A few weeks ago, I was talking to my son’s babysitter, who was born in 2002. Somehow, we landed on the topic of 9/11, and it took about 10 seconds before I was hit with the realization that she wasn’t even born when the catastrophe took place.
As she told me how many of her friends could not fully comprehend the magnitude of one of our country’s deadliest tragedies, my thoughts turned to two books I read recently that will stand as landmark contributions to any future conversation or study of 9/11: Garrett Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (Avid Reader) and Mitchell Zuckoff’s Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 (Harper). While each is noteworthy on its own, taken together, they provide as well-rounded, comprehensive, and compassionate a portrait of the day as we will find for many years to come.
Graff’s book, which earned a Kirkus star, is a master class in oral biography, as the former POLITICO and Washingtonian editor collects hundreds of firsthand accounts, gathered over three years of meticulous research, that recount the before, during, and after from every possible angle—and in powerful, often terrifying detail. In addition to capturing the memories of such well-known figures as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Katie Couric, the author more importantly—and rightly—puts the spotlight on the everyday heroes of 9/11, many of whom lost their lives.
Furthermore, writes our reviewer, “Graff also does an admirable job of maintaining focus on the personal stories and does not drift off into political commentary—or engage in placing blame—or arrange the material so that some of his interviewees look good and some bad.” Though essential, this is not a book to be taken lightly, and the immediate, heart-wrenching nature of the material will force some readers to set it aside and come back later. Thankfully, Graff’s concisely informative narrative transitions between sections ensure that no reader will get lost in the fray. As our reviewer points out, “readers who emerge dry-eyed from the text should check their pulses: Something is wrong with their hearts.”
Mitchell Zuckoff’s Fall and Rise, which also received a star, is equally potent, what our reviewer calls “a meticulously delineated, detailed, graphic history of the events of 9/11 in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania.” The author, who deconstructed the Benghazi attacks in his previous book, 13 Hours, is up to the task in this narrative account, built from a series of stories from survivors, first responders, and others that he published in the Boston Globe in the years following 9/11. But this is no thrown-together assemblage; Zuckoff creates a seamless, page-turning text that brings readers directly into the hearts and minds of those involved.
“In each of the three sections,” writes our reviewer, “Zuckoff offers a cross-section of widely representative individuals and then builds the relentlessly compelling narrative around those real-life protagonists. Despite the story’s sprawling cast, which could have sabotaged a book by a less-skilled author, Zuckoff ably handles all of the complexities….The author did not set out to write a feel-good book, and the subject matter is unquestionably depressing at times. Nonetheless, as contemporary history, Fall and Rise is a clear and moving success.”
Each of these books is an unquestionable success, and for anyone seeking to refresh their memories of that horrific event—or those who, like my babysitter, were not alive to witness it—I couldn’t think of two better books to recommend. As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, expect more accounts to emerge, but The Only Plane in the Sky and Fall and Rise are unlikely to fade from view.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.