Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
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Summary: Another comprehensive, moving account of 9/11, although one that could do with slightly less editorializing.
I debated about whether to read two chunksters about 9/11 in a row, but decided to go for it because I think I retain more when I read multiple books on a topic. It was also interesting to contrast this narrative nonfiction account of 9/11 with the oral history in The Only Plane in the Sky. The bulk of this book is two sections with “fall” in the title, one about the people on the planes and one about the people at each impact site. The last section, called “Rise From the Ashes”, was a short description of where people were in the months following 9/11.
It was fascinating to see the strengths and weaknesses of this narrative nonfiction approach compared to an oral history. The main strength of this book was that it gave a lot more context. In particular, the oral history glossed over the confusion of the FAA and the military during the initial hijacking. I don’t think this was exclusively due to differences in form. There were conversations quoted in this book that the oral history could have used to show the mistakes made. Likewise, the oral history doesn’t reveal that a passenger on Flight 77, which was flown into the Pentagon, knew about the planes that hit the Twin Towers. The omissions are stark enough that it feels to me like the oral history is intentionally engaging in some revisionist history.
In favor of the oral history, I found it was more emotional, because it felt more intimate and immediate. I also thought the author did a better job letting events speak for themselves. Sometimes the author of this book really beat us over the head with how sad things were or left us on a cliffhanger. That felt like an unnecessary attempt to amp up the drama or the pathos of a story that just doesn’t need the help. There were some gruesome details I thought this book could have done without as well. I could see an argument that they are part of the true story, like the confusion around the hijackings. However, I don’t think they added to my understanding in the same way. Nor did they contribute to remembering the victims and heroes of 9/11 as I think they deserve to be remembered.
Difficult though these books were, I’d actually highly recommend the experience of reading them together. They’re complementary accounts that each highlight different aspects of the same event. If it weren’t for the problems with missing information, I’d recommend the oral history more. It was incredible to hear so much of the story in the words of the people who were there. With the omissions in that story though, I definitely think it’s better to pair it with a more comprehensive account.