So Billy had given me Hiroshima by John Hersey a little while ago.
When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, few could have anticipated its potential for devastation. Pulitzer prize-winning author John Hersey recorded the stories of Hiroshima residents shortly after the explosion and, in 1946, Hiroshima was published, giving the world first-hand accounts from people who had survived it. The words of Miss Sasaki, Dr. Fujii, Mrs. Nakamara, Father Kleinsorg, Dr. Sasaki, and the Reverend Tanimoto gave a face to the statistics that saturated the media and solicited an overwhelming public response. Whether you believe the bomb made the difference in the war or that it should never have been dropped, “Hiroshima” is a must read for all of us who live in the shadow of armed conflict.
It was on my “to read” list until he told me about a part of the book describing how in the aftermath of the nuclear explosion, the fallout had inexplicably caused fields of flowers to sprout and bloom. It created an impression on me and after I finished my last book, I finally got around to picking it up. Wow.
Occasionally I have run into works created that simply transcend the genre and medium they are crafted in. Restrepo and Dancer in the Dark come to mind. To simply label them as films sincerely do them injustice. Hiroshima was the first book I read that left me with that same effect.
I was simply dumbfounded. It was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road come to life, with an atomic angle and the twist of Japanese cultural norms. It was unfathomable to consider what I was reading was a work of non-fiction. The stories alone were amazing but there were other reasons I appreciated the book. From a journalistic point of view I was simply in awe. The amount of time and detail that went into crafting the book was first class reporting. I can’t imagine the legwork that must of gone into it. And the writing itself was incredibly well done. From form to structure (overall down to how the sentences themselves were assembled) to voice and tone (a relatively dry and factual telling of the story, letting the hibakusha tell their stories and Hersey making a concerted effort to not let his passion get in the way of their experience), it was a superb piece of writing. I am extremely envious that something of such historical significance could be put together in such a solid piece of journalism. The book could of stood alone on any one of the three tenets (historical perspective, journalism, writing) but to nail all three was inspiring.
As I often do when I become interested in something, I start to dig and research.
It turns out that the book was actually originally a magazine article appearing in The New Yorker. The 31,000 word missive preempted all the other content for the August 31, 1946 issue. (The Aftermath addendum was added 40 years later in a follow up by Hersey.) Not one other article or cartoon appeared in the issue. The idea of doing this was wrought and wrestled over by the publisher and editor. It was executed in complete secrecy with no warning given to staff or readers. The piece was offered with this simple explanation:
TO OUR READERS, The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all, but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use; The Editors.
Now, with the benefit of time and distance from the event, it is easy to lose sight of the historical significance of publishing a piece like this. Japan was the enemy. Any attempt to convey the level of destruction caused by the atomic bomb by the Japanese was thwarted by our government. An article like this ran the risk of looking “sympathetic” to our enemy.
It’s everything journalism can and should be. Honest. Bold. Truthful. Compelling. Moving. Significant.
Steve Rothman did a term paper on the book, assembling a good amount of information about Hersey, the book and publication of the article. He turned it all into a website with is worth a visit and read.
The entire piece has also been read on the radio several times. The audio can be heard here.
I was so moved by the book, I came up with a little homage. What that is will have to wait for now…
In the meantime, I knocked off about 100 pages of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives today.