The Common Reading for 2018: John Hersey’s Hiroshima

On August 15, 1945, people throughout Japan had an unprecedented and historic experience: they heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito himself on the radio, announcing that the war, World War II, was over. Just days before, the United States had dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities—Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. The catastrophic destruction wrought by those bombings played an important role in bringing an end to the war in the Pacific. An estimated 140,000 people died in Hiroshima either in the initial blast or, within a few months, from injuries and radiation sickness; 90% of the city was destroyed.[1]

A year later, The New Yorker magazine devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to a long essay by John Hersey, called simply Hiroshima. That essay was subsequently published in book form and has remained in print ever since. Hersey had traveled to Hiroshima soon after the bombing to interview survivors. His essay, in four chapters, traces the experiences of six of those survivors, from the morning of the bombing through the days that followed. It has been called the most significant piece of journalism of the 20th century.

This little book has been selected as the Florida College Common Reading for 2018. Its topic remains timely: The nuclear arms threats from North Korea and Iran are in the news, as is President Trump’s intention to update and increase the nuclear arsenal of the United States. Its writing seems timeless: Hersey’s narrative reads like a novel; his characters live and his descriptions haunt. And the book’s subject involves cultural, scientific, historical, and moral questions as pertinent today as they were in the weeks and months after the bombs were dropped.

For the past several years, students, faculty, staff, and administrators at Florida College have had the opportunity to read and discuss a significant work, a “common reading,” that can foster meaningful discussions across the campus; it will be discussed formally in classes and in a public forum led by faculty members from various disciplines. You can prepare this summer for those discussions in the fall by treating yourself to Hersey’s Hiroshima. It is available as an inexpensive paperback ($7.95 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble); you can read it free on the New Yorker website, at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima.

[1] Cf. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/survivors-hiroshima-and-nagasaki.

Questions to Consider As You Read

    1. How and why do you think Hersey chose the six survivors whose stories he gives us? You may note, for example, that not all six are Japanese and that some, but not all, suffer severe injuries.
    2. To what extent does Hersey politicize his reporting? In other words, does he attempt to guide readers to a conclusion about whether or not President Truman was right to deploy atomic bombs?
    3. How prominently does the essay present cultural differences—i.e., distinctively Japanese ways of thinking and acting, and where?
    4. You will not be surprised to encounter unpleasant—even horrific—details about suffering. At what points does Hersey also manage to include moments of relief or humor? Are there encouraging or inspiring depictions of humanity?
    5. Where do you find Hersey’s choices as a writer most effective or interesting? Consider such things as the words he chooses, the ways in which he arranges sentences, the order in which he introduces his central figures and the ways in which he moves from one to the other as he narrates, the chapter structure and his handling of the passage of time.

Glossary

You will encounter few unfamiliar words as you read, but you may find it useful to have definitions for some of the words listed below. The definitions are taken from www.merriam-webster.com.

  • atavism — noun, recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity. (Hersey uses the adjective form ativistic.)
  • immolate — verb, to offer in sacrifice; to kill or destroy, often by fire
  • malaise — noun, an indefinite feeling of debility or lack of health often indicative of or accompanying the onset of an illness
  • miasma — noun, a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere; an atmosphere that obscures
  • moribund — adj., being in a state of dying; approaching death
  • portecochère — noun, a passageway through a building or screen wall designed to let vehicles pass from the street to an interior courtyard
  • suralimentation (or superalimentation) — noun, the action or process of overfeeding, called also hypernutrition
  • talisman — noun, an object held to act as a charm to avert evil and bring good fortune. (Hersey uses the adjective form talismanic.)
  • verdant — adj., green with growing plants. (Hersey uses the noun form verdancy.)