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Reading in Wartime: A Post 9/11 Response

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 we’d 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.

D.J. Waldie

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.

We’re seeking equilibrium in a world we know is dangerous and to which we give ourselves every day, like the mother in this poem from Young’s 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. She’s 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.

I’ve returned to Young’s 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. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s 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.

Mona Simpson

After September 11, I didn’t 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 I’ve 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 what’s 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. I’ve read Alice Munro’s 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.

Etgar Keret

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 — I’d asked her to turn the volume off.

“Look at those buildings,” she said, her eyes not moving from the television. “They don’t even try to resist, it’s like all those years they were just waiting to collapse. Look at them break down — they almost seem relieved.”

“I don’t want to,” I lied. “I’m reading a book.” I was holding a copy of Don DeLillo’s White Noise in my hand, but my thoughts were drifting far, far away, as far as the planet of Tralfamadore.

The first time I heard about Tralfamadore was when I was in basic training in the Israeli army. I answered one of the sergeant’s rhetorical questions, and it cost me my weekend leave. The guy who slept in the bunk right above mine left me Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi memoir. This strange mixture of genres works much the way pineapple pizzas do, hitting all your senses at once. Every time somebody dies in that book, “so it goes” appears after it. I guess that’s as good as anything one can say when someone dies.

The book told the story of a soldier held as a prisoner of war in Germany during the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut’s description of the bodies after the bombing in that old city that I’ve never visited stayed in my head. Ever since, whenever I hear of bombings, I dig them out from under the rubble of other old memories. The bodies in this book were Germans; some of them were probably Nazis. My parents are both Holocaust survivors, but still I kept feeling the deaths of those Germans were not necessary.

“Bush is going to speak really soon,” my girlfriend said. “I wonder what he’ll have to say.”

That afternoon, I bought a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five just to look through it to see how far it was from the way I’ve remembered it. At the bookstore I met this really skinny guy who bought five copies of the Des Moines Register. He told me that in a few years’ time they will be collectors’ items. I showed him a quotation from the introduction to Vonnegut’s book:

We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past has been like, according to the Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney, saw what the future would be like, according to General Motors. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.

A few weeks later, the American forces were bombing Afghanistan.

So it goes.

Etgar Keret is the author of The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories.

William T. Vollmann

My reading didn’t change one iota following September 11 — The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras, Rethinking Rape by Ann J. Cahill, and the California Penal Code. One book I later pulled off my shelf because of the situation in Afghanistan is Amiriya Shelter: U.S. Most Savage Crime of the Century, an Iraqi propaganda tract detailing the smart-bomb incineration of 403 civilians, including women and children, during the Gulf War.

William T. Vollmann’s most recent novel is Argall.

Bruce Wagner

Of the three books I turned to in the aftermath of 9/11, compulsively oscillating among them, the first was Hannibal, by Thomas Harris. The idea of a foppish cannibal who is also a scholar, lecturer and all-around aesthete, wandering through Florence committing murder on a scale that now seemed contextually quaint, was as comforting as a See’s candy. Admittedly, I fudge a bit; it was more the movie of the book I turned to for solace. I lay there flipping between Headline News and Ridley Scott’s adaptation on DirecTV — then back again to freaked-out anchorpeople, my eyes darting spasmodically to the hellish slow-moving ticker tape of surrealistic late-breaking developments at the bottom of the screen. I had ordered Hannibal in letter-box format on one of those “all-day tickets” so that it played 24 hours at a time, continuously looping into itself. Occasionally I riffled through the book it was based on, in order to find choice bits of dialogue from the movie. The novel doesn’t provide the guilty pleasures of the movie, though the former’s short chapters, each one striving toward a semblance of literary epiphany, are sometimes risible. Suffice it to say, it’s no Perfume.

At evening’s end, exhausted and irrationally secure with the sense that Armageddon had been postponed until morning, I made my way to the luminous I Am That — Talks With Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, an anthology of interviews with an Indian sage who died in 1981. The comical, imperious, visionary manner of the Maharaj — his great, emphatic chi and clear-as-water discussions of intent and awareness — reminded me so much of Carlos Castaneda that I was startled . . . and hooked. He took me out of the calamity of the moment, and continues to do so. “Everybody makes the same mistake,” says the Maharaj. “You want peace and harmony in the world, but refuse to have them in yourself. The unexpected is bound to happen, while the anticipated may never come.”

The final book of my post-WTC trinity meandering was Accidents in North American Mountaineering 1999 — a tasty collection of real-life outings gone bad, ranging from fatalities to simple rescues. Erotic, vicarious fun on an agreeable, intimate scale.

Bruce Wagner is the author of the novels Force Majeure and I’m Losing You. He created the TV program Wild Palms and recently directed Women in Film. His new novel, I’ll Let You Go, will be published in January by Villard.

Michelle Huneven

This fall, I’m teaching a course on the works of Henry James. The Princess Casamassima, his novel about revolutionaries in late-19th-century London, was not on the course’s reading list originally, but after the events on September 11, I not only found myself thinking about it constantly, but bumped The Bostonians for it in the hope that my students would find Casamassima as useful as I have.

England in the late 1800s was no stranger to agitating socialists and anarchists from the Continent, and Irish Fenians were setting off dynamite in crowded public places. Henry James moved to London in 1886, and The Princess Casamassima, he writes, came directly “from the habit and interest of walking the streets,” allowing the multitude of impressions to suggest their own meanings and revelations. The book’s hero, Hyacinth Robinson, James writes, “sprang up at me out of the London pavement.”

Hyacinth is a young man with a fine, sensitive nature who has grown up in a dismal corner of London in abject poverty. His parentage is a source of shame and conflict: His French plebeian mother murdered his corrupt, English-aristocrat father and was imprisoned for life. Although he is quick to learn, Hyacinth’s education and refinement have been limited by his resources; he becomes a tradesman, a fine bookbinder. At the bindery, he is mentored by an anarchic Frenchman, and through him Hyacinth meets the quietly fanatical, inscrutable, immensely charismatic revolutionary Paul Muniment. In his attempts and impulses to please these men, to distinguish himself, to be part of a greater cause, and to give vent to his own anger and envy, Hyacinth finds himself “in deep” in revolutionary schemes.

So deep does he go that he takes a vow to become an assassin, one who cannot expect to survive the act. The time and place of his sacrifice are to be announced, and for some time, he hears nothing. Ironically, after Hyacinth agrees to this mission, his life begins to open up.

Despite the century that has elapsed since its publication, The Princess Casamassima is filled with characters who today seem uncannily familiar. There are the rough-talking tradesmen who debate politics in a tavern, but take no action. There’s Hoffendahl, the underground political leader, a torture survivor with a reputedly vast, multifaceted scheme of terror in which Hyacinth is but a bit player. There are upper-class sympathizers, bleeding-heart liberals, and rebellious aristocrats such as Lady Aurora Langrish, who visits the poor and longs to marry the working-class fanatic Muniment. Above all, there’s the Princess Casamassima, beautiful and miserably married, who dabbles in revolutionary politics partly to find meaning in life and partly to torture her estranged husband, a stupid Italian prince.

Desiring to “know” a poor person, the princess invites Hyacinth first to her opera box and then to her grand house, where he is exposed to culture, beauty, calmness, servants, beautiful sheets — and takes to them all like a fish to water. Hyacinth, now knowing the finer accomplishments of humanity, falls in love with life for the first time. But this shift in ä his spirit comes too late and will not save him.

Reviewers at the time of the novel’s publication complained that James’ knowledge of politics and terrorism was imprecise, but James was not concerned with exact historical details. He was more attuned to the hidden drifts, the motives, the psychological currents in a society with vast, demoralizing divides among its citizens — which, to an American in England, must have seemed extreme — and he used his own imagination to fathom these dark corners of civilization. James would defend his approach in a preface to a later edition of the novel:

The effects I wished most to produce were precisely those of our not knowing, of society’s not knowing, but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore, what “goes on” irreconcilably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface . . .

The result is therefore not a dated, historical document but an eerily prescient, interior novel about the etiology of terrorism in the human heart — one that offers insight and illumination into today’s own version of what James called the “mysteries abysmal.”

Michelle Huneven is the author of Round Rock. Her new novel, Jamesland, is forthcoming from Knopf.

Daniel Akst

Once upon a time there was a great nation riven by culture wars, paralyzed by bitterly partisan politics and addicted to media sensation. Despite the lengthening shadow of a peculiarly modern evil, its people could not shake the trauma of a previous war and many now seemed pathologically unwilling to fight. On the positive side, they had a lot of great food.

France in the 1930s was not a pretty picture, but as painted by UCLA emeritus historian Eugen Weber in The Hollow Years, it is a fascinating one, with some obvious parallels to America today. I turned to Weber’s book shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11 not because I doubted we would fight, but because of the surprising response of some of my friends.

Defeatism is the only word for it. Military action would certainly fail, these people felt, killing only the innocent while riling terrorists further. Instead we must figure out why on Earth these people hate us so much. (The implication, in a privileged group of Americans already filled with guilt and self-loathing, was there were very good reasons indeed.) Perhaps we really should rethink our support of Israel. And surely the spread of McDonald’s and Coke had made us legitimate targets. Anything — anything! — but war.

Pacifism is a form of moral narcissism that was epidemic in France between the wars, but the French at least were entitled. In addition to 1.4 million dead in the Great War, half of the 8.4 million who served were injured, including ä more than 1 million disabled. Surviving veterans often died young as a result of having been gassed in the trenches or butchered by inept surgeons. The carnage led to a demographic dead zone in the late ’30s, when the pool of potential conscripts was especially shallow. Thus, the average age of the French army that collapsed so quickly in 1940 was over 40, although unlike the current U.S. military, its ranks were not swelled by thousands of mothers.

As I said, there are parallels. They had wine (2.5 million liters daily for the army alone), but we have Prozac. Religious and political conservatives had made common cause, much as they have in America today. As with Vietnam here, the previous war had undermined faith in the French military; the country took solace instead in what is known today as the “international community.” France hid behind a thicket of treaties, some with allies, and others (the kind purporting to ban armed conflict) with enemies. All this negotiation and paperwork culminated at Munich in the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The French rationalized this and other appeasements by pointing to the unjustness of the peace imposed on Germany at Versailles, much as some people rationalize terrorism today.

Fortunately, the parallels go only so far. Weber’s scathing book is a pleasure not just for its vivid portrait of a time and place, but also because, ultimately, we are so very different from the French (who hated us, by the way, even then). Americans are usually reluctant to fight and, at least at the outset, we fight ineffectively, until finally we get organized and remember that the only way to win is by visiting unremitting violence on the enemy, without worrying about whether it will make people who hate us already hate us even more.

Daniel Akst’s first novel, St. Burl’s Obituary, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His second novel, The Webster Chronicle, was published last month by Putnam.

David L. Ulin

More than once since September 11, I’ve found myself rooting through the bookshelves for my dog-eared copy of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, a memoir — originally published in 1967 — that re-creates the first 18 years of its author’s life. Why I did so, exactly, is hard to say, except that Stop-Time is a personal touchstone, a source of identification and comfort that has resonated for me since I first discovered it at age 15. Back then, I was a shy and awkward adolescent, trying to fit into the culture of a New England boarding school, a culture to which, I knew, I’d never truly belong. In Conroy I found a sympathetic spirit, a misfit who embraced his own outsider status — who, growing up (like me) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, haunted the same luncheonettes, movie theaters and sidewalks as I had, yet found within this patchwork not chaos but connection, a way of staking out the boundaries of his own emotional world.

Over the years, I’ve re-read Stop-Time many times, and it remains one of the few books I regularly give as a gift. But in the wake of September 11, Conroy’s memoir has taken on a new significance, since what it describes, among other things, is the mundane reality of New York in a way in which it may well never be described again. New York, after all, is no longer just a place where people live; it has become a metaphor for everything we have lost. For those of us who grew up there, the loss is more than just one of innocence — it is a loss of history, of memory, of the simple pleasures of the city’s streets. In Stop-Time, I find myself returned to New York as I once knew it, where kids play hooky to go to the movies, or stay up all night reading novels in the quiet stillness of a back bedroom.

David L. Ulin is the editor of Another City: Writing From Los Angeles, recently published by City Lights.

Chitra Divakaruni

Badly in need of solace and faith in the wake of the September 11 attacks — like most of America — I reached for The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, an extended interview with the Dalai Lama by Dr. Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist who puts to the Tibetan spiritual leader questions based on some of the more difficult problems faced by his clients. The essential question he asks — one that most of us have asked, from time to time — is: Why is there so much unhappiness here in America, the most prosperous country in the world? And its corollary: Is it, then, possible for any human being to be happy?

Replying with humor, compassion and generous, frank examples from his own life, the Dalai Lama asserts with complete conviction that “Happiness can be achieved by training the mind.” Many of the techniques he offers seem similar to those in a typical self-help manual, but it is the uniqueness and depth of the Dalai Lama’s thinking — and, perhaps, his Eastern perspective — that makes this book so singular. For example, he states that contentment is very difficult to come by without self-worth. Nothing new there, but unlike so many of us, his sense of self-worth comes not from possessions, honor, fame or even character, but, rather, from recognizing the connection we share with the rest of humanity. “That human bond,” he states, “is enough to give rise to a sense of worth and dignity. That bond can become a source of consolation in the event you lose everything else.”

Much of the book focuses on compassion, how it may be developed, and how, in its wake, happiness and peace follow. One way of developing compassion is through a contemplation of dependence. In Western cultural terms, dependence is seen as a negative quality. Its opposite — call it independence or self-reliance — is what most of us strive for. Yet the Dalai Lama shows us that the concept of self-reliance is a fantasy. We could not exist even for a moment if it were not for the help, cooperation and service of hundreds of other beings, human or otherwise, the majority of whom we do not even know. This truth becomes clear to us if we really think about the meal we are eating, the house we are living in, or even the book we are reading. It is a thought that softens and opens the heart and fills it with a sense of thankfulness and a desire to be of service — the way so many others are constantly being of service to us.

The Art of Happiness is filled with other wonderful meditations — one to create empathy with people toward whom we harbor negative feelings; another to increase our compassion for those who are suffering, even if we do not know them personally — as well as a discussion of the practice of Tong-len, or giving and receiving. This is not a quick, one-time read. I find myself going back to the book again and again — not only in times of need and sorrow, such as these, but also in times of joy. It is a book that, without referring to particular political situations or social problems, is relevant to many of them. It has the potential to allow one to regain the balance and connectedness that is our birthright, and to discover again the blissful Self that is always present at our core.

Chitra Divakaruni is the author of The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (stories) and the upcoming novel The Vine of Desire.


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