Last year I chose All God’s Children, a terrific book that deserves to be more widely known. This year I’m going for a book that could hardly be better known. Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb scooped the big three prizes – the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award – and turns out to be every bit as impressive as its immense reputation. How did one man write such a book? The story converges on two dates, in two places – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but to tell it Rhodes has to start waaay back and spread his reach to take in the discovery of the atom, the use of weapons against civilians, the flight of Jews from Nazi Germany, military strategy, engineering, political wrangling, and god knows what else. The cast of characters is huge, the command of narrative unerring, and the science is compelling even if it remains – to me – largely incomprehensible. A great, great book that reminded me of something I tend to forget. The thought of starting out on a 1000-page book of non-fiction is rather off-putting, especially if you are doing so with no particular aim in mind. But once such a book has you in its thrall it feels like it takes no more time or effort to get through than a three-hundred page novel.
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