Hiroshima by John Hersey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is certainly one of the great books of the previous century. It is superlative in many respects. Most obvious is the book’s historical value, which needs no further elaboration. Hiroshima is also a stylistically innovative and influential book, pioneering the dramatic writing techniques that would come to characterize some of the best journalistic writing after the war. And Hersey also deserves praise for his stylistic restraint. Virtually no event could have been more liable to evoke overwrought prose or vain attempts to capture the broad sweep of the tragedy. Hersey’s decision to focus on only six survivors, and to narrate what they saw with simple directness, was an act of great authorial self-control.

But this book is great for more important reasons than these. The power of atomic weapons is such that most of us can barely imagine it, much less picture ourselves their victims. Thus, as with many historical atrocities, the stories of survivors bridge the gap between imagination and experience, and allow us—at least dimly—to grasp the extent of the horror. Merely being faced with the reality of the bomb is enough to make a point. Without any explicit preaching, Hiroshima utterly convinces us that weapons which wreak such indiscriminate violence and widespread destruction have no possible rational use, even in war.

Last, the book is a wonderfully humanistic document. The people in this book were struck with a weapon they did not even suspect existed. They lost their homes, churches, and businesses, and they lost parents, children, spouses, and friends. And yet Hersey shows how these ordinary people often proved capable of extraordinary heroism and resilience, not only in the immediate aftermath, but in the years that followed. I found this especially moving, as I am often ashamed of my own inability to deal calmly with petty frustrations and minor setbacks. Books like this may not make me any wiser, but they at least leave me with a little hope—for myself, and for us all.



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