Building are reflected in one of the pools of the 9/11 Memorial during ceremonies for the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on lower Manhattan at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2013 in New York City

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Party Animals, Digital Libraries, and Memorializing 9/11: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From necessary remembrances to provocative reconstitutions, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

New York City skyline at night, with two beams of blue light emanating from the right of the frame

Dante A. Ciampaglia

New York City's Tribute in Light, seen from Jersey City, New Jersey, on September 11, 2016.

Voices of Witness

It’s easy to teach the events of history—what happened, when, who was involved? It’s much harder to convey what those events were like for the people who lived them. What did people think and feel as history was unfolding? How did the experience shape them? How did a particular moment become part of their psychology, story, and personal sense of the world—and ours? Enough time has passed since 9/11 that there’s now an entire generation of students —young people who’ve made it all the way through college—with no memory of that day. And this year, as we mark the 20th anniversary, there is a new crop of books, documentaries, and oral histories that are trying to capture not just the events but the feeling of 9/11.

Last week, I read Garret Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky. I’ve never encountered a book organized this way before, filled with page after page of stunning, first-person recollections from people inside the Twin Towers, people working in the Pentagon, people aboard airplanes suddenly grounded in the panicked urgency of that day. Graff quotes from voicemails of people who perished, transcripts of conversations from emergency workers, declassified interviews with fighter pilots patrolling the skies over American cities. It’s a hard book to read because it’s a different kind of history, an account of how a world-historical event slammed into individual lives. “The Only Plane In The Sky is brutal, emotionally wracking reading,” writes Scott Detrow of NPR. “But I think that's the point of the book. Sept. 11 was terrible and confusing, and the more time passes, sometimes the harder that is to remember…. This book captures the emotions and unspooling horror of the day. It will be a good text to hand to a curious teenager when he one day asks: What was Sept. 11 really like?” And that’s the right question to ask if you want to understand all that followed, all the ways a single day can reshape decades. —Stefanie Sanford

A man sitting in an empty university auditorium with his head resting in his arms

Caspar Benson/Getty Images

Want to get men back onto college campuses? One place to start is to get them reading. Get the trend reversing by giving them a library card and some recommendations. Just maybe steer them away from e-books...

Big Man No-Longer-On-Campus

Men have struggled with higher education for a long time, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. “Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels,” reports the Wall Street Journal. “In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues.” The female-heavy skew of higher education has its roots in lagging academic achievement for men in the K12 system, where girls tend to outpace boys in grades, test scores, and extracurricular participation. “The underrepresentation of men in college began in the 1990s and has frequently been discussed in national policy debates,” according to a National Academy of Sciences study published last year, which suggests poor reading skills are a major reason boys fall behind. “Increasing men’s engagement in postsecondary education will require significant improvement in boys’ reading competencies.” (Do your part by sending all these great Elective recommendations to some college-bound fellas you know!)

The gender skew in higher ed has huge implications beyond campus. With marriage rates increasingly sorted by educational attainment, an imbalance in college grads means an imbalance in dating pools. Women now dominate the younger ranks of the legal and medical professions, even as the senior ranks of those fields remain overwhelmingly male. And the continued overachievement of women in college is sharpening questions about gender discrimination and child-bearing penalties in the workplace. “Men dominate top positions in industry, finance, politics and entertainment. They also hold a majority of tenured faculty positions and run most U.S. college campuses,” reports The Journal. “Yet female college students are running laps around their male counterparts.” Seems a safe bet that the shift on campus in the last two decades will have to mean long-overdue change in the workplace in the years ahead. —Eric Johnson

Detail of the cover of the book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop showing a donkey, cougar, bear, wolf, and elephant rendered in blue and red, with blue on the top half, and with stars for eyes

Oxford University Press

You can take a quiz to see what political party you'd align with if there were many to choose from. Or you could make the call based on the party's animal. (That mountain lion or whatever next to the donkey looks fierce. Let's go with that!)

We the Party People

As a young millennial, nothing speaks to me like a good quiz. If the quiz is also educational and policy-related, even better! So of course I eagerly clicked on Lee Drutman’s recent New York Times article, "If America had 6 parties, which would you belong to?" Like many, I have long felt that neither of the two major political parties could fully encapsulate my beliefs—a feeling magnified in recent years with growing multiplicity of opinions on contentious issues in both parties. Drutman, author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America, offers a solution to the two-party system in the Times piece by outlining six new political parties along two dimensions: degrees of social and economic conservatism. The parties are the Progressive Party, New Liberal Party, American Labor Party, Patriot Party, Christian Conservative Party, and Growth and Opportunity Party. Interestingly, there is no center party in Drutman's system. His research has found there are very few voters in the middle on all issues, and oftentimes readers who consider themselves centrist are socially liberal/fiscally conservative or vice versa. In addition to the quiz placing you in a party, the article allows the reader to explore each party and learn about their demographics—for example, 43% of the Progressive Party has a college degree, 47% of the Growth and Opportunity Party is female—as well as racial and geographic breakdowns.

Drutman's party identifier quiz is not just another fun way to identify our personalities (though I'll happily tell you that I'm both an ENTJ and a Scorpio). The research behind the quiz could actually impact our form of government. Drutman goes into the details, but creating a multi-party system wouldn't require a constitutional amendment, and is actually something the House of Representatives has considered. Ultimately, by creating greater diversity in our representation, a multi-party system could increase voter turnout and, cribbing from Drutman, tap into the dormant political innovation in our government.  —Hannah Van Drie

Bookcase with books on a smartphone screen on a desktop. Electronic library in a mobile phone.

Julia Garan/Getty Images

If libraries never really own the e-books you can borrow from them, how soon until the actual owners of the digital content get into the library-disruption business?

Lost in the Stacks

Ever wondered why there’s a waiting list to “borrow” digital books from the library? It turns out books made of computer code are more expensive than old fashioned print volumes. That’s the case for America’s libraries, at least, which are allowed to own a physical book forever but license e-books for a finite number of loans. “The high prices of e-book rights could become untenable for libraries in the long run,” writes Daniel Gross in The New Yorker, unpacking the complex economics that make it possible to lend books for free. Public libraries have had a couple centuries to work out the right balance between public interest, copyright law, and publishers’ economic interests when it comes to physical books. But we’re still in the early stages of figuring out how libraries and content creators will come to terms with making digital books available to the borrowing public.

“Libraries can buy print books in bulk from any seller that they choose, and, thanks to a legal principle called the first-sale doctrine, they have the right to lend those books to any number of readers free of charge,” Gross explains. “But the first-sale doctrine does not apply to digital content. For the most part, publishers do not sell their e-books or audiobooks to libraries—they sell digital distribution rights to third-party venders.” Those rights eventually expire, meaning the e-book disappears and the library can no longer loan it. When the pandemic shut down library buildings for much of last year, published systems spent even more money licensing digital books. In the long run, public libraries will have to find ways of adapting to changing technology, since their core mission is about public access to information. “Lending libraries were once an innovation that helped spread literacy and popularize books,” Gross writes. That mission is still there, but the broader challenge of digital literacy and popularizing sound information in an age of online garbage is even more daunting. —Eric Johnson

Detail of a rain covered section of the 9/11 memorial with a red rose laid in between a list of names

Dante A. Ciampaglia

A section of the 9/11 Memorial North Pool at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan.

How to Never Forget

For the last six years, I’ve worked in offices located in the Brookfield Place complex, across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center. Brookfield had been known as the World Financial Center until it was rebranded in the city’s post-9/11 effort to rebuild lower Manhattan. To get to it, you need to walk through the site once known as Ground Zero and pass the 9/11 Memorial pools set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. So for six years, I’ve walked through this hallowed site of carnage and rebirth, stopping occasionally to marvel at the light reflecting off the waterfalls and slowing my gait to read the names etched on the walls, especially those with flowers by them. (The 9/11 Memorial staff places white roses to mark a person’s birthday.) The memorial is far from perfect, but it is unquestionably moving and the pools mimic what Maya Lin accomplished with her Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., offering a place of remembrance and potent reflection. Still, even if we can feel a range of emotions drifting by those names, that’s all they are: names, etched into a memorial that can often feel impersonal thanks to their scale, ghoulish tourists using them as backdrops for enthusiastic selfies, and zealous security keeping people at a remove. And that’s why I found Jennifer Senior’s engrossing, moving, and soulful feature in the latest issue of The Atlantic—about Bobby McIlvaine, who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and his family’s two-decade odyssey of trauma and grieving—so vital.

I wasn’t looking for stories commemorating the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001. In fact, I was planning on using this space to recommend the art that helped and helps me make sense of 9/11 and what it wrought (Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Bruce Spingsteen and the E Street Band’s The Rising, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour). But Senior’s piece packed a wallop and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot in the weeks since reading it. That’s due, in part, to its timing: millions of people globally lost someone to covid-19, to say nothing of entire communities, and are grieving the way the McIlvaines have since Bobby died. More pointedly, though, the article’s humanity and love brings home just how incomplete our understanding of 9/11 is. To answer the New York Times’ James Poniewozik, 9/11 isn’t a day—it’s an era. And over the last 20 years it can feel like no stone of the triggering event has been left unturned. But what do we know of the 2,996 people who died? Relatively very little. That’s its own kind of tragedy. (Another excellent piece focused on the people lost was published by Smithsonian Magazine in its September issue.) The names etched into those memorial pool walls at Ground Zero are people with families and histories and legacies—a reality all too easy to forget as you hustle past to make it into the office in time for a stand-up. On this anniversary, Senior gives us the gift of slowing down in front of one of those names and allowing us into his life and tenderly, honestly illuminating his impact and inspiration on his friends, family, and even casual acquaintances. We need more memorials like the one Senior created for Bobby McIlvaine. —Dante A. Ciampaglia