20 Books to Challenge Your Understanding of 9/11

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20 Books to Challenge Your Understanding of 9/11 Reading List - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Blue sky.

A perfect blue sky.

A sky so vividly blue that it made me stop and take a moment to gaze and take it all in as I walked down my long gravel driveway to catch a bus on a fall Tuesday morning.

A sky that made me think to myself that it was going to be a great day.

Who knew something so beautiful would serve as the backdrop for such a horrific day?

That vivid blue sky on a Tuesday eighteen years ago has a specific name due to its rarity.

It’s known as severe clear.

Severe clear, a term used by pilots in aviation, is when the weather and sky when you have unlimited visibility. It’s uncommon, but when it does occur, it’s usually after a day of stormy weather.

On September 10, 2001, the Eastern seaboard of the United States experienced heavy storms and cloudy skies.

On September 11, 2001, that same seaboard region woke up to the stunning severe clear phenomena. A vivid, crystal clear blue sky that stretched from the Carolinas all the way to New York without a single cloud dotting its flawless canvas.

By that evening, the same sky would be filled with black smoke and ash, a background to crashing planes, falling bodies, and crumbling towers.

On that Tuesday, I was just a regular 7th grader going to school in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, just 15 minutes north of Shanksville.

My dad was just going to work at a used car dealership not far from a remote field by an old farm and close to the Shanksville school district.

By that night, I had watched my parents and teachers cry for the first time, had heard words like “terrorism,” “Afghanistan,” and “Islam,” and — like millions of other Americans, created a skewed vision in my mind of the “enemies” I thought my innocent country was vision.

The next morning, I woke up to just one word covering the front page of our local newspaper in all capital letters:

WAR!!!

Most people can point to a moment that was their loss of innocence and coming of age moment in their elementary or middle school years.

September 11, 2001 was mine.

After years of unlearning and relearning, of seeking out perspectives from people who don’t look or think like me, and moving a few hundred miles from the white Appalachia hills of western Pennsylvania, I have managed to finally sort through the mess of stereotypes, fearmongering rhetoric, and misinformation I was fed that Tuesday and so many years after.

To learn and try to understand 9/11 the best you can, you have to read widely and deeply from a variety of perspectives, especially from the Middle East.

The reading list I have curated below is not fun, light reading. It’s dark, troubling, and full of war, death, and destruction.

But it’s necessary in order to attempt to make some sense of the incomprehensible.

Let’s get started.

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20 Books to Challenge Your Understanding of 9/11 Reading List - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Your 2019 Curated 9/11 Reading List

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 by Mitchell Zuckoff - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Roughly three thousand children under age eighteen lost a parent on 9/11, including 108 babies born in the months after their father’s death.

– Mitchell Zuckoff

Mitchell Zuckoff was a reporter for the Boston Globe on September 11, 2001. He wrote extensively about the attacks and the days that followed. He has interviewed and recorded the stories of countless people involved in the events of 9/11, including those that survived and those that didn’t.

In this book, Zuckoff incorporates multiple perspectives to detail the day from as many angles as possible — from “sleepy Shanksville” to the towers in New York to the chaos at the Pentagon to the terror experienced by those trapped in the air on planes turned into domestic missiles.

Released just in April 2019, Zuckoff’s work is a comprehensive, must-have piece and a good starting point for anyone looking to start or expand their 9/11 reading list.

The 9/11 Commission Report: A Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States by the National Committee on Terrorist Attacks

The 9/11 Commission Report: A Staff Report of the National Commission On Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States by The 9/11 Commission - This Nerdy Girl Blog

The nation was unprepared. How did this happen, and how can we avoid such tragedy again?

– The National Committee On Terrorist Attacks

I don’t agree with all of the books on this list.

In fact, I’m extremely critical of some of them. The 9/11 Commission Report happens to be one of those books.

Although plenty of scholarly and private sector criticism exists of the Commission Report, it is still an important historical piece to help you create your foundational knowledge of the events on 9/11.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission On Terrorist Attacks was formed in November 2002 with the approval of George W. Bush and the United States Congress.

After almost two more years, 1,200 interviews, and a review of millions of documents later, the committee released its report to the public on July 22, 2004.

The report gives a minute by minute breakdown of the day and investigates what happened prior to that Tuesday that led to the domestic attacks.

Widespread criticism expresses concern for the report’s failure to address the core issues that helped manifest 9/11. Many scholars and public officials also believe that the report fails to honestly reveal home much warning the United States intelligence committee had about the attacks before they occurred.

The Only Plane In the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane In the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Around the world, September 11th began as any other weekday.

– Garrett M. Graff

Garrett Graff’s new book was just released yesterday and is a great place to start for those of you who are new to studying 9/11.

Graff has collected countless interviews from people who lived and survived the attacks, including those abroad Air Force ones as it became the only plane left circling the fall sky.

He has managed to produce new material and testimony that is published for the first time ever and that will help you form an idea of what survivors were seeing, thinking, and feeling during that fateful Tuesday morning.

Falling Man: A Novel by Don DeLillo

Falling Man: A Novel by Don Delillo - This Nerdy Girl Blog

These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after.

-Don DeLillo

For those who survive traumatic events, both on an individual and collective level, there is often a strong distinction between “before” and “after.”

Sometimes the transition from one to the other is described as an ending paired with a new beginning or a coming of age. Often, when related to tragedy, it is described as a loss of innocence.

In the thousands of testimonies recorded from survivors, there is a definitive life “before” and the fight for life “after” when discussing how 9/11 has impacted their lives.

This first book of fiction that I have on this list takes us the ashes of Ground Zero and starts with the “after.”

Dan DeLillo guides us along as we follow his characters that have survived the attacks but are struggling to make sense of what has happened to them and how to continue on with their lives.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Feeling pain is still better than not feeling, isn’t it?

– Jonathan Safran Foer

Fiction gives us the ability to process events and experience people and places that we may never have the chance to encounter in real life.

Fiction can help us address and learn about hard themes such as grief, trauma, and death.

And, in instances of collective trauma, there is always a production of art and writing by individuals who lived through the event. This mass creation is an opportunity for writers, artists, and their audiences to process what has happened while capturing the feelings, thoughts, and memories. 

I can’t count the reasons why Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of my favorite books of all time. 

Maybe it’s the creative mix of text, design, and imagery he uses to tell the story.

Maybe it’s the profound phrases and quotes that I stumbled across while reading it, like the one I listed above weaved seamlessly into his prose, that left almost breathless while reading. 

Or maybe its the way he conveys the enormous human challenge of tackling the depths of grief, despair, and trauma through the eyes of his nine-year-old narrator living in New York City at the time of the attacks.

Because pain is better than feeling nothing at all, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Memorial Mania: Public Feeling In America by Erika Doss

Memorial Mania: Public Feeling In America by Erika Doss - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Why do we make memorials in America today — and why do we make so many of them?

– Erika Doss

Erika Doss’s book is one of my favorites.

She manages to satiate my fascination with collective memory as she studies the abundance of both temporary and permanent memorials in the United States.

Her book is not 9/11 specific (9/11 is definitely included), but it is essential reading for developing an understanding of how collective trauma, grief, and memory work and manifest in the United States.

Trauma: A Social Theory by Jeffery C. Alexander

Trauma: A Social Theory by Jeffrey C. Alexander - This Nerdy Girl Blog

That groups visit grave injuries on one another is a historical certainty central to social theory.

– Jeffery C. Alexander

Jeffrey Alexander’s book is another read that’s not specific to 9/11, but is important foundational knowledge for studying it.

Alexander attempts to answer why present-day societies seem obsessed with tragedy and the past.

Through a variety of case studies examining collective trauma including the Holocaust and the Cold War, Alexander presents the results of his research and begins to develop a social theory of trauma and what we can take away from these collective experiences.

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History - This Nerdy Girl Blog

If truth be told, the less the world knows about a place, the easier it is to generalize it.

– Thomas Barfield

Afghanistan.

Some of you may have served there in the early 2000s during the American invasion.

I’m willing to bet that few of you know its complicated history. And that’s perfectly okay.

A desperate need for understanding and context is why Thomas Barfield’s book exists.

In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Barfield provides a detailed regional, cultural, and political history of the country.

He discusses how the Taliban came into power, the details of the American invasion, and the invasion’s aftermath.

He also explains how Afghanistan has suffered from the constant struggle for regional dominance by opposing global superpowers, including the United States and Russia.

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal - This Nerdy Girl Blog

People in Khas Uruzgan felt what Americans might if, in a single night, masked gunmen had wiped out the entire city council, mayor’s office, and police department of a small suburban town: shock, grief, and rage.

– Anand Gopal

Described by The New York Times as “essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong,” No Good Men Among the Living presents to you the Afghan experience of the American invasion into Afghanistan after 9/11.

Follow the lives of three Afghans, Anand Gopal details the death and destruction experienced by the Afghani people as the United States military descended on them on the grounds of righteously fighting “the war on terror.”

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

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities.

– Lawrence Wright

In The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright will answer several of the questions you may have about how the plans of 9/11 developed and the specific events leading up to their conception.

You’ll learn about a young Osama Bin Laden’s journey to radicalism, the spread of the increasingly popular Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and 50 years worth of causes and effect leading to four hijacked planes on a September morning.

Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary

Games Without Rules: The Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Five times in the last two centuries, some great power has tried to invade, occupy, conquer, or otherwise take control of Afghanistan.

-Tamim Ansary

Do you know that Afghanistan was formed as a nation around the same time as the United States?

Take a guess how many times a major power has attempted to invade or occupy Afghanistan over the last two centuries?

At least five.

And beneath the wars waged by these superpowers Afghanistan has been trampled time and time again.

In Games Without Rules, you’ll have the opportunity to view this turbulent history from an insider’s perspective.

You’ll get see Afghanistan as the country that it is and not just as the international political pawn of the world’s superpowers.

The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2014 by Carlotta Gall

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of An Islamist Movement by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Five times in the last two centuries, some great power has tried to invade, occupy, conquer, or otherwise take control of Afghanistan.

– Carlotta Gall

What you may have noticed about this list so far is the absence of writers who are not men.

And, unfortunately, that tends to be the case for most of the literature written on the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.

But, thankfully, Carlotta Gall’s voice has managed to cut through the noise and has penetrated the male-dominated arena.

Carlotta Gall has been a reporter stationed in Afghanistan for decades, including right after 9/11.

Gall has a first-hand perspective of how the war in Afghanistan was drastically miscalculated by American forces and devasted the Afghani people.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of An Islamist Movement by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of An Islamist Movement by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Taking aim at much of what has been written about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other Arab Islamist groups in recent uears, I argue that they cannot be described as “for” or “against” democracy, any more than they can be characterized as “moderate” or “extremist.”

– Carrie Rosefsky Wickham

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s masterpiece puts The Muslim Brotherhood under the microscope.

Producing and synthesizing material from over 100 interviews and closely examined Arabic documents, Wickham illustrates the history, evolution, and global impact of the Brotherhood from its founding in 1928 to the pivotal elections of 2011-2012.

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi - This Nerdy Girl Blog

In the history of conflicts and wars, there are few instances that match the invasion and occupation of Iraq for complexity of motive and ambiguity of purpose.

– Ali A. Allawi

Written by the former Minister of Defence and Finance of Iraq, this book details the dynamics between the main political parties in Iraq.

Allawi also attacks and addresses the question that most of the global community still poses: what really led the United States to invade Iraq and why have events failed to unfold as planned?

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.

– Dexter Filkins

If it seems that I have several books on this list that are heavy with war reporting, its because I do.

And, to give you a fair warning, in order to examine 9/11, you have to parse through an unsettling pile of dark themes, disturbing imagery, unforgettable violence, and devasting destruction.

It’s a learning journey that will haunt your mind at night and bother your thoughts when you least expect it. 

And, you’re human, it should. 

Dexter Filkins’ book is another work of war reporting focusing on the US conflict with Islamic fundamentalism.

The American endeavors in the Middle East during the 1990s, the events of 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are all intimately related. 

Filkins explains and illustrates how these events connect and cause one another, starting with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars by Nir Rosen

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen - This Nerdy Girl Blog

As Iraqis rubbed their eyes and awoke to the new reality in a mix of shock, depression, and euphoria, I was as confused as they were; nothing seemed black and white.

– Nir Rosen

What is it like fighting against Americans in the Middle East?

Perhaps you have never thought about this question.

Perhaps, like me, you think about it often.

Nir Rosen’s book provides some answers to this question.

For almost 10 years, Rosen embedded himself with the forces in Iraq countering the American invasion. 

He spent time with the Taliban and witness first-hand how the American invasion of Iraq sparked a new wave of hatred for the United States and created a volatile, unstable vacuum for new terrorist organizations to form and flourish. 

So, if you’ve ever wondered what the other side of the war on terror looks like, Rosen presents to you an honest, horrifying portrait of it that many Americans want to ignore and avoid facing.

Caliphate: The History of An Idea by Hugh Kennedy

Caliphate: The History of an Idea by Hugh Kennedy - This Nerdy Girl Blog

But what does the word actually mean?

– Hugh Kennedy

While I was creating this list, I was trying to figure out what is needed to build a foundation for learning and interpreting 9/11. 

When learning any new topic or concept, one of the key learning building blocks is defining and acquiring vocabulary and language to discuss and understand the topic.

The definitions of vocabulary terms are subjective and often biased by whoever is establishing them. They are also often created by those who have the most power in a particular society.

When creating definitions for terms critical to learning about 9/11, I turn to war-weary experts in the field. The people who live and breathe this work and the twists and crevices of its nuances. 

“Caliphate” is a term few Americans ever heard of prior to 9/11.

Today, it’s a term many of us read or heard in the news during the immediate post-9/11 years and during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, it’s still one that few people truly understand.

That’s why we need Hugh Kennedy. 

Kennedy is an Islamic historian and his book an excellent resource for those just getting started with studying 9/11, the Middle East, and the history of Islam.

He guides his readers through the multiple definitions of “caliph” and its history to help his audience understand how the term and idea are abused by extremist groups today. 

Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann

Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet by James Mann - This Nerdy Girl Blog

“They don’t know a goddamn thing about foreign policy!”

– James Mann

I clench my teeth every time I think of President Bush and his cabinet.

And I know I’m not the only one.

These days, Bush, Dick Chaney, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell live relatively quiet and respectful lives safely within the borders of the United States. 

Despite managing to evade formal consequences for crimes against humanity in international courts, the former cabinet members are often viewed as war criminals by the rest of the world, especially by our European allies.

In this book, James Mann examines “The Vulcans” — a nickname self-determined for Bush’s war cabinet members who were in power when planes were hijacked on 9/11 and who were responsible for brilliantly crafting the fear-mongering rhetoric and strategy to take advantage of a nation in morning to once again flex the military power of the United States in the Middle East for imperial and nationalistic purposes. 

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam bu Reza Aslan - This Nerdy Girl Blog

Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith.

– Reza Aslan

I think it’s safe to say that most adult Americans have heard the word Islam at some point in their life.

It’s a word that gets carelessly spewed by Western media when reporting on violence in the Middle East.

It’s also a world weaved strategically into the speeches of politicians during their campaign bids for president. A rhetorical tool used to persuade Americans to recall memories of hijacked planes, falling towers, and violent footage from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Unfortunately, this narrow and skewed surface-level understanding of Islam is often the only exposure many Americans have of Islam. And this ignorance and misinformation breed an environment of hostility and danger for Muslim Americans. 

This is why Reza Aslan’s work is so important. 

In this book, Aslan makes Islam accessible.

He walks readers through its origins, changes, and fluctuations, and the layers of its complexity. 

He also addresses how the events taking place in the 2000s and 2010s have influenced Islam, including the current protests for democracy in the Middle East.

With this read, you’ll explore the modern-day Muslim women’s movement, define “Jihad” and learn its history, and, finally, develop a foundational knowledge of Islam away from the influence of powerful figures in the United States who invoke the word to fan the flames of fear. 

Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism In the Age of Globalization by Reza Aslan

Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism In the Age of Globalization by Reza Aslan - This Nerdy Girl Blog

The events of 9/11 by no means inaugurated the debate over religion and violence in the modern world, but they did render the issue unavoidable.

– Reza Aslan

I’m pretty vocal about being an atheist.

Let me rephrase that. I’m very vocal about being an atheist. 

I was raised as a Lutheran and, it may surprise you, was actually very religious while growing up. I often carried a Bible with me in my bookbag when I went to school. It makes me cringe to write that now.

It was when I finally escaped rural Western Pennsylvania that I learned I didn’t have to a life infested with so much control, authority, and a dominating, primary purpose to “earn” the approval of an invisible (and violent) higher being.

I also realized I didn’t have to spend my Sundays attending services that always left me feeling uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. Younger me didn’t know then, but most of these services were marinated in sexism, racism, and xenophobia (it didn’t help that I had no understanding whatsoever of those terms, either). 

You can probably feel the disdain I have for religion in those last few sentences. I don’t bother to try to hide it to make people feel comfortable anymore.

These days, I often wonder if the fragile line between church and state in the United States is becoming more blurred or even non-existent (not that it ever really existed in the first place).

Beyond Fundamentalism takes a much needed hard look at religious violence in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

Reza Aslan argues in this book that we need to parse through religious violence and its inflammatory rhetoric to actually uncover what is truly at the root of these issues in order to prevent violent religious ideologies from continuing to inspire impressionable, violent fundamentalists. 

If your feelings are easily hurt when someone criticizes your religion, this book isn’t for you.

Wait. Let me take that back.

If your feelings are easily hurt when someone criticizes your religion, this book is perfect for you.

What do you remember about September 11, 2001? How have your views and opinions about it changed over the past 18 years? Let me know in the comments below!


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Hungry for more? Check out these other curated booklists below!

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As someone who was on an Aer Lingus flight diverted to Gander on 9/11 (forming the basis for the Broadway musical “Come From Away”), I’ve long maintained we will never know the name of the faceless Washington bureaucrat who was in charge that day. Yours is a creatively curated list of books–not that I’ve read any of them, but it is impressive that you’ve offered up such an eclectic list with a non-Western perspective. Please seek out and read the backstory about Rick Rescorla. Fascinating and poignant.