I’d venture to guess that many readers of this blog have read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which is set in a dystopian society where all books are incinerated. The protagonist eventually meets a group of outcasts who have taken it upon themselves to memorize those cornerstone texts that have been burned in order to keep human knowledge and history alive.
Thankfully, we do not burn our books, and with any luck we will not have to memorize them. But their physical availability should not obscure the fact that our books serve the same purpose as those memorized in Bradbury’s novel: they keep our history alive.
This past Monday, September 11th, Skyhorse Asst. Managing Editor Sam Levitz and I had the pleasure of attending an event for Skyhorse author Helaina Hovitz and the paperback release of her debut memoir, After 9/11. On the 16th anniversary of the tragedy, not far from where it happened, Helaina read passages describing her experience as a child in the shadow of the collapsing towers that day and shared the experience of her struggle against the resulting trauma. It is a beautifully written, visceral, honest, and hopefully story; the tears in the room, the glowing reviews of the book, and the nationwide media attention it’s garnered all speak to that. They also remind us that that those of us of a certain age all have a history of that day to tell.
But not everyone does. One attendee, a high school teacher, asked how Helaina how she thought students who were not alive at the time of 9/11 should be helped to understand what happened. As part of her answer, Helaina described a young student who had written to her and said that it “looked so cool, I wish I had been there.” He is not to blame, she explained; that is the portrayal those students get from the TV, movies, and videogames they see. They have no way of knowing otherwise.
And that is exactly why books like Helaina’s are of ultimate importance. Without books like hers, those students would never be able to know what truly happened to the people who experienced 9/11. Books like hers keep the true history of our world—not the media footage and sensationalist or revisionist accounts, but the real human experiences of those involved—alive and accessible to those who come after us.
And we shouldn’t wait until they’re burning to recognize their significance.
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