John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ and the Magnitude of History

I’m gearing up tonight to reread John Hersey’s Hiroshima, offered on the New Yorker in its entirety right now in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the bomb.

I can’t remember if we read the book in 7th or 8th grade, or maybe in high school.  The experience of reading it is indelibly imprinted, as I counted, counted, counted, and envisioned lives of people around me rocked in similar fashion.  For some reason, the image carved by this sentence stuck: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”  Miss Sasaki in a factory library, the usual routine of dropping kids off before going to work, and then, the bomb.

I hunted down Barefoot Gen in the library around that time, and kept envisioning.  These characters.  What if this were my teacher?  My neighbor?  My mother?  And I think that obsessive thought, that imaginative extension of nuclear disaster to the awakening world of relationships around me as an adolescent, pretty significantly colored my reality from then on.  Can you somehow make space to dwell in the trauma of the worst of the human condition, when you’re actually in the bosom of comfort?  I took it as a juvenile test.  I got depressed a lot.

But it also helped me find some fulcrum for a semblance of sensitivity to numbers that boggle the mind.  I took the 70,000 killed, wrapped my mind around 2,000 students at my school, the ones I passed every day.  Thirty-five of those, my school.  What if these buildings crumbled, fell one on another, ashes?  I let my mind stay there.

As a teenager, people would ask, “hey Paul, what’s wrong?” and I literally would have no possible way of explaining myself.

So I’m curious, this anniversary, now two decades of life, knowing I’d be a different character in the ‘Hiroshima’ written today, how the text lives, how it might hang over my existence.

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