Monday, February 7, 2011

The Most Depressing Book I've Ever Read

So, yesterday I finally finished the audiobook of HUMAN SMOKE by Nicholas Baker, a book I tried to read several months back and had to give up on; it was simply too depressing. A few weeks back I gave it another go, this time as an audiobook, which I've been finding a good way to get through long or difficult books. Even so I had to put it aside twice for weeks at a time.

Why so depressing? Essentially this is the story of the people who saw World War II coming years ahead of time and did everything they could to head it off -- unsuccessfully. Then, once the war starts, it documents the opposing viewpoints of those who want to protect civilian populations and bring the war to an early conclusion vs. those who target civilians for bombing campaigns and death camps and insist on an all-out unconditional-surrender total war. It concludes on December 31st, 1941, when the death camps were just getting started; Baker observes in his Afterword that "Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive."

There are plenty of surprises here, such as the phrase 'The Iron Curtain' being coined by Goebbels to describe English censorship of Britain's newspapers. Or that it was the British, not the Luftwaffe, that started the bombing of non-military targets early in the war. Or that a year and a half before Pearl Harbor FDR had already drawn up plans for the Chinese to firebomb Tokyo, using bombers bought from the Americans, flown by an American pilot, and with an American in charge of releasing the payload.

One thing I wd never have suspected is that Herbert Hoover, of all people, comes across favorably (something I never thought I'd hear myself say): essentially the famine-relief work Truman appointed him to lead in 1945/46 was something he'd been trying to do since the fall of France and the Low Countries in 1940: send food to prevent starvation, especially of children, especially of civilian populations in occupied territories. Churchill had prevented the aid from getting through the Naval Blockade he'd instigated early in the war, on the theory that (a) it might be diverted to feed Germans and (b) the more desperate people became, the more likely they were to rise up and drive out the Germans.

By the same logic, Churchill claimed* that the bombing of civilians in Germany itself would eventually lead to a coup or revolution that wd topple the Nazi regime. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking bits was the conclusion by the British, about two years into the war, that saturation bombing of German cities wd have no appreciable contribution towards winning the war (since on average they only killed .75 people and wounded 1.25 more per bomber per raid) but decided to keep it up anyway, since they thought it was good for morale. It was particularly disheartening how some people who said they were opposed to the war suddenly reversed themselves -- e.g. Dashiell Hammett after Russia entered the war and Charles Lindberg after Pearl Harbor -- while the Quakers and a few others (e.g. Jeanette Rankin) carried on both opposing the war and trying to mitigate the damage.

What makes this book interesting stylistically is that Baker didn't write it: he assembled and edited it. Its text is made up entirely of quotes or summaries from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, memos, memoirs, speeches, propaganda leaflets, and the like, all arranged in chronological order. He lets the people who caused the chaos and those who had to live through it speak for themselves.

I found his dedication in the Afterword at the very back of the book particularly eloquent:

"I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett & other American & British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States & Japan, & stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right." [emphasis mine]

--and now, on to some lighter, or at least less grueling, fare.

current reading: JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH by Verne
current audiobook: THE MAN WHO WD BE KING by Kipling.

*in general, Churchill comes across quite poorly; it's hard not to conclude that he did everything he cd to bring about the war, then everything he could to expand the war, and finally everything he cd to extend the war as long as possible. Quite a legacy!

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