Here in New York City, we heard it first, the drone of the plane down the West Side, surprisingly loud. Then, if we were outside, our heads pointed in the right direction, we could see it: the dull-red gash in the North Tower, smoking ominously. Just as we’d begun to absorb this strange sight, wondering what pilot could have been so dim as to steer his plane into one of those towers on what seemed the clearest, bluest September day anyone could remember, came a second plane, then a terrible blossom of flame, then the billowing smoke enshrouding downtown. There would be more, of course, two planes aimed at Washington, one that would dive into the Pentagon, the other downed in a field in Pennsylvania. But for New Yorkers, it was the most intimate of tragedies. Within weeks, the day had become a number, a kind of shorthand for a whole universe, one that hadn’t existed on 9/10.
Many of us here remember going to work that week, searching for an appropriate journalistic response to a world that was changing in ways we couldn’t yet see. As this anniversary loomed, we found ourselves asking the inverse of the same question: 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. We decided to reach back to an old form that might allow us to account for a wide assortment of what was created in the wake of the destruction: heroes and villains, great and awful ideas, twisted fates, pop songs and myths and wars. 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. So we asked our own writers, and a host of distinguished others, to explore a range of subjects that might in their aggregate add up to a kind of idiosyncratic assessment. Some of the resulting 92 entries we kept in the vernacular of a reference book; some we allowed to deviate to accommodate remembrances and other emotional responses. We sought imagery that either felt fresh to us or hauntingly familiar—we were looking throughout to balance sentiment with distance. Borrowing from the old musty volumes on hand, we ran illustrations and data and artifacts up the margins.
In spite of its form, our encyclopedia makes no claim to be comprehensive. It’s neither a first draft of history nor a verdict—just a set of impressions from some point in between. September 11, 2001, changed everything, or it did not; it will take a lot more than ten years to figure that out.