The following is based on a lecture given this November at the New York Public Library.
Seven days after September 11, 2001, I left New York to do two weeks of book promotion, under other circumstances a predictable kind of trip. You fly into one city or another, you do half an hour on local NPR, you do a few minutes on drive-time radio, you do an “event,” a talk or a reading or an onstage discussion. You sign books, you take questions from the audience. You go back to the hotel, order a club sandwich from room service, and leave a 5 AM call with the desk, so that in the morning you can go back to the airport and fly to the next city. During the week between September 11 and the Wednesday morning when I went to Kennedy to get on the plane, none of these commonplace aspects of publishing a book seemed promising or even appropriate things to be doing. But—like most of us who were in New York that week—I was in a kind of protective coma, sleepwalking through a schedule made when planning had still seemed possible. In fact I was protecting myself so successfully that I had no idea how raw we all were until that first night, in San Francisco, when I was handed a book onstage and asked to read a few marked lines from an essay about New York I had written in 1967.
Later I remembered thinking: 1967, no problem, no land mines there.
I put on my glasses. I began to read.
“New York was no mere city,” the marked lines began. “It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
I hit the word “perishable” and I could not say it.
I found myself onstage at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco unable to finish reading the passage, unable to speak at all for what must have been thirty seconds. All I can say about the rest of that evening, and about the two weeks that followed, is that they turned out to be nothing I had expected, nothing I had ever before experienced, an extraordinarily open kind of traveling dialogue, an encounter with an America apparently immune to conventional wisdom. The book I was making the trip to talk about was Political Fictions, a series of pieces I had written for The New York Review about the American political process from the 1988 through the 2000 presidential elections. These people to whom I was listening—in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Portland and Seattle—were making connections I had not yet in my numbed condition thought to make: connections between that political process and what had happened on September 11, connections between our political life and the shape our reaction would take and…
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