Following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, most of us when not glued to television news found ourselves reading in a way wed rarely read before obsessively. Newspapers, mainly, breaking stories, opinion, analysis, obituaries; the papers were suddenly full of unbelievably rich, tragic stuff. Online sources, too, as well as the newsweeklies, reborn with a vengeance. Even The New Yorker, with its investigative reports from Seymour Hersch and others, seemed suddenly necessary and of the moment. So what, we wondered, happened to literature? Poetry, by Auden and Yeats mainly, was quoted everywhere of course. But was anyone reading it or fiction or history or biography? And if so, what? We asked a number of authors to tell us about the book (or books), if any, they turned to after September 11 and why.
When I learned, the following day, that the first weapon to bore into the World Trade Center had carried my cousin, a young father of four, no literature was sufficient. Even the prayers I know by heart were barely enough. Later, I remembered the prose poetry of Gary Young that I know almost as well. What is essential in his poems is their reverence for the much-handled things we live with, and our own bodies, and the bodies of those we love. Young dwells on the threats to this ordinary world and the tentative belief we come to have, against reason, in its durable habits.
In Days, his second book of poems, Young writes:
I put asters in a small blue vase. Each morning they open, and they close again each night. Even in the dark room they follow a light which does not reach them. They have bodies. That is all the faith they need.
Were seeking equilibrium in a world we know is dangerous and to which we give ourselves every day, like the mother in this poem from Youngs Braver Deeds:
A woman leans against a tall white pine, looks up into the tree, then lowers her head and stares at the horizon. Her son has climbed into the branches high above her. Shes called him down twice, but afraid now her voice might distract him, she stands there silently and waits for him to fall. She knows if he does, there is nothing she can do. A cold wind moves through the tree. She can feel her body stiffen, but does not look up when the child cries out, I can see almost forever.
Ive returned to Youngs poems because their stillness and formal order resist catastrophe. In these poems, wounds are given and received, but tenderness also, with the conviction that grace accompanies all of those things. The mystery of that grace is too hard to swallow right now, but I do have the reassurance of these lines from Days:
Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. Its a miracle they survived. Its a miracle they were ever born at all.
D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir and the essays in Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out, recently published by Angel City Press.
After September 11, I didnt read books for the news. Books, by their nature, are never new ä enough. Never a serious daily newspaper reader, I became temporarily and unsatisfactorily thorough. I turned pages to finish articles, making myself and the table a mess every morning. I consumed the entire front section. The repetitions one encounters, the dabbler and skimmer I formerly was could never have imagined! I craved more substance and detail and finally found The Economist, to which Ive since subscribed. Between those short, tight, often too- balanced-but-nonetheless conservative articles and the long essays (one by Arundhati Roy, many from English papers) e-mailed by friends, I quell my panicky yearning for some sense of whats going on far, far away in snowy, rocky Afghanistan that nonetheless has something to do with me.
As for books, my reading habits have not changed. Ive read Alice Munros new collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, many times over already. I consider Munro to be our greatest living short story writer. She has captured the range and depth of female experience in ways that no one, in any language, has ever done before. And these new stories are mostly about love, which, of course, still goes on too.
Mona Simpson is the author of A Regular Guy and the recently published Off Keck Road.
On the television they kept showing the pictures of the towers falling, again and again; it almost seemed like a loop. My girlfriend was sitting in our hotel room just staring at the silent screen Id asked her to turn the volume off.