In choosing the books for our first Readers Gathering, I have to admit to an element of self-interest. Once we'd decided on a theme of war, we needed a reliable selection of books on a variety of criteria. They had to:
• be in print and easily/cheaply available
• be highly regarded
• offer a 'mix' with the widest possible appeal
• be as short as possible!
The internet led us to The Guardian's Hundred Best lists and, better still, beside each title was its pagination. Sorry Birdsong, and several others which marched into 300, 400 or more pages. And there, staring out at me was All Quiet on the Western Front at 224 pages - a book that had long been on my 'must read' list but never quite made it onto my 'ok, buy it' list.
And the joy is that it already feels like a long lost friend. The narrator is barely 20 and recounting military life in a very contemporary style which makes it eminently readable. So much so that I hadn't realised how emotion was welling up as he describes the gradual fading of his school pal. He's had a leg amputated and has only belatedly realised what lies ahead.
All Quiet . . . is, of course, a classic. People say they read classics but I suspect that's more in aspiration and intention than actuality. However, if you, like me, had long put this book just out of reach then do yourself a favour.