Read A Single Pebble by John Hersey Online


A young American engineer sent to China to inspect the unruly Yangtze River travels up through the river's gorges searching for dam sites. Pulled on a junk hauled by forty-odd trackers, he is carried, too, into the settled, ancient way of life of the people of the Yangtze -- until the interplay of his life with theirs comes to a dramatic climax....

Title : A Single Pebble
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780394756974
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 192 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

A Single Pebble Reviews

  • Judy
    2018-09-30 04:16

    John Hersey is a good writer. He creates characters well, his stories move along with great energy and he makes a reader care deeply about what goes on. But sometimes, despite all those qualities, he just misses. This is one of those times. A young American engineer has been sent to China in the 1920s to inspect the Yangtze River for possible locations on which to build a dam. He travels up that unpredictable and powerful river on a junk, through gorges, rapids and whirlpools. Surrounded by the junk's owner and his young wife, the cook and a large crew of trackers, who literally pull the junk, the young man tries to reconcile his American belief in progress with the legends and ways of a primitive culture. He becomes obsessed with understanding Old Pebble, the head tracker, who takes on the personality of almost a river god.The story of the journey is gripping as the extreme adventure of prevailing over all the river's dangers is told. Hersey excels in writing the detail and realism of such a foreign location and people. Obviously the theme is east meets west, a theme which is shown by the events of the story contrasted with the young American's reactions.Unfortunately we are rather hammered over the head by the engineer's attempt to come to grips with the contrasts, which feels like being lectured to instead of being allowed as a reader to draw one's own conclusions. Possibly such a tone was needed in the mid 1950s, but reading the book in the 21st century, knowing that the dam got built, puts it in a different light.

  • Pascale
    2018-09-27 06:14

    This novella is absolutely gripping. It tells the story of a 24-year old American engineer who sets off to explore the Yangtze in order to draft plans for a major dam - an undertaking which, as we now know, wasn't actually completed until 2008, nearly a century after the events imagined by Hersey. The young man travels up river on a junk owned by Old Big, an experienced mariner who has had his share of misfortunes, and in fact lost a boat on a previous journey. Old Big is married to Su-ling, a pretty girl half his age. The crew also includes a cook and, last but by no means least, Old Pebble, the head tracker of the expedition. The young foreigner, who has learnt Mandarin, spends a fair bit of time with Su-ling, who seems to be under orders to tell him all sorts of legends about the areas they go through. He is attracted to her, while surmising that she is in love with Old Pebble, who is in fact young and amazingly athletic. His other title is Noise Suppressor, because part of his job consists in singing to cover the groans of the trackers as they pull the junk up river against the fierce current. From the very beginning, the American is fascinated not only by Old pebble's strength, agility, and beautiful voice, but also by his declared contempt for money and all the other signs of success the American believes in. For instance, when he wins at some game and his fellow trackers accuse him of cheating, he throws all the coins he's won into the river. Hersey does a marvelous job of describing the narrator's complex feelings towards the Chinese. He is deeply ambivalent towards Old Pebble, whom he admires tremendously, yet would like to convince of his own superiority as a scientist. He doesn't know how to interpret the superstitious rituals in which the tracker and the cook take part with both deep conviction and manifest irony. He's very proud of thinking that, thanks to himself and others like him, there will soon be no need of trackers. He fancies himself a great liberator of mankind, while being reminded at every turn that junks have gone up the Yangtze for thousands of years, and that these incredibly brave, sturdy and skillful people are justly proud of what they can do. The themes of this book are universal: youth versus maturity, modernization versus tradition. The American has a Western sense of time, and nearly loses his rag when he suspects Old Pebble of having stolen his watch, in retaliation for his boasting about the future dam and the likes of Old Pebble becoming redundant. A further irony being that the narrator's watch was already broken. Eventually, in a particularly tricky bit of the gorge, Old Pebble loses his footing and has to be dropped into the raging waters to prevent a more serious accident to the team and the loss of the junk itself. The owner first seems to rejoice over the accident, then takes enormous risks in a doomed attempt at rescuing the drowning man. While the narrator believes Old Big dead, the junk arrives at destination. Feeling sad at parting with people he's spent so many weeks with in sometimes life-threatening circumstances, the engineer invites Su-ling and the rest of the crew to a banquet, but when they show up at his inn, where he's had time to change into clean clothes, he's shocked to see how ragged and unkempt they look. The precarious conviviality he experienced on the junk cannot be replicated on land, and the cultural gap between them yawns wider than ever. At this point, Old Big reappears, and forces the engineer to compensate him for the loss of the head tracker, which the young man half believes to have been a form of suicide. This is one of the densest and meatiest studies of communication problems between people of different cultures I've ever read, among many other things. WOW.

  • Diane
    2018-10-20 23:19

    I originally read this book in about 1960 but it is cited by many of the authors of books on China that I have recently read. I liked it very much as a metaphor for the cultural, social, political clashes and changes awaiting China as it entered the world scene. I particularly liked the idea us all trying to navigate up a huge river with steep massive gorges and impossible rapids using old techniques and wondering about how new technologies might help or might not and even more difficult being the gorge of understanding each other. I read this at the same time as I was reading 1491 and the two books were an excellent compliment to each other.

  • Janet Aileen
    2018-09-24 04:30

    This is a deceptively simple story about a journey up the Yangtze River in a junk. In the hands of John Hersey, it becomes a small masterpiece. With clear, concise prose, he captures the drama in the lives of the river workers and their daily challenges. For me, it was a memorable journey.

  • Mark
    2018-10-17 02:21

    Exquisitely done. This book still makes me think, many years after reading it, how significant and insignificant each of our lives can be, depending on perspective.

  • David
    2018-10-12 05:15

    Eh, another white guy decides it would have been better not to mess around with the lives of other people. Kind of obvious from the start and not much else to it. Decent and with good details, but kind of thin overall.

  • Christine Schmidt
    2018-09-24 05:19

    for Book Club. Just research any visual footage of trying to get a Chinese junk up the Yangtse rapids.

  • Samuel
    2018-09-30 02:25

    This was one of two books gifted to me on my wedding day from one of my all-time best friends: Tony Mercer (who actually officiated our ring ceremony). His inscription indicated that he thought I'd enjoy John Hersey's classic tale about twentieth-century tensions of West vs. East and modernity vs. tradition particularly given my two years as a missionary in southeast Asia. Indeed, he was correct. Here is a passage from the book that resonates almost perfectly with my feelings at the end of my two-year mission in Malaysia and Singapore:" . . . in mid-current, I felt the beginnings of something I had never experienced before at that age, a feeling very deep that I would have found hard then to define--something close to anger, yet close as well to love, a feeling in which pain and joy were mixed; something like determination; perhaps the very first stirring of understanding in me, though I was terribly troubled still by the many things I did not understand. This strange new feeling was, at any rate, more a physical sensation than anything else in those first moments, an upsurge in my chest of elation-with-despair, of a palpable ache that somehow gave me comfort. I know now, for I have experienced it often, that this feeling was really a kind of wishing--that things could be different, that I could be a better person, that the world could be a better place; and with the wishing, a feeling of sadness, regret, and even, it may be, of hopelessness....The feeling quickly passed that time, supplanted by a rush of the misery of parting--of leave-taking from a place that demanded awe, from an experience I could never forget, and from human beings whom I had come close to understanding" (172-173). The book itself is an easy read with a simple structure, but I found the protagonist's struggle for understanding and the description of his emotional wrestling fantastic. It indeed reminded me of those ephemeral years, now muddled memories of joyous struggle, when I was living in a foreign land interacting with a diversity of people with whom I had little in common with--sometimes no more than a smile (and often not even that). Nevertheless, I felt then and I can recall now some of the most profound connections of my life: human to human, friend to friend, soul to soul. It is a melancholy realization that the majority of our connections in this life are transient if not wholly fleeting--I have very sporadic contact with people from those years and likely will not see the majority of them again in this life. But I have hope that their will be a joyous reunion with those we commune with in this life in the next. At very least, my soul yearns for such a communion, and I hold the feelings that this book triggered in me as something sacred, even if I do not fully understand them.This story has an easiness to it, though I will admit there were more than a few $10 words peppered in there along the way. As a twenty-something American engineer makes his way up the Yangtze River in the 1920s aboard a Chinese junk (a large engine-less boat) to scout the ideal location for a modern concrete dam, he finds himself at times charmed and at other times confused by the contrasting world views held by him and the Chinese crew. He is especially enamored and challenged by Old Pebble, who despite his name is the strong, young head tracker who loves the river and river life. The American protagonist is flabbergasted by Old Pebble's "simple life": Old Pebble asks only for friendship and labor: to toil alongshore pulling junks upriver avoiding whirlpools, cliffs, and other hazards as has been done for millennia. His disregard for material things goes as far as his dumping into the river a substantial lump of money he won in gambling after being accused of cheating for financial gain. The young engineer struggles to understand why telling Old Pebble about the life-changing construction of a dam that would make the river exponentially safer to navigate is so upsetting. The main tragedy of the book does not fully dispel the ambiguity about the significance of "a single pebble" amidst the myriads in the world, but there are some beautiful realizations of partial clarity and understanding that the author unfolds. He does so without being too heavy-handed or oversimplifying what to make of life and the diverse lives to be found while living.

  • Nancy
    2018-09-24 01:23

    A young American engineer is sent to China in the 1950's to explore the possibility of building a dam on the Yangtze river. He takes a trip on a junk to check out building sites, thinking in theory and ending in the reality of life and death. Some of the prose is wonderful, some a little more technical than I wanted. But you definitely get a feel for time and place and attitude. Hersey's background is that of a journalist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) and that comes through in his writing. It is sparse and clean, with little flowery description. Our book club discussion centered on the Chinese people's attitude and thought process at that time that things were fine as they were, keeping traditions alive were most important, and respect of authority was crucial. And how that has changed so radically now where modernity is what they strive for and keeping history and tradition alive are not at all important. Our conclusion was that the Cultural Revolution screwed everything and everyone. A good read.

  • Andrew
    2018-10-17 03:24

    The last couple of books I have read by John Hersey were both disappointments, really not his best stuff. But with A Single Pebble he again is lyrical and clear, subtle and bold in his writing. It was a really good book, and I would really recommend it.A Single Pebble tells the story of an American engineer who goes to China in the 1920s to figure out how to dam up the Yangtze River. He is the narrator of his own story, told from a large span of years, he is old now. And the sense of his nostalgia is palpable, as is also his sense of disdain for the young arrogant man he once was. To survey the river he has to travel upriver by Chinese junk, hauled by ropes on the shore by a crew 40. It is a perilous journey for these men, called trackers. Led by the fearless and wild head tracker, who keeps the march going by his songs, the young engineer is first impatient with the slowness of the journey, and then gets lost in the timelessness of it. His first thoughts are of making the journey easier through locks and canals, but his ideas are morphed through events of the long journey upriver...the dangers and skills of the trackers, the acceptance of the crew to their fate. This is a journey of self discovery for the young engineer, but the discoveries are meted out over his lifetime. His understanding of the journey gets stronger as he gets older. And Hersey writes well that melancholy, that sense of wonders past. He is lyrical and poetic, and never rushed, but never slow. He creates tension as the flow of the river becomes greater, and his words and cadence feel much like the river.This is a very good little book, one of my favorite of Hersey' has moments that I will not forget and it is a book that is not easily shoved to the back of your mind.

  • John
    2018-09-29 23:11

    Question: When is a novel not a novel? Answer: When it's a travelogue.This little book, about a the journey of a western engineer up the Yangtze, pre-Three Gorges Dam Project, has me wondering at every page, why is this a novel? It reads like travel-writing: it's obviously based on a trip the author made, it unfolds at the pace of the trip, and it also has elements of self-descovery associated with the genre. So, as it's actually a novel, what's real, and what isn't? And does that matter? (Too many questions).I'm guessing that when it was written, no reader would have understood the subjective nature of travel writing as we do today, and so he either had to conform to the strictures of long-form journalism, or make up stuff. Hence the "novel". Plus, as a novelist, he (his character, I forget his name) gets to have the hots for the captian's wife, and it isn't really him, the author. Plus people die spectacularly, which I suspect they dissapointingly failed to do when he actually took the trip.I think the intention is to reveal to us how the Mystism of the East a first baffles and then overwhelms our tetchy narrator, and he becomes a better (more rounded) person because of it, but I never found out if this was true because I flung the book across the room in frustration, and dove into "Gone Girl" never to return.

  • Carole
    2018-09-24 00:06

    This is a lovely book. A simple and brief story, told in hindsight by an engineer sent as a young man to China in the 1920's to identify a potential site for a dam to be built by his American firm. Journeying up the Yangtze River, he finds himself on a primitive vessel hauled by hand up river by forty "trackers" to the Three Gorges. The men stoically pit their strength pulling the junk with bamboo ropes against the raging river in a terrifying scenario that has been unchanged for centuries. There is a timelessness about the journey. The young man's experience broadens as he witnesses the drama and tragedy that is almost inevitable but accepted almost without notice by the trackers. It is beautifully and simply told. Now the Three Gorges Dam has caused the river to rise and cover the path worn in stone by the bare feet of thousands of haulers for hundreds of years. You could see where the ropes had worn grooves into the mountainside. It is a time gone by, but the story is unforgettable.

  • Beckbunch
    2018-09-22 00:11

    I read this because it was in the classics section at the library and because the story takes place in China. I love China, so the book already had that going for it. I wanted to like it. I really did. I just wasn't ever caught up in the story or the writing. It didn't offend me in any way and I didn't think it was poorly written, it just was rather blah for me. And the funny thing is, this wasn't even the book I intended to read in the first place! I got "A Single Pebble" and the book "The Sand Pebbles" confused. Both take place in China, both have an engineer as the main character, and with the similar titles, you can see the problem. Anyway, maybe I'll have better luck with that one!

  • Mrs. Dalton
    2018-10-21 02:09

    This was a quick and interesting read about an American engineer who goes to China to study the great river in order to propose the building of a dam. He journeys up river on a junk ship and the entire tale encompasses this journey, including the things he sees on the river and the interactions with the Chinese who work the boat. I must be completely honest; I couldn't visualize most of the "boat stuff." I still don't know who/what "trackers" are or what their job is. I couldn't even figure out if they were on the boat rowing it or on the shore pulling it. Regardless, the juxtaposition of a egotistical American and the calming and accepting disposition of the Chinese was worth thinking about.

  • retronerdSteinkuehler
    2018-10-14 01:22

    This is my Go To book when I need a shot of good writing and a tale of enchantment. Dose one need to have traveled China to love this book? No. I read it before I went. I read it after I returned. I read it occasionally to remind myself that there is great literature 'out there' that will never change. But the gorges are no more and the vision that young engineer was sent to investigate is there today. From 1956 to today. This is a novel for all times.

  • Mollie *scoutrmom*
    2018-09-25 04:23

    The story may have been riveting in its day, but as it was set nearly 90 years ago and written in the 1950's, I found little of relevance in the half I did read and gave it up as not of worth to today's reader.The writing quality is excellent, and I would suggest anyone who wishes to try this author to read Hiroshima.

  • Jill
    2018-10-11 04:26

    John Hersey is a very good writer. I like his description and his characterization. It didn't take long for me to be caught up in this story and I read it to the end very quickly. Mr. Hersey is not Chinese, but I felt that what he wrote about China and his Chinese characters rang true. This is an excellent portrayal of the clash between cultures where in the author does not take a side. I have read this book twice and recommended it to my readers group.

  • Mohi
    2018-09-23 23:25

    Compelling fiction travel story about an American prospector surveying the Yangtze to build give recommendations on where to build a dam. The book explores the idea of pastoral utopia and how it clashes with the harsh reality of the urban dog-eat-dog struggle. Ending was a bit too reminiscent of David Copperfield for my tastes, however.

  • Lisa
    2018-10-14 01:15

    Great story about an engineer travelling up the Yangtze with a traditional Chinese boat crew. The engineer is considering sites for a dam which would essentially change the traditional way of life of everyone on the boat with him. Interesting to think of the challenges to modernizing a way of life that is centuries old.

  • Megan
    2018-09-19 23:26

    1920s a young american engineer goes up the Great River of China on a little junk, is surprised by how much he is changed by the journey...and how little everything else on the river has changed over the millenia..."could his dam bridge millenia in a moment?" Interesting with some vivid description but none of the characters grabbed me in particular

  • Ann
    2018-09-20 05:26

    Gosh, I wish the cover of mine looked so nice. I have an old, old Bantam edition. It's so old it doesn't have an isbn! Still, the story is the important thing, and this promises to be an interesting one.

  • Tyler
    2018-10-08 00:23

    A good book, moves briskly along and doesn't overstay its welcome but ultimately didn't really grab me in any meaningful way either. Like I said, it's good, but it hardly made an impact on me. Regardless, it's solid.

  • Edward
    2018-10-17 04:16

    A very nice story of west meets east on the Yangtze River. A short novel that contrasts what's important in the eyes of a young westerner in the 1920's against that of the Chinese people who work the river.

  • Andrew 'Smitty' Smith
    2018-10-01 06:18

    This is perhaps the worst book that I have ever read. I don't take that statement lightly either. I would rather imitate Oedipus Rex and gouge my eyes out with a golden broach than read this work again.

  • Darlene
    2018-10-10 23:11

    Hersey's 1956 concise novel pits Western engineering against Chinese culture on the Yangtze River, and presents a poignant quandary foreshadowing the Three Gorges Dam Project begun in 1993. It gave an excellent picture of the river trackers' harsh but prideful laboring conditions.

  • Linda
    2018-09-28 05:15

    A young American engineer travels up the Yangtze River looking for a place to build a dam and is faced with a clash between his culture and that of the Chinese.

  • Ricky Wenzel
    2018-10-21 04:33

    Beautifully written

  • Roger
    2018-10-19 00:24

    One of a kind portrait of a country, a person's growth and realizations and the fickle complexity of understanding the unknown!!

  • Zack Hersh
    2018-09-20 22:05

    It doesn't have all that interesting of a plot, it all sort of seems blend together in this one big mass of a boat on a river with small character relationship changes every once and a while.

  • Tim
    2018-09-26 02:03

    A short, poignant, symbolic novel about, to put it very generally, the clash of Western and Chinese culture.