Book Review: “The Unfinished Atomic Bomb: Shadows and Reflections” edited by David Lowe, Cassandra Atherton, and Alyson Miller

As I have written about before (see for example, In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud: 75 years since the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Book Review: “The World Set Free” by HG Wells, Mushroom Cloud Art, and Book Review: Hiroshima-75 edited by Aya Fujiwara and David R. Marples), I have had an interest in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as other aspects of atomic/nuclear weapons, for many years. Other than some discussion in my book Japan: The Basics, most of my knowledge and interest has been for personal consumption and when I have taught classes or given a lecture on the topic. My interest has been great enough that I have continued to read many books related to atomic weapons and the specific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The Unfinished Atomic Bomb” was one of the latest additions to that library.

“The Unfinished Atomic Bomb” is, in many respects, an example of what is best and worst about edited books and also what is best and worst about books to do with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There are few topics that can polarise opinion as much as those on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This may not be as true now as it used be – largely because of the incredible lack of knowledge that many people have now about the bombings. This in itself (a point well made in the book Hiroshima-75), is what makes nuclear weapons more dangerous than ever and threatens to completely undermine the “No More Hiroshimas” campaign. Because of individual opinions on the subject, how you read something written on the topic is likely to be biased. This is natural. What makes it more challenging is when the writing contains such a heavy personal bias too.

Writing in the first person has become a norm even in academic writing. Other times, even when “I” is not written, there is little doubt that the person’s views will have impacted how the information is collected and presented. This is perhaps most obvious in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, but it would be naïve to suggest that it doesn’t happen in all fields of research. Furthermore, there is also autoethnographic research – an area that I have become more interested in in recent years and features in some of my current research. There is always bias – it’s just a matter of how obvious it is. In this book, sometimes it is very obvious. And the jumps between styles and levels of bias jars at times.

While academics are meant to strive for objectivity, there is always likely to be a subjective/personal element. And when your own views and those of the author are different, if there are clear gaps between the objective/factual and the subject/personal, it makes for painful reading. I experienced such a reaction with at least one chapter in this book and, as a consequence, the book sat around for many weeks before I decided to return to it and read other chapters. I really shouldn’t have done this – I should have had more faith in the fact that the book would have a mixture of content and styles. Once I got back into the book, I really enjoyed (as much as you can when reading about such topics) most of it and some of the chapters were really useful for my own research. The reality, like many edited books, is that I probably didn’t need to read every chapter for my research… I read them all due more to my personal interest in the subject.

Edited books can be great in bringing together a wide range of approaches and topics under the banner of one subject. This book does that brilliantly. But at the same time, edited books can sometimes feel like a lot of separate parts that have not been fully brought together. At times this book felt like that. Yes, there is a single combined bibliography for the book (which for some strange reason some edited books don’t do), but many of the chapters contain overlapping background information, for example, which could perhaps been brought out and put in its own chapter. The variation in styles (including inconsistencies in how some of the conventions were applied) and quality of research are other issues (there are even some factual errors in the book).

As I continue to do reading about the bombings and atomic weapons, I am sure I will come across many books worse than this one. The variation of writing in the book has further reminded me about the importance in how we present our research, particularly when dealing with a topic that can do divide people’s opinions. I will need to particularly keep this in mind as I work on the update to Japan: The Basics and my next monograph relating to ‘Visual Packaging Culture‘, the latter of which will not only have a chapter relating to the bombings but also contains a strong autoethnographic element. I strive for objectivity, but, on this topic, it is challenging and in the end there are some things best left unwritten or I can keep to my novels (indeed, my next novel will have a discussion on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in it) – not that I necessarily present my personal opinions in those books; they are just a good forum to explore alternative views that would be hard to include in academic writing.

Overall, “The Unfinished Atomic Bomb” does a good job in explaining how the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are still an ongoing event/issue due to their legacy. Will this remain the case? I hope so. The alternative is very dangerous. The human race is too good at repeating past mistakes if we forget history. The variety of subjects was a real strength of the book. But, there is more that could have been done to pull the chapters together and, in the end, it came to a rather disappointing end. Although still not a common feature of edited books, it would have been good to have a final (even if relatively short) chapter from the editors pulling the whole book together and pointing to any future work planned on the subject by this group of people (by the time I got to the end, I could not remember the origins of the book) or how others could get involved.

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