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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

To read something that MEANS something

I’m so tired of all the pointless noise and digitized chatter around us — I just want to read books that matter, that make a real connection.

For example, I pulled from my shelf this week an old blue Crest Book paperback novel, The Night in Lisbon. This is by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author better known for the World War I story All Quiet on the Western Front, but I remembered reading Lisbon some years ago and being very struck by it. The story deals with two refugees who meet on the waterfront in Portugal’s capital in 1942, when, as the narrator says, “every ship was an ark.”

Remarque was a great writer, concerned with the real things that overwhelmed his time and place; and the opening paragraph of this novel is so good that I had to stop and read it over three or four times.

I stared at the ship. Glaringly lighted, it lay at anchor in the Tagus. Though I had been in Lisbon for a week, I hadn’t yet got used to its carefree illumination. In the countries I had come from, the cities at night were black as coal mines, and a lantern in the darkness was more to be feared than the plague in the Middle Ages. I had come from twentieth-century Europe.

Honestly, the depth of these images, the power of the word choices and the phrasing. The ship, which will sail tomorrow for the United States, is not just lit up but glaringly lighted. The furtive, hunted refugee, as he turns out to be, can’t get used to the carefree illumination — by implication, both of the ship and of Lisbon, one of the few free cities left on the continent.

Then I had to stop and imagine what it would have been like, living or fleeing from — just trying to survive — cities that at night were black as coal mines, where a lantern in the darkness was more terrifying than the Black Plague.

All that within the first paragraph! And it’s fair to say that the story which follows amplifies, explores, and steadily deepens the resonations of emotion and meaning that its opening puts across. It’s not a long story, and there’s an absence in it of pyrotechnics — what there is instead is an odyssey toward freedom, bound by love between a husband and wife who never thought they would be together again, and oppressed at every moment by fear and deadly danger.

As I read it, the story keeps coming up with these quiet moments in which something very real comes through with a vibrating originality — as when the narrator, having snuck back into his hometown to find his wife just before the war breaks out, talks with a doctor who was his childhood friend, and who stayed here as Nazism took over:

“‘And how is it here? With everything except the one thing that counts?’

“‘Not so good,” he said. ‘Not so good, Josef. But shiny on the surface.’”

I don’t care if Renee Zelwegger’s face looks different. I only hear empty fear in the Ebola hysteria, and I'm fatalistic about whether the Republicans can lie their way to controlling the Senate. I’m just tired of it all. I see more that's worth the effort in reading a book like The Night in Lisbon, where things come through that mean something; where the words strike chords that ring more deeply, and truly, than any of the constant noise I’m hearing all around me.

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A library memory, slightly damp
My 1,500 words
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