All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
God, I forgot how soul sucking this book was.
I decided on a whim as Jim and I were perusing through the bookstore weekend before last to pick up a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front. I had read it in college as part of one of my core History classes – back when my head was filled with dreams of being a famous novelist and History was just something interesting and extra to fill spots in my course schedule – and had enjoyed it then. Even then I was drawn to the dark and brutal honesty of the prose. But once I was finished, I promptly put it aside and forgot about it. Eventually my copy found its way into the book donation box at the end of the year as I desperately purged things so we could fit everything in my mom’s car (probably, anyway – I just know I no longer have it).
It is, however, one of those works that I felt the need to re-read now that I’ve refocused my professional life on History. I remembered the experience of reading it only vaguely, but I knew that there was a whole world of stuff within the text that I could appreciate on an entirely new level now. So much small detail and nuance that I can guarantee you that I missed the first time around as a vaguely irritated and majorly homesick college freshman. And of course, I knew that I could see so much more of the big picture this time since I now possess a solid historical background in WWI beyond the, like, 5 minute summary my high school classes gave it and that one page from The Onion’s Our Dumb Century Collection that my Dad keeps on the coffee table.
All good comedy has a grain of truth to it.
And oh boy, was I right. When I read it in college, I remember thinking it pretty sad. But it was pretty easy to move on from. Book closed, and on to the next thing – like how the hell I was going to survive this music theory course that I didn’t want to be in? Wam, done, that was that.
Oh this time.
My first reading of this in college had been split up over probably two weeks – which is a long time, honestly. The book’s not long, and I’m a decently fast reader. I probably read just a handful of pages a day. And now I can honestly say that that’s NOT the way to read this book. Splitting it up like that really really softened the impact of the prose, and of the content. But now, I’ve sort of become a binge reader – because I rarely have time during a normal week to read for pleasure, when I do, I read for literally the entire day. So this time, I read it in one sitting. And honestly? That’s the way to do it to really get it to hit home.
Take a Saturday. Settle in. Read from start to finish.
And when you’re done, take the time you need to recover. Because oh boy, should you need to recover.
This book is often hailed as the best war novel ever written – and quite frankly, for good reason. It is heart-wrenching and horrifying and tragic, and it depicts the cruelty and hopelessness of World War I with a poignancy that stabs you straight in the heart. Repeatedly.
But as traumatic as it is, it’s an experience I feel that everyone should have. It’s one of the few books I’ve encountered in my life that I really feel like everyone should read (and certainly this should be required reading for those in positions of power politically). Fiction though it may be, it strikes at the human reality of the war in ways that no non-fiction book I’ve read has managed. A concrete reminder of the terror of the war – and why we can never allow it to happen again.
I won’t say much more about it here, mainly because to get into details would require giving away content, and this is a book best approached unawares. To spoil content would be to spoil its overall impact. And that would be unforgivable in my eyes.
So I’ll end this review with this brief assessment: 10/10, 5 stars, would require (not just recommend).