I behaved oddly when the lights went out. On Thursday afternoon, Aug. 14, I was sitting in a conference room in midtown Manhattan as the power flickered and died. I immediately asked the two other people in the room, "Are you OK?" -- an inane question they chose to ignore as they moved to the windows overlooking a now-dark Times Square.
In the next hour I continued to act, well, peculiar for someone who likes a snow day as well as the next person. I dashed into my office, closed the door, and, anxiously, dialed the number of a single car service over and over, trying to line up a ride out of the city. (My husband and two children were at our beach place.)
I got a busy signal every time, but it never occurred to me to try another service or make a different plan until a colleague came around and offered me a ride in a car that was coming to pick him up. I accepted immediately, then sat mute behind my desk, waiting for the car to arrive. Even after my friend escorted me down 18 stories and into a town car, and even after I reached our house on Long Island and the power came back on in the wee hours, I couldn't relax.
Given how events unfolded, there was no rational reason for me to feel nauseated and tired for three days afterward. Not that I was alone in my mini-meltdown. A number of friends confessed that they, too, had over-reacted to the blackout; reports that no terrorism was involved, which came within an hour, did nothing to soothe our unease.
I am only glad I conducted myself with more restraint than a Manhattanite I know who within 15 minutes of the power shutdown had loaded 10 gallons of Poland Spring water, three days' worth of food, her two dogs and a box containing photo albums and other keepsakes into her station wagon, before fleeing to a friend's house in Connecticut. It turned out that she'd had this exit strategy in mind for almost two years. She lives downtown in Tribeca, and that explains a lot. Proximity to the tragedy that still shadows our lives turned out to be predictive of how one reacted to the power outage -- at least among my New York acquaintances.
Though the war on terrorism continues, Sept. 11 itself is starting to recede into history. And the book business, which responded to the horrific events with a flood of (mostly forgettable) books, has cut output to a small but steady stream.
Many new volumes are political tomes like Dissent From the Homeland: Essays After September 11, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia (Duke University Press, 252 pages, $21.95), a collection of predictably anti-administration pieces from academics and literary critics. Others are feel-good offerings like From the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to the Attack on America, a collection by the editors of Beliefnet (Rodale, 274 pages, $19.95). The book is an assemblage of the thoughts of spiritual leaders "from many traditions" -- everyone from Chuck Colson to the Dalai Lama.
The appropriately named David Icke has penned a conspiracy theory titled Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster: Why the Official Story of 9 / 11 is a Monumental Lie (Bridge of Love Publications USA, 514 pages, $29.95). Read it and sigh.
Why should the choices be so unremarkable? For one thing, the numerous books in last year's mass outpouring didn't find many buyers. And another, the publishing business is located in New York, where at least day-to-day people have moved on. New York is a large and noisy stage, after all, and the sheer mass of humanity living and working together here, plus the city's role as the nation's financial and cultural capital mean that the murder and destruction of two years ago has been squeezed out -- not at all forgotten, but left behind in the forward rush of events. I doubt the trajectory of recovery was quite the same in, say, Oklahoma City, a smaller place with a tighter focus.
But, still, the events of that terrible day lurk under the collective consciousness -- and the blackout revealed how for many of us a certain internal gauge has been permanently reset. We react more strongly, more emotionally, more fearfully than once, in our relative ignorance, we would have.
And why should it be otherwise? What happened was too gruesome, too obscene.
It's because of this emotional reality that the definitive book on Sept. 11 isn't a political tome discussing root causes or intelligence failures. It's not an engineering brief or a fervent call for more airline security. Nor is it a novel or a poem. It's a newspaper article in 2,310 pieces, each one a short profile of a victim of the attacks.