A Reading List for the Post-9/11 Era

BY Molly Finnegan  May 3, 2011 at 11:03 AM EST

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, were a moment of devastation for the American people and led to the redefinition of their patriotism. It was a major turning point in international politics and the eventual impetus for multiple wars. And it was also an essential landmark in American — indeed, global — culture, which has been marked, over and over again, in our shared literary universe.

Afterwards, many critics and writers began to define our current era expressly as a moment forever and fundamentally affected by the events in New York, Washington and Shanksvile, Pa., masterminded by the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group, Osama bin Laden, who was targeted and killed on Sunday in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Since 2001, journalists and nonfiction writers have attempted to piece together the true stories of the attacks (as well as of the victims, the bombers, bin Laden himself, the domestic and global response, the politics, the resulting two wars and on and on…), feeding our need to understand the incomprehensible tragedy. Fiction writers and poets have grappled with how to make emotional or human sense of our contemporary world by using these complicated times as the staging grounds for exploring our universal confusion.

The NewsHour has featured conversations with many writers over the past decade on books that address, directly and indirectly, how 9/11, bin Laden and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have influenced how we live today. After the jump, find a sampling of some of these featured titles with links to the full conversations.

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Salman Ahmad, Rock & Roll Jihad, 2010

Rock & Roll JihadAbout the book:
An international music star, Ahmad recounts his days as a young adult in Pakistan at a time when rock music was being outlawed but the term “jihad” had not yet been claimed as a reasonable justification for terrorism.

From the conversation:
“When I was thinking of a book title, I thought, my passion is rock ‘n’ roll and the struggle to attain— sort of search for that passion, is the ‘jihad’. And those two words together — passion and struggle — also expand into what’s been happening in the world, you know, in my world. You know, on 9/11 Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida hijacked the word ‘jihad’ and, you know, made it into another thing completely, which was ugly, you know, dark, fear inspiring, so I’m hoping that through this book journey, people will be able to see, you know, what Jihad means for me and perhaps for a lot of other Muslims as well.”

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Alaa al Aswany, Chicago, 2008

ChicagoAbout the book:
Based on the Egyptian author’s time as a student learning dentistry in Chicago, al Aswany’s novel is a fictional account of an Arab’s perception of the United States.

From the conversation:
“I think, personally, that 9/11 did not create new problems. It just pushed chronic problems to be on the surface. We had before 9/11 this kind of misunderstanding between cultures, and different people and the stereotypes, etc. But now it is pushed on the surface. And I believe literature has been all the time a wonderful tool to get rid of the stereotypes and get close to the realities.”

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Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, 2008

The Bin LadensAbout the book:
Coll had studied bin Laden for many years for his work as a journalist and as the author of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the C.I.A., Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001.” But this was his first time examining in depth how bin Laden’s family and upbringing helped affect the course of history.

From the conversation:
“What was striking to me in this research project was to rediscover how orthodox a figure Osama really was until about the mid-1990s and how common his own resentments were as they began to develop. What made him distinctive was not that he lived this life or had these forms of sort of dissenting anger; it was where he took them in the end.”

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Deborah Eisenberg, Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories, 2006

Twilight of the SuperheroesAbout the book:
A collection of short stories that all have 9/11 as a theme lurking in the background. Art Beat talked to her a few years after this collection was published.

From the conversation:
“…I think that the responsibility that artists have, if we can speak of such a thing, is to be truthful. And that might mean just about anything. A politicized world is sort of devouring us, but in a way I think that artists must be very, very free in their minds, and if what absorbs their attention is their toenails, that’s what they should expend their efforts on contemplating. But the world filters into the mind — you can’t do anything about it.”

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Dexter Filkins, The Forever War, 2008

The Forever WarAbout the book:
A reporter who covered the Iraq war in Baghdad for the New York Times — and appeared frequently on the NewsHour — Filkins set out to try and write a more personal examination of an unpopular war.

From the conversation:
“I felt like there had been a lot books on Iraq and Afghanistan. And most of them, even the really, really good ones, were kind of written from 10,000 feet up, you know, from a distance, discussing decisions in Washington or decisions in the field. I wanted to write a book because I thought I could about what it felt like to be there. You know, I wanted to write less an intellectual book than a visceral one, than an emotional one. You know, what’s it like to be at a car bombing? Or what’s it like to sit across from a Sunni sheikh who’s lying to you?”

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Tim Hetherington, Infidel, 2010

InfidelAbout the book:
War photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed in late April in Libya, documented the experience of both combat and downtime of a U.S. Army platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 through images and interviews with the men.

From the conversation:
“It’s a warts-and-all view of the war. And I felt this was important because, you know, often, soldiers and the symbols or representations of soldiers are claimed by the far left or the far right to mean a certain thing. And we do these young men an injustice in not digesting fully their reality. And that’s what I wanted to show.”

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Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, 2009

Let the Great World SpinAbout the book:
Set among other entangled narratives, McCann pays homage to the fallen towers by re-telling the daring story of tight-rope walker Philippe Petit’s dance between the two World Trade Center buildings in 1974.

From the conversation:
“It was shortly after 9/11, when the towers came down, and as I was trying reconcile how, as [authors], we could try to write about 9/11, that I remembered reading in one of Paul Auster’s essays about Philippe Petit and the ’74 walk across the towers. And so it was a way for me to look at what I felt was a moment of absolute art and creation and sort of joy and redemption, and yet always in the background to have it be juxtaposed against our memory or our experience of what happened on September the 11th.”

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Ian McEwan, Saturday, 2005

SaturdayAbout the book:
In London, protests against the Iraq war and political division within his own family inspire contemplation in McEwan’s main character, Henry Perowne, during what turns out to be an extraordinary day.

From the conversation:
“This terrible event caused some people to say — I think completely mistakenly — that it would be impossible ever to write anything ever again. And this is a nonsense. I mean, it actually generates the need for more investigation. We barely know ourselves. And I think the novel, with its marvelous ability to take us inside other people’s minds, to give us the flavor and fine print of thought and consciousness, is well-placed to keep on.”

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Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs, 2009

A Gate at the StairsAbout the book:
A young college student has a life-changing year, as the once-remote realities of living in post-9/11 America finally confront her full force.

From the conversation:
“In that time, it was kind of this sort of holding moment in the culture, and the political climate as well, since the Iraq War hadn’t started up. People were sort of holding their breaths, watching what the Bush administration would do in response to 9/11. So to some extent, in the backdrop of the personal events of this novel, is the national passivity, acquiescence, watchfulness, fearfulness that was part of that time.”

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Joseph O’Neill, Netherland, 2008

NetherlandAbout the book:
O’Neill used the mysterious-to-Americans game of cricket, played in the book by a group of immigrants in New York who come from all over the world, to act as a metaphor and entry point for the increasingly complicated world we live in now.

From the conversation:
“It took me a long while to write, not only because I was agonizing over the sentences, but also because, as we’ve mentioned, it took place in this particular time in American life when things kept happening on the ground and the war in Iraq. And I just felt that my character — my characters — would have inevitably been embroiled in that. And so, it took a while for things to pan out in real life and for the literary consequences to be felt.”

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Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 2006

The Looming TowerAbout the book:
Wright’s work of nonfiction recounts the history of radical Islamic militancy leading up to the 9/11 attacks and how bin Laden’s legacy may continue in the future. His work has also been interpreted as a stage play and a film by Alex Gibney.

From the conversation:
“Humiliation is one of the most common words in bin Laden’s vocabulary. Certainly there have been many Muslim men who have been physically humiliated, especially Arabs and Egyptians in those prisons. For instance, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two guy in al-Qaida, experienced three years of torture in Egyptian prisons, as was true of many people who are in al-Qaida today. I think that accounts for the appetite for bloodshed that’s so characteristic of al-Qaida and so unusual in many respects for a terrorist movement, which is normally just interested in theater….When he uses that term, it resonates with many Muslims who feel that Islam has been in retreat for hundreds of years and been displaced from his proper place in the world.”