The September 11 Library

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


For three years, I have been a key member of the team in charge of creating the advertising and marketing materials for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Gillespie, the agency where I am a senior creative supervisor and senior copywriter, has had portions of the vast Port Authority account for seven years, and we have been its agency of record for three. September 11, 2001 was just another day in the life of a complex account, one that, in fact, was six accounts. One of these was the World Trade Center.

A walk through the lobby would have brought you face to face with some of the materials we created: posters for the many performing arts events throughout the trade center, the map guide to the underground mall, assorted signage, and more. We were often in the building, on the 68th floor of Tower 1, working with our clients. We could have been there that day, but luckily, none of us were. Most of our clients were, however, and somehow they all escaped. People we'd thought of every day as simply our clients suddenly became friends and loved ones. We suddenly saw them differently then. We still do.

Now that a year has passed, we have been intricately involved in helping the Port Authority put itself back together again. And we have created the Port Authority's print ad that will commemorate 9/11.

I have been especially interested in seeing how the publishing world would react to the tragedy. In the spring, many publishers announced their plans for books that would commemorate the events. Here's a look at some of the best:

Out of the Blue is a text book -- which is to say it is not a picture book. Subtitled The Story of September 11, 2001 from Jihad to Ground Zero, and written by Richard Bernstein and the staff of The New York Times, this book has been assembled from the facts reported in The Times. It presents a narrative of the events that led to the attacks, weaving many stories into a striking, don't-look-away picture of the how we all got where we ended up. Afghanistan, Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, the hijackers lives and training, survivors, loved ones who received phone calls from the towers, firemen and policemen, heroes, victims, and more: all of these voices are found here. Together, they tell the comprehensive story of the day that changed the world forever, told from the unique point of view of the newspaper in whose backyard the events unfolded.

Longitudes & Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11, was written by Thomas L. Friedman, a foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times. The first section of the book is a collection of his Pulitzer Prize-winning columns from The Times on the attacks in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. By turns emotional, brave, controversial, and deeply analytical, Friedman shines a bright light on what happened and why. In the second section, he presents a diary of his travels since then, as he has shined his journalist's light on people all over the world who agreed to speak with him about what happened. The result is a breathtaking tapestry of realism, framing September 11 in undeniable humanity.

Portraits 9/11/01 was perhaps the first large-scale book to appear, many months ago. Far from a look at the events themselves, it's a massive obituary of the men and women who lost their lives that day. Published in The New York Times in the weeks following the attacks, these "Portraits of Grief" were snapshots of these lives, small celebrations of their work, their families, their senses of humor, and their dreams. There is perhaps no harder account of the sheer loss of that day.

What We Saw is probably the most unique book to arise from all this. It compiles the reports of CBS News and combines it with pieces that appeared on air and in print, written by documentary filmmaker Jules Naudet, Dan Rather, Pete Hamill, New York Times writer Caryn James, author Kurt Andersen, columnists Maureen Dowd and Anna Quindlen, author Tom Robbins, Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, David Letterman, and many others. Though all these writers are famous, their words ring more like those of the common man and woman; the feeling here is that their reporting and opinions are what we all would write, if given the chance. It's a startling collection.

What We Saw also includes a DVD of CBS's coverage of the events. The most heart-stopping moment comes at the beginning. Bryant Gumble is on the phone with an eyewitness to the first attack, and as they're talking, the second plane hits. Their reactions are stunning, heart-stopping. In a word, real.

I wish the rest of the DVD had this effect. While I was intrigued about this aspect of the book, it wasn't as amazing as I hoped it would be. I wanted actual coverage: the way it happened that day. Instead, the DVD deconstructs the day and much of the aftermath, offering commentary by Dan Rather as well as the network's coverage. Truth is, it comes off cold. The material here has been organized, created almost as a time capsule, when it should have been less produced. Is the footage worth having in terms of history? Absolutely. I just wish the production team had taken a cue from CBS's legendary Walter Cronkite and his "That's the Way It Is." In the end, this DVD is more like the way they want it to be remembered and not enough as it really was.

Both the standard adult version and the young reader's edition of A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath are amazing books. They're built from the photo archives of The New York Times, with all the power of a photo staff that was in the middle of the action as it happened. These people suddenly became war correspondents, and theirs is the bravest eye, I think, recording forever images that we might have turned away from, had we been there. The attacks, the collapsing buildings, the Pentagon, flags everywhere, the clean-up, the funerals, the invasion of Afghanistan, the search for Bin Laden -- it's all here, laid out more or less chronologically. There are also invaluable drawings of the World Trade Center, along with an explanation of why they collapsed. There's also a timeline of the events of the day.

The Young Reader's Edition covers the same territory with simpler, much-reduced text and larger photos and drawings. It's perfect for kids who want to know more, and also serves as a superb digest of the adult version.

All these books were created by professional writers and news organizations, and each one approaches the events and aftermath of that day with a unique point of view. But for me, the most telling stories are those that come from real people. The final four books I'll cover here are filled with those stories.

September 11: An Oral History is a collection of eyewitness accounts by people who worked in and around the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A priest, a businessman, a high school senior, small business owners, and many more are here to tell it as they saw it. Their stories are hypnotic in their honesty and courage. These are people who might have died that day, were it not for the quirks of fate that saved them. Riveting stuff.

Covering Catastrophe is a compendium of stories told by journalists covering the events of that day. More than 100 contributed to this book, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Larry King, Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff, John McWethy, Jim Miklaszewski, Ann Compton and others. Though we're all familiar with these viewpoints from a professional news standpoint, this book collects their stories on a personal level: What were they doing when the first plane hit? What did they do then? How did they cover what they covered and remain both objective and human in the face of such loss? What did they feel? How did they keep it together? The book offers fascinating and -- at times -- deeply personal views.

Above Hallowed Ground is a priceless collection of photographs taken by the New York Police Department. Most were shot from the police helicopter as it flew over the scene. The buildings as they burned and fell, the aftermath and clean-up on the ground and much more. None of these shots has been published before, and they hit hard because they open the site to us in a way that we haven't seen anywhere else. It also offers thoughtful, sometimes heartbreaking portraits of the men and women who worked so hard to find survivors, and then throughout the months of clean-up. The most telling shot of all is the final one: the last girder to be removed, with spray-painted statistics of the losses of the Port Authority Police Department, the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York.

Finally, Here Is New York. In the days after September 11, a small storefront in lower Manhattan began hanging photographs of that day and the days that followed. The shots were taken by amateur and professional alike. There were no criteria. Rather, they simply had to document what happened and what was happening. In the end, more than 5000 photos were hung (you can see them online at The slipcased book collects 800 or so of the best.

What makes these "the best" is anyone's guess, but what makes them bookworthy is their absolute honesty. Many of the images are what you might expect. Some are in-your-face real. Some are artistic. Some are lucky breaks, in terms of what ended up on the film. Some were shot and not developed for months. A few are unforgettable. A few more I never want to see again. But they're all here, and taken together they provide what amounts to a single image of that day, shot through the prism of thousands of cameras and thousands more frames of film. Here Is New York, yes. But even more remarkable, here are we all.

In ways too numerous to account here, September 11, 2001, is what I like to call a hinge day. Everything we were and everything we will be hinges on that day. We all know where we were and what we were doing when we heard or saw the news. For the rest of our lives, we will likely divide our personal histories into "before 9/11" and "after 9/11," much in the way the previous generation uses November 22, 1963. These books -- and others like them -- present words and images from that day and many of the days after, crystalline moments that bring back the horror, but also, in both its fragility and its strength, our humanity. | September 2002


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.