For a report on the recent September 11 movies, “United 93″ and “World Trade Center,” please read Daniel Mendelsohn in the NYRB–for the simple reason that he is once again thoughtful and, well, the movie-makers aren’t. Here’s a paragraph almost at random which will indicate to you that way in which Mendelsohn always enriches the manifold contexts that complicate our relationship to event and texts:
By coincidence, the way in which what happens becomes the story of what happens—another way of putting this is to say, the way in which history becomes drama—had been much on my mind earlier that morning, because the play I was going to be teaching on Thursday that week was a work I typically teach when introducing students to the subject of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ Persians. First produced in the spring of 472 BC, Persians is noteworthy in the corpus of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies in that it is the only classical Greek drama that dramatizes an actual historical event. That event was the improbable and glorious defeat, by a relatively tiny force of Greek citizen-soldiers, of the immense expeditionary force sent by the Persian monarch Xerxes to conquer Greece: the first global geopolitical conflict between East and West that the world would see.
I liked re-reading Ben Yagoda’s evaluation of The 9/11 Commission Report as a good piece of literature–written by a government committee, no less! Here is how Yagoda begins:
The tradition of reconstructed nonfiction narrative has been brief but generally illustrious, beginning in 1946 with John Hersey’s Hiroshima and including Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, David Simon’s Homicide, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But the most recent notable book in this style, Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, is more than 5 years old, and, in fact, the tradition was dwindling, if not withering, until the publication over the summer of a riveting, absolutely factual tale. This book got rave reviews, was the No. 1 New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller for 11 weeks in a row and is one of five nominated contenders for the National Book Award for nonfiction on Nov. 17. That’s right, I’m talking about The 9/11 Commission Report. Improbably enough, it may be this government document—credited to a 10-member commission and an 82-person staff—that leads a noble genre out of the wilderness.
The report is exemplary in two ways—its literary style and its allegiance to the truth. Both offer a lesson to narrative journalists.