Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War

Posted by nliakos on April 22, 2013

by Peter Englund (translated by Peter Graves) (Knopf Doubleday 2012)

Peter Englund took the diaries, letters, and memoirs (some published, some not) of twenty people who lived through (or died during) this war and integrated them into a chronological account of the war. Each year is accorded its own section, which begins with a chronology of major events and battles; this is followed by summaries and some actual quotes from the source material, starting in January and ending in December. There are ample notes to provide context and clarification.

The twenty people include a German girl who comes of age during the war in a small town; a French functionary who spends the war years in Paris; an American neurosurgeon and the American wife of a Polish nobleman; several women who volunteer to serve as a nurse, an aid workers, and an ambulance driver; and soldiers/seamen/pilots fighting on both sides–a Hungarian, a Venezuelan, an Australian, an Englishman, a Russian, a Frenchman, an American, an Italian, a New Zealander, a Belgian, a Dane. I suppose that the choices depended on the availability of primary sources, but Englund did a good job of selecting people who represent a diversity of war experiences. Many viewpoints remained unrepresented, such as those of the Turks and Africans. It would have been impossible to include everyone who participated in the global calamity that was the Great War.

I was appalled at the sheer stupidity of this war which dragged on month after month, year after year, as the soldiers fought endlessly over bits of land and unfortunate villages, while in the big cities far from the fighting, life went on pretty much as usual. (Is that so different from today, where we live our lives not thinking much of what our soldiers are undergoing in Afghanistan?) The arrogance of the officers who lived well while the men in their command were starving and dying sickened me.

It seems that the war finally just petered out because those who were fighting it simply refused to continue fighting–sometimes an entire country (Russia), but at the end, fighting men on both sides the conflict just would not, or could not, go on. As in one of the battles in which both sides conceded defeat, it would seem that nobody won this war; everybody lost.

I really liked the book, and I learned a lot from it. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about what it actually felt like to live during that terrible time.

I read the book on my Nook, which was very frustrating. It’s the kind of book where you have to keep moving between the list of characters at the beginning, the year’s chronology, and the notes (which, infuriatingly, were all marked either * or # instead of being numbered, making finding the one you want challenging). I don’t know whether it’s just my Nook (Simple Touch) or whether they are all like this, but navigating around inside the book is a real pain in the neck. To go from the page I was reading to a note and back again could take 10-20 taps on the screen, and heaven help me if I forgot what page I was on, because then I would have to guess and look through page and after page until I finally found it again. To find a particular page, you have to tap the center of the screen, select “Go To,” choose “Go to page,” tap out the page number, tap “Go,” tap on the x to close the navigation bar, and tap through the selected page because one page in the book occupies multiple screens on the Nook, depending on the font size chosen. Sometimes there is a Back button, but sometimes there isn’t; sometimes the Back button appears on the page where the note begins, but if you have to go to the next screen to finish reading the note and then back again, the Back button has (sometimes) vanished. Once I wanted to go back to reread something I had already read; but there is no way to find something, the way you can flip through a paper book. When I finished the book and wanted to look at the photographs of the people in it again, it was impossible to find them: I would have had to scroll through the entire book to find them (531 pages, which is misleading, because depending on how large you set the font, one page can be many screens). I gave up. (An entry for the photographs in the Table of Contents would have been great.) Finally, the screen seems overly sensitive. Sometimes a gentle tap advances to the next screen, but at other times, it advances two screens, forcing me to go back. All in all it’s inconvenient. That said, it beats carrying a heavy book when traveling, as I was for part of the time I was reading this.

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