There’s no point in trying to summarize Inferno, because it’s a book written against summaries. It’s an anti-summary.The author of Inferno is the journalist and military historian Max Hastings, and its full title is Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, though neither of those facts tells you much about what’s special about it.The point of Inferno is that it’s a record of the way ordinary people experienced World War II. So while there’s an appropriate amount of information in there about politics and strategy and armaments, and while it contains the required litany of numbing statistics (the war killed an average of 27,000 people every day), the focus is on individual experiences: first-person, trench-level, eyewitness testimony. Its aim is to un-numb you: to restore feeling to minds numbed by statistics.Mind you, the feelings it restores are really, really painful ones. It’s impossible to bridge the gap between our long-healed world and the world of WWII, which was just then being roughly torn open, but Inferno comes as close as any book I’ve ever read. It’s a massive panorama that takes in entire continents while at the same time keeping the details in sharp focus. You witness disastrous scenes that most histories gloss over because they happened in the margins of the overall conflict. But they were anything but marginal for the people who experienced them. So for example, while it’s desperately moving to read about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the trauma of D-Day, it’s not unfamiliar; whereas it’s truly shocking to read about what people went through in relatively minor campaigns like the brutal struggle for Greece, and the Arctic convoys that ran materièl from Britain to the Soviets, and the tropical fighting in New Guinea. In Inferno these episodes open up and reveal themselves to be horrific little worlds in and of themselves.What you realize first is that the descent of the world into war in 1939 seemed no less surreal to those caught up in it than it does to us now. When an aide woke up King Haakon of Norway at 1:30 in the morning on April 9, 1940, to tell him that his country was at war, the king answered: “Against whom?” Many of the generals in charge were old men, relics of the First World War. Many of the weapons were even older. At Kollaa, in Finland, defenders deployed cannons cast in 1871, firing black powder charges, against the Soviet invaders.The heart of the book lies not in the general but in the particular. So I’ll reproduce a few anecdotes, chosen pretty much at random.