We are not youth any longer. We don't want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that had a profound effect on me when I was younger. I read it in high school and I remember it was the first book that made clear to me that wars often do not have a "good side" and a "bad side." There are no sides, really. There are just people, who in any other situation, might get along quite well and be friends, but because of some decision they did not make, they are instead on opposite sides of a field trying to kill each other. It may seem naive or silly that I was well into my teens before I truly understood that, but it's true. Perhaps it's also because I knew WWII much better than WWI that I had a vague sense that Germany was at fault for everything. Remarque's book made it clear to me that was not the case.
In my opinion, this book doesn't have a plot. It is very episodic in nature, following Paul Baumer through his experiences in the trenches of France during World War I. We feel his terror when he's on the front line, his strong camaraderie with his squad, his inability to connect with his family and his hatred of an establishment that allows a few powerful men send millions of young boys to their deaths for a cause they don't believe in.
This book didn't have the same shattering effect on me this time around as it did the first time. I don't see how it could; you can't lose your idealism twice. This time, the writing style didn't wow me as much, either. Prior to this re-read, I would unquestionably tell people that this was one of the best books I've ever read. If this had been my first read-through, I don't think I'd have the same reaction.
But when a book has such a profound effect on you, how can it not be one of the best books you've ever read, even if its effect is lessened on a re-read? Does a book have to be earth-shaking each time you read it for its "wow factor" to be valid? I don't think so. I think it just needs to change you once. And All Quiet on the Western Front did that for me. I no longer think of the "right side" or the "wrong side" of a war. I think of the winning and losing sides. I think of how each side thinks it's fighting for its culture and its rights and things of importance. Of how each soldier misses his family and friends and worries about death, and how much they truly give up to fight in a war. It's not just that they risk their lives. They risk the possibility of coming home and not fitting in. Of being unable to forget what they went through. Of losing their greatest friends, and of no longer having faith in their elders or their country. It's a lot to ask for- a lot to demand of someone. And this book makes clear how much a sacrifice it is.
I want that quiet rapture again. I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books. The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, melt the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and waken again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring back again the lost eagerness of my youth. I sit and wait.