Testimonies From the Day the Towers Came Down

An Oral History of 9/11
By Garrett M. Graff

In the days after 9/11, a conventional wisdom took hold among the elite factions of the reflective class, the central tenet of which was that things had now “changed forever.” Irony, disaffection, superficiality, mindless consumerism, time wasting — hallmarks of blithe living enjoyed by the “Seinfeld” generation — had now fallen into a cultural mortar and pestle, ground into dust and replaced by our collective privileging of depth, compassion, earnestness, complexity, meaning. Old boyfriends called and said they were sorry — for cheating and dawdling, for failures of commitment and appreciation. Art, journalism, popular culture would all sober up. Someone like Jeff Koons would have to find a new line of work — maybe he could get a job at UNICEF. As a country, we were now on an accelerated path to maturity. Sept. 12 did not look into the future and see the social latency, the fractured attention, the Rich Kids of Instagram.

New York itself was expected to diminish both in size and mythology. People would leave their brownstones and apartments, protect their families from the inevitable march of terror and go to Maine or Canada or New Zealand. But as it happened, few abandoned their lives for the presumable haven of the pastoral. Most remained in the city and in the subsequent years close to 500,000 others joined them. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York would experience one of the greatest real estate booms in its history.

Things did change for those intimately connected to the events of 9/11, either by virtue of what happened on that Tuesday morning or because of the two misguided wars the attacks precipitated. It is with the first group that the journalist Garrett M. Graff now finds himself involved, after years spent writing about the consequences of 9/11 in terms of geopolitics and national security. “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11” is a book exquisitely suited to audio format, a detailed cataloging of hundreds of personal stories, read by actors and culled from 5,000 oral histories conducted and archived around the country.

Oral history is the telling of the past in its most democratic construction. It fell out of fashion in the late 19th century, underwent a revival in the 1960s and then eventually faded from view again as data and analysis assumed greater value over plain narrative. Graff’s project beautifully achieves its chief goal — educating people too young or born too late to remember what the day of Sept. 11, 2001, felt like. But it also restores a form to its rightful place as necessity.

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes