As the centenary of the Armistice approached last November, friend and Great War 100 Reads follower Vicki Schmolka turned the tables on me: “I have really enjoyed your posts, especially learning more about the role of women in the war and the interviews with authors. Made me think that it might be interesting for your loyal readers for you to answer a few questions.”
An excellent idea. To mark the fifth anniversary of Great War 100 Reads, here is our interview.
Vicki Schmolka: What inspired you to go on this four-year reading, writing and photography journey?
Tamra Thomson: Even though I was born long after WW1, the influences of the war were woven into the fabric of my life. When I was growing up, lots of people around me had lived through the war or were touched by its immediate aftermath. Even though the veterans didn’t talk much about it, their war experience marked them. They were, first and foremost, WW1 vets.
As the WW1 centenary approached with news of projects to mark the occasion, I realized that living memory of the war was quickly fading. Collective memory passed to future generations must be nurtured to stay alive. How could I help make that happen?
My first thought was to get around to reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, which had been sitting on my reading pile for years. Second thought: reading three books seemed pretty pathetic. So the idea expanded to a reading list for the duration and a blog to document the journey. Great War 100 Reads is my contribution to commemoration and remembrance.
Monuments were an afterthought … my time to read would diminish at times, and posting a photo each week would be an easy way to bring fresh material to the blog. Monday Monuments and Memorials quickly became a popular feature. And quickly grew to more than a simple photo.
VS: What did you learn about the First World War that most surprised you?
TT: While I enjoy historical fiction, war novels were not a genre that particularly interested me. So the first surprise was finding far more than 100 books about a specific war that I might want to read. Second surprise: I read 100 books about war; I read 100 anti-war books.
I set out to look at the war through a wider lens than the dominant story of the soldier on the Western Front. Still, I was surprised at the vast array of roles and experiences we tend not to hear about now. Case in point: Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a secondary school curriculum standard. Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone was published the same year (1929) but was out of print a year later. Only in 2008 was it back in print, without the poems included in the original. How could this gem be “lost” for 80 years?
I was also taken by the power of personal stories 100 years later. Several books on my list are by women telling about their discovery of a family member’s WW1 adventures. When we toured the Western Front a couple of years ago, we visited my great-uncle’s grave. I wasn’t expecting such an emotional experience.
VS: How has what you learned changed your views of the world today?
TT: My reading has shown how much the influences of WW1 continue, and how many of today’s issues have roots in WW1 and its aftermath.
It has also reminded me of the ease with which difference is used as an excuse for hate and how vigilant we must be to work against that. Sexist, racist and anti-Semitic references were casual and regular in the books written during and right after the war. Shocking by today’s sensibilities.
It’s convenient to think that we’ve evolved, that today’s laws and practices protect against discrimination in Western society. And yet we are witnessing movements to erode hard-earned rights. We cannot rest.
VS: What are you going to read and do now that you have come to the end of your four-year commitment?
TT: I am pursuing three reading paths. First, I’ve ignored five years of new books not related to WW1. Time to catch up! Bonus: since they’re no longer “new”, I missed the long new-book waiting lists at the public library.
Second, Regeneration wasn’t the only lingering book in my house. I am going to systematically work through the unread treasures in my own library. Third, I’m looking forward to reading more by some of the authors I discovered through Great War 100 Reads.
The discipline of reviewing the books on this blog has made me a more thoughtful reader. No, I don’t feel compelled to continue writing reviews of every book I read! However, when a WW1 book sneaks into the pile, I will share my thoughts here.
The Monday posts will go on until I empty my cache of photos. After all, remembering should not be restricted to milestone years.
Great questions! Thank you, Vicki, for focusing my reflections. I’ve enjoyed sharing this project with you and all the Great War 100 Reads followers.