I don’t read a lot of books for adults these days. It might be my abysmally short attention span. It might be the pretty colors in the graphic novels and picture books. It might be the fact that reality is feeling a little surreal these days, so nonfiction is usually out. I’m just not enough of a smartypants to read literary fiction anymore. The genres just fall away as my excuses pile up. Too preachy, too cute, too violent, too angry, too much substance abuse….
But then something happens. Like the flu. On New Year’s Eve. Perfect for avoiding my many social invitations but not so great for actually doing anything fun. And with a strangely small stack of books-to-be-read, I picked up Forty Autumns, read the preface, then a few chapters. And before you know it, I was halfway through it.
My brain on a virus can be a little confused, but I’ve found that certain things actually work better when I’m not able to do anything but lie around for long periods of time. It’s the only way I could ever get myself to watch Schindler’s List, for example. Usually I read or watch a lot of Jane Austen, which I find exceptionally comforting and can dip in and out of. Today, in recovery, I can do the entire collection of Harry Potter movies, but that doesn’t work when I can’t move my head because it hurts too much.
So Forty Autumns ended up being perfect. It is a really good read, but reading it mostly in one go – something I’m not usually able to do — made it even better. The lingering and unsettled feelings surrounding those left behind in what became East Germany stayed with me. In addition to the family stories, there is a lot of history here – how leaders supposedly working for the good of the people let everyone else suffer while they lived in gated communities with fancy cars and imported food, keeping others trapped in a twisted system that actually built walls to stop them from depriving the government of their labor.
It might be a strange thing to recommend on the beginning of a new year, but sometimes looking back can help us see our own moment in time more clearly. And we can use all the help we can get right now, right?
Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner