Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

August 28, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of the most remarkable, deeply affecting books I have ever read.  I first came across an extract as a part of my non-fiction writing class, but I found it so amazing that I quickly went out and purchased the entire book.

Hiroshima is a surprisingly simple piece of journalistic writing about six seemingly ordinary people who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It starts on the morning the bomb was dropped, when they were going about their normal lives, and ends several months later as they struggle to piece their shattered lives and bodies back together.  The narratives are simultaneous but The book originally had four chapters, but the modern edition I read had a fifth chapter called “The Aftermath”, written 40 years later after Hersey went back to see what had become of the lives of these six remarkable people (they really are remarkable).

In Hiroshima, John Hersey has created a sublime piece of non-fiction writing.  The skill involved in crafting this book is very understated.  The prose is not flowery or beautiful like Capote’s In Cold Blood — it’s simple, direct, subtle and meticulously described (and researched), but at the same time extremely effective, vivid, and haunting.  Some of the images brought to life by Hersey will stay with me forever.  The strange thing is, Hiroshima is not at all moralistic or manipulative.  It’s just an incredibly detailed and accurately told true story.  I can’t recall a book that has given me a greater urge to weep than this one.

This masterpiece first appeared as an article in The New Yorker on 31 August 1946 (a little after a year the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima) and caused unprecedented attention as the entire editorial space of the issue was dedicated to the piece.  It was sold out within hours and was scalped for exorbitant prices.  It was read over the radio in its entirety and distributed all around the world for educational purposes.  Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1,000 copies.  The Book-of-the-Month club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies for free to its members.

One of the best books I’ve read.

5 out of 5

[PS: I really wish I read Hiroshima by John Hersey before visiting the city in May 2008.]