A quick take on The Longest Day

I re-read The Longest Day recently. I read it as history the first time, when I was in high school. I was in its thrall then, but I didn’t think of it as a study in narrative journalism (not that I thought about narrative journalism at all when I was in high school). I re-read it in part because I ran across Michael Shapiro’s article arguing that The Longest Day was the foundation of modern narrative reporting, and because it was June 2014, 70 years later.

A friend asked me what I thought of the book as an example of narrative reporting.
I still think it’s better thought of as history than as narrative journalism, but perhaps I am overly influenced by books like The Right Stuff and Soul of a New Machine, where the reporter steps above the story and indeed manipulates the reader’s experience, to transcend the story itself.

Ryan’s book is straight. For a guy from Dublin, Ireland, he did a great job keeping his opinions about Brits out of the book. There is an almost wistfulness to it when he writes about the Germans, who were prepared to respond to the invasion everywhere but where it hit. I was impressed by that impartiality.

He does achieve narrative greatness in his remarkable reporting. That leads to scenes and set pieces that are as good as anything I’ve read in non-fiction.  In some ways, The Longest Day is better than Hiroshima, the John Hersey book that popularized the blending of fictional writing techniques and journalistic reporting. For one, Ryan isn’t just talking to a small group of Catholics and their acquaintances affected by a terrible bomb, as Hersey did. Ryan’s book is more representative of the German, British and American perspectives, from officer to private, and even works in French civilians.

But Ryan is putting us in the narrative and leaving us alone, not nudging us to make sure we get the joke. He gets at some of the emotions of Sebastian Junger’s War or David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. But Ryan passes over those individual moments without comment; we become intimate with a battle, not a person or a group.

My friend thinks Ryan unsophisticated in his approach, too trusting of the notion that the war was justified. My friend recommended I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family for a look at an approach similar to Ryan’s, but reaching real narrative heights. I’ve been meaning to do so anyway, so now I have a purpose.

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