Avid readers: The rest is history: 60-odd years of it (plus some other stuff)

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Herfried Schmidt is a guy with a big book habit: in other words, he buys them, reads them, shelves them and never gets rid of them.

“I kept all my books,” he says. “They were in my library downstairs when the house burned down. Thousands. I never threw a book away.”

Since then he’s back at it, building Version II of the Schmidt library. It has a lot of history stuff in it – much of it in his first language, which is German. Reading historical books in the German language is something he got into as an immigrant kid in the Okanagan, when he found reading tough in English.

“I joined a German book club in 1960,” he says. “I paid about $3 every quarter. It sent me books in German for about 40 years.”

It wasn’t all history, but that was a definite emphasis – supplemented over time by lots of similar stuff in English. Early on, Schmidt found the distinct differences in viewpoint (between the German version and others) to be both interesting and enlightening. It’s a theme that has continued for close to 60 years in his reading – investigating events or topics from more than one point of view.

An example he offers is the story of the German Second World War General von Manstein. He read Manstein’s own account, then one by an English author and one by a French writer.

“What I find interesting is interpretation,” he says. “What you emphasize, what you leave out – to create a certain impression.”

Schmidt’s sense that there was more to history than what was popular or accepted arose early and stuck with him. Going to school in Oliver, B.C., he was being taught by people with a certain view, which was quite different than the one he heard at home. This would have been noticeable with regard to Canadian/British/American views of 20th Century Germany in particular and Europe in general. So he started pushing back and has been doing it ever since.

Schmidt has noticed over that time – and applauds it generally – that views on history have become more complex and more balanced. At least there are good examples of that coming out. One he likes is Conrad Black’s history of Canada, which he considers excellent and a far cry from his early exposure to Canadian history (he mentions Thomas Costain’s ‘The White and the Gold’).

But it’s not all heavy history in the Schmidt library. He says after reading a weighty tome, he’ll turn to much lighter stuff for entertainment’s sake. Ken Follett, Louis L’Amour westerns. On his table during the interview were books by Robin Pilcher and Debbie Macomber.

“I read Nora Roberts!” he says. “People ask me, ‘Are you crazy!’ That’s just to relax.”

Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series is another thing he’s working through and enjoying.

Historical fiction is another Schmidt forte. He has a series of very fat books – in German – by Rebecca Gablé. In fact he had just received a boxful of German novels he mailed to himself on a recent visit to the homeland.

The reading, apparently, never stops.

“He reads all the time!” says his wife Elaine, coming in part-way through the conversation.

“Especially when I go shopping with my wife!” Schmidt retorts.

Herfried Schmidt: quality time with Ken Follett

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