For Obama's visit, let's revisit 'Hiroshima' — the book, not the city
When I read the news that President Obama was to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima, one of the two atomic bomb sites from World War II, my thoughts rushed to a book by John Hersey. That work, titled "Hiroshima," hit me hard as a high school student, and I have written about it several times since then. My most recent book, "The Art of X-Ray Reading," devotes a chapter to it. Here is a condensed version of that chapter, titled “The Stopped Clock.”
On the lead-up to the year 2000, a series of retrospectives appeared in all media, a look back on the decade, century, millennium. A common method of expression was a list inviting us to recall and prioritize items within certain categories. What was the greatest American novel of the 20th century? I’d vote for "The Great Gatsby." What was the greatest song? “Over the Rainbow.” Who was the greatest athlete? Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali – I can’t decide. What was the greatest nonfiction book? We have a lot to choose from, don’t we. Perhaps "Silent Spring," by Rachel Carson, or "The Other America," by Michael Harrington. A number of the lists I noticed chose "Hiroshima," by Hersey.
The book was published in 1946, the year after the atomic bombing. It originally appeared in the New Yorker, which dedicated an entire issue to Hersey’s story. Since then, it has sold millions of copies, especially in a thin paperback edition that became and remains a staple for high school students. The world changed on Aug. 6, 1945, and Hersey gave us all a view of what American forces had unleashed. It ended one war but ushered in the nuclear age.
Here is the first sentence of Hiroshima:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
I have always found that sentence remarkable. Hiding inside of it are several useful strategies for writers in every genre. Let me put on my X-ray reading glasses and show you what I am seeing. To help you see, I will divide Hersey’s lead into three parts: beginning, middle, and ending.
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time…”
This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story. In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line. The word “exactly” is not a modifier but an intensifier. We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridian, the month, day, year, and time zone. That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb. The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker. Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon.) Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical. In Hiroshima we are about to meet another group of pilgrims — survivors — who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.
In a way, time is also about to stand still. Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction. This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie “Godzilla.” The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction. In the updated versions, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima. The time is frozen at 8:15.
“…at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima…”
I have argued many times that emphatic words in a sentence should go at the end. The middle is the location of least emphasis. You might think that an author writing about the dropping of the atom bomb would build up to that moment, not insert it almost as an afterthought (perhaps better described here as a beforethought). But contrary to expectations, Hersey places the real heat of the sentence in the middle, almost casually, so we are taken by surprise.
This part of the sentence is best seen as an extension of the first, another time marker, a phrase followed by a clause, both of which act as adverbs answering the question “When?” The phrase “flashed above Hiroshima” deserves special attention. The common understanding about bombs dropped from planes is that they explode upon impact. They hit something and destroy it. One gets the sense of an awesome new technology with this language. A verb of light such as “flashed” reminds us not just of explosive destruction but also of radiation.
“…Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom. The name for the first is litotes, or understatement – the opposite of hyperbole. While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold. Here’s the writing lesson: In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit. Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.
A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.” Nowhere was this strategy more useful than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11. Faced with almost doomsday physical destruction and the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.” Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.
The author of Hiroshima offer readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s f“inciting incident.” This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life in transformed into story life. All the characters, six of them, described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life — given the context of an ongoing world war — but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.