition of ‘personal story and opinion’ with 24 writers from Orhan Pamuk to Ivan Klima and Raja Shehadeh exploring ‘What We Think of America’.

In the introduction, Ian Jack wondered why America evokes sentiments of fear, resentment, envy, anger, wonder and hope. The pieces, he said, were about how America has entered non-American lives, and to what effect, for good and bad and both.

Over the years several writers have tried to make sense of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsing and its larger signal to mankind at large in both fiction and non-fiction. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, here are ten books, which cover the terror attack in New York and Washington D.C., in which over 3,000 lives were lost, what led to it and the aftermath.


The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden by Peter Bergen (Simon & Schuster): At the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, little was known about their mastermind, Osama bin Laden of al Qaeda. Bergen had met and interviewed bin Laden for television in 1997. “The key question about bin Laden is,” Bergen writes, “Why did he build an organisation dedicated to the mass murders of civilians?” There was no single event that turned bin Laden from the shy scion of one of the richest families in West Asia into the architect of the 9/11 attacks, says Bergen. “Rather, bin Laden went through a gradual process of radicalisation that first began during his teenage years when he became a religious zealot.” Bergen provides a re-evaluation of the man responsible for precipitating America’s long wars with al-Qaeda and its descendants, capturing bin Laden as family man, battlefield commander, terrorist leader, and fugitive.

Books on 9/11 | Making sense of collapsing towers through words

Ghost Wars and Directorate S by Steve Coll (Penguin): When Coll was managing editor of The Washington Post, he wrote Ghost Wars (Penguin), an account of the CIA’s involvement in covert wars in Afghanistan from 1979-1989 that led to the rise of Islamic militancy, and the Taliban and al Qaeda. Post-1998, the CIA officers and agents made secret attempts to capture and kill bin Laden. He raises and answers several questions as to what extent did American intelligence officials grasp the threat from Islamic radicalism, who tried to stop bin Laden before 9/11 and why did they fail? He followed up his 2004 book with Directorate S in 2018 which tells the story of America’s intelligence, military and diplomatic efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks.

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (Penguin): Spreading it out over five decades, Wright, a staff writer for TheNew Yorker, explains in detail the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of al-Qaeda, and the intelligence failures that resulted in the attacks on the World Trade Center. He writes the story by following the lives of four men: two leaders of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; the FBI’s counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill; and the former head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal. O’Neill, he writes, had uncovered the emerging danger from al Qaeda in the 1990s but struggled to track this new threat. “The most frightening aspect of this new threat,” he writes in the prologue, “was the fact that almost no one took it seriously.”

Books on 9/11 | Making sense of collapsing towers through words

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garett M. Graff (Simon&Schuster): Drawing on transcripts, declassified documents, interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, a journalist and historian pens a human portrait of the September 11 attacks. He writes about the ticket agents who ushered in the terrorists onto their flights, the first responders at the Twin Towers, and the civilians aboard United 93 who made the ultimate sacrifice to save other targets. Graff provides a historic narrative of how ordinary people faced up to extraordinary events in real time: the father and son caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; and a chaplain who performs last rites before losing his own life when the Towers collapse.

The Exile: The Stunning Inside Story of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Flight by Cathy Scott Clarke and Adrian Levy (Bloomsbury): From September 11, 2001 to May 2, 2011, Osama Bin Laden evaded intelligence services, drones and army squads, resisting every bid to capture him. Two investigative journalists tell the story of that decade through the eyes of those who witnessed it: bin Laden's wives and many children, his deputies and followers, the CIA, Pakistan's ISI, and others. The journalists gained access to bin Laden's inner circle, and they recount the flight of al Qaeda's forces, the formation of the Islamic State and bin Laden losing hold over his organisation.


Books on 9/11 | Making sense of collapsing towers through words

The Submission by Amy Waldman (Picador): The epigraph of Waldman’s novel is by a Pashto poet: “Like the cypress tree, which holds its head high and is free within the confines of a garden, I too feel free in this world, and I am not bound by its attachments.” It begins with a jury choosing a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack on Manhattan, only to be told that the anonymous designer is an American Muslim -- an architect named Mohammad Khan. His selection rocks a divided and threatened country. Claire Burwell, the sole widow on the jury who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, becomes Khan's fiercest defender. But when the news of his selection becomes public, she comes under pressure from family members, journalists, politicians, and even Khan himself.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Penguin): In 2007, on a book tour to India to launch the novel, Hamid said the first draft was completed in July, 2001, and that it was a story about a young Pakistani man living in New York, conflicted whether he should stay back in America or go back home. His agent told him he didn’t quite understand where all the animosity was coming from. And then 9/11 happened, and Hamid realised that he could not escape the catastrophe. After several drafts, the novel was ready, a dramatic monologue between a Pakistani man and an American stranger set in a Lahore café looking back on life in New York and why the shift east became necessary.

Books on 9/11 | Making sense of collapsing towers through words

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (Penguin): The novelist was in the midst of writing the book when the terror attacks took place. The lives of three friends in their 30s, set in New York, change irrevocably in 2001. The past and the present collide as Marina Thwaite, a debut novelist, Danielle, a television producer, and Julius, a freelance art critic, try to find their way in a city coming to terms with a devastating moment in its history.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Simon & Schuster): “It is not a street anymore, but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” DeLillo tells the story of a 9/11 survivor, Keith, a lawyer, who escapes one of the burning towers. “The dead were everywhere,” he writes, “in the air, in the rubble, on rooftops nearby, in the breezes that carried from the river. They were settled in ash and drizzled on windows, all along the streets, in his hair and on his clothes.” Loss, grief and the enormous force of history mark the lives of Keith, his estranged wife Lianne and their young son Justin, “standing at the window, scanning the sky for more planes.”

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Penguin): Inspired by Frenchman Philippe Petit’s high-wire stunt between the Twin Towers, (shown in the film The Walk) an Irish novelist captures the event while also drawing a portrait of a city and its denizens. It’s August 1974, and a tightrope walker gathers a host of ordinary people around him, giving them hope with the “artistic crime of the century””. Seen in the backdrop of September 11, 2001, the novel looks back to a past of hope and “heartbreaking innocence.”

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