McGinnis: 9/11 ‘Encyclopedia’ puts human face on tragedyWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
I was playing with my little niece the other day. She is 2 years old. With the 9/11 anniversary so fresh in my mind, a thought occurred to me: She would never know a world before 9/11. I’m not sure I will be present when the time comes to discuss such events with her, and I’m not sure I’d want to be. How do you explain the change that happened that day to all of us, to someone who wasn’t there? How do you sum up the fear, the uncertainty, the anger, the overwhelming sadness?
With the impending arrival of the 10-year anniversary, there have been many, many documentaries, remembrances, write-ups and more reflecting on that day when the world stopped. Each of these works seems content to discuss a piece of the event, rather than the whole puzzle. Small wonder — capturing the enormity of the day’s tragedy in two hours or a few thousand words seems a task to daunt Sisyphus.
Enter New York Magazine and its bold online project, “The Encyclopedia of 9/11” (nymag.com/news/articles/wtc).
As stated in the introduction:
“With all we now know, how to begin to address the enormity of the event? Our solution was not to shrink from its scale but to embrace it. … The alphabetized jumble of an encyclopedia, with its preposterous aspiration to describe whole cultures and continents and bodies of knowledge in a single place — that, we thought, might be an interesting way to take in the multiplicity of 9/11’s effects.”
The document as it now exists on nymag.com is less of a comprehensive look at the events and more of a loose collection of essays, each covering some aspect of the day’s events and their aftermath.
The pieces which make up the Encyclopedia are wildly different in length, content, focus and structure. In one way, this is a benefit, giving a sense of the variety of experiences from that day. In another, it’s a hindrance, giving more focus to relatively minor factors while larger ones are sometimes poorly represented.
How to account for the fact that the articles on current New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg or the bullhorn George W. Bush used to address the multitudes are so much longer than the one discussing Rudolph Giuliani? Perhaps the authors felt Giuliani’s impact on the day was self-evident, or that so much had been said that little could be added. But what is the goal of a project such as this if not to bring together a wealth of such thoughts?
The number of articles which actually follow traditional structure is small. Most of the pieces are not aiming for facts, but instead to capture a feel, a sense, a memory of what the day was like.
It is in this way that the archive shines. Scrolling through its pages, I was reminded of facets of the events that had since faded: The rush to give blood in an effort to help the aid efforts; the eerie silence of a still night where air traffic was forbidden; the sharing of new information with anyone and everyone, for we were all one in the days that followed.
That is what reading New York Magazine’s ambitious project gave to me. It took me back to where I, and where the country, was on that day, and where it has gone in the days since. And it provides accounts that reapply a human face to events that time has dulled.
There’s an entry titled “Good-bye” which preserves Beverly Eckert’s heartbreaking account of her last phone call with her husband, Sean Rooney, who died in the South Tower. Among all the events of that day, in the enormity of the loss of life, it’s easy to lose sight of the individual.
But these weren’t faceless groups of people. These were thousands of distinct, singular persons, murdered senselessly. Eckert’s tale brings that back into focus. (Her story gains poignancy with the footnote that Eckert tragically died in a plane crash in 2009.)
If my niece ever asks me what happened on 9/11, I think I’ll tell her about Beverly Eckert and Sean Rooney.