The New York Times critic A.O. Scott once observed that great novels often “blend private destinies with public events.” So too with great nonfiction; it was the private sufferings of six Japanese survivors that enabled John Hersey to communicate the public horror of Hiroshima in his landmark article. Find the right protagonist, and the writer can piggyback history and explain it too.
It was Walter Lord who first helped me understand this. Before reading his book “A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic,” I knew that the Titanic had sunk. But after reading his book, that same fact left me cold, with Lord preserving in crystalline prose the icy Atlantic waters in which the ship—and some 1,500 people—went down in the spring of 1912.
Lord did not report so much as recreate. He was a tireless researcher (he interviewed, for example, 63 survivors of the doomed ship), and employed, as one reviewer put it, “a kind of literary pointillism, the arrangement of contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.”
Still, Lord did not merely recreate history. He helped his reader to understand it. As he wrote of the Titanic, 42 years after ship struck iceberg: “Complacency vanished on that unforgettable April night and has never come back again.”