Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

The updated paperback cover of Hiroshima, by John Hersey, originally published in 1946.

Author John Hersey, 1940's.
John Hersey’s 1946 book Hiroshima, an account of the aftermath of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, is a classic of non-fiction reporting. Many critics consider it to be the first work of “New Journalism,” as it contained detailed accounts from six survivors of the blast. Whether or not you agree with the decision by President Harry Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, you should read Hiroshima to understand what the survivors went through. 

Hiroshima is one of those books that I’ve been aware of for a very long time, since middle school or high school at the latest, but I never read it for school, and for whatever reason I simply had never taken the time to read it. This spring, as I was teaching World War II to 10th graders in World History, it occurred to me that I needed to fill this lamentable gap in my reading. I’m very glad I did, as Hiroshima is a short and powerful volume about the horrors of the atomic age.

Hersey’s prose is sparse and spare; there is never an extraneous word, or a florid description. Hiroshima heeds George Orwell’s famous quote, also published in 1946, that “Good prose is like a windowpane.” By that I think Orwell meant that the prose style should be clear and should not get in the way of the subject being viewed, and Hiroshima certainly is a great example of clear, concise writing. 

Hiroshima begins with examining where each of the six people it follows were at the moment the bomb detonated, and then traces their paths through the days that followed. Their stories occasionally intertwine throughout the book. 

Hersey made history as The New Yorker devoted the entirety of its August 31, 1946 issue to the full text of his article. Hersey added a long chapter, “The Aftermath” in 1985, which updated the survivors’ stories over the next forty years. 

It seems superfluous to have a long, drawn-out discussion about the merits of Hiroshima as a work of art. It is a beautiful, haunting book that should be read by anyone who wishes to engage with the many moral issues and complexities surrounding World War II.

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