Europe, what are you reading? My fellow train passengers respond

Selections range from George Orwell's '1984' to 'World Without End' by Ken Follett.

Sven Hoppe/dpa/AP
A special train of the Deutsche Bahn (DB) railway company departs towards Berlin at the central station in Munich, Germany, Friday, Dece. 8 2017.

Earlier this winter, I traveled by train in Germany, Italy, and Austria. I was struck by how many passengers were enjoying books – not books on cellphones or Kindles, but real paper-and-ink books.

We hear a lot nowadays about how the internet is destroying the life of the mind. It may be true somewhere – but not on these trains. Using my journalistic background as an excuse, I approached some of these readers about their books. Here are some of the exchanges that I enjoyed.

(With Tarik Karagol, traveling in Germany from Cologne to Munich and reading 1984, by George Orwell)
Me: “Why this classic?”
Tarik: “I am Turkish. Maybe I can learn something from it? Because the situation in Turkey is problematic, and I find our president is comparable to the one in the book.”
Me: “Is President Erdoğan the reason for reading '1984'?”
Tarik: “Somewhat. At first, I thought there would not be many commonalities, but now I find similarities.”
Me: "What in particular?"
Tarik: “The language of the people gets reduced over and over. The politicians want the people only to talk to each other when necessary. Someone who has a limited vocabulary thinks less, that is the main theme for me.”

(With Eckhard Neusel, traveling in Austria from Salzburg to Innsbruck, reading The Swallow, the Cat, the Rose and Death, by Håkan Nesser)
Me: “Another Scandinavian mystery?”
Eckhard: “Nesser builds good parallel stories around interesting crime cases, and they include the characters’ home lives.”
Me: “The book looks used. Are you reading it a second time?”
Eckhard: “It’s my mother’s. Whenever I am stuck for a new book, I ask my mother. She is the reader in the family.”

(With Regina Meinke, traveling from Cologne to Munich, reading Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific, by Martin A. Lee)
Me: “Why are you reading this?”
Regina: “I had a discussion with my 16-year-old son: Is marijuana harmful, yes or no? I said it was damaging and a gateway drug. My son believes it is not damaging and wants to try it.”
Me: “That is concerning.”
Regina: “Yes, but I am unsure. Times and opinions are changing. I want to learn the facts first, and then talk with my son.”

(With Nadja Neubauer, traveling from Innsbruck to Como, Italy, reading World Without End, by Ken Follett)
Me: “Many love this series.”
Nadja: “They are immersive. I can turn off outside worries or thoughts. This is my second reading.”
Me: “Do you reread a lot?”
Nadja: “Not much, but I read a lot. I watch some news on my phone or read the newspaper to keep informed. Listening to people talk about politics at work is enough for me; why invite that into your home?”

(With Larissa Breuer, traveling from Munich to Salzburg, reading Sungs Laden, by Karin Kalisa)
Me: “The title [“Sung’s Shop”] is a bit plain.”
Larissa: “It is about two generations of Vietnamese immigrants in Berlin. The son has an intercultural week at school ... so he brings his grandmother to class.”
Me: “Sounds like a sitcom plot.”
Larissa: “There are funny parts, and it is beautifully written. I like books about small communities or friendships. I also like to read young authors, hoping they become successful so I can see them mature.”

(With Sandra Huth, traveling from Salzburg to Innsbruck, reading The Eye Collector, by Sebastian Fitzek and Paul Shearer)
Me: “That’s a gruesome title.”
Sandra: “It is. I won’t be reading it at home or at night. It sounds funny, but I only read thrillers on the train, and at home [I read] nonfiction or books relating to work.”
Me: “What work is that?”
Sandra: “I am working on my PhD in psychology.”

(With Konrad Faber, traveling from Cologne to Munich, reading Soul Splitter, by Ju Honisch)
Me: “That is a thick novel.”
Konrad: “It is a fantasy book, which run a bit longer. I like fantasies, and the way an author imagines entirely new worlds. Some people don’t like the amount of time spent describing a place; they want action immediately. I go to movies for that.”
Me: “Which might explain why many fantasy books run as series?”
Konrad: “Yes, maybe they address a patient audience? I get many pleasant hours from one book. It is time well spent.”

(With Emil Scholz, traveling from Como to Frankfurt, reading Sharpe’s Honor, by Bernard Cornwell)
Me: “Your paperback looks pretty worn.”
Emil: “I bought the whole series of 25 books after reading the first in the series.”
Me: “Do you read for history or fiction?”
Emil: “Both. The author weaves real history into his plot. It is an adventure book, but you can learn from it. Sharpe is a soldier who fought with Wellington in the time of Napoleon. It is an atmospheric read; when I look out on the countryside from my train window I can imagine those fields may have hosted a battle as in the book.”

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