As part of its “Rye Reads” series, the Rye Free Reading Room invited the community to read, explore, and discuss “All the Light We Cannot See” through a myriad of events that culminated November 5 at the Rye High School Performing Arts Center.
By Janice Llanes Fabry
As part of its “Rye Reads” series, the Rye Free Reading Room invited the community to read, explore, and discuss “All the Light We Cannot See” through a myriad of events that culminated November 5 at the Rye High School Performing Arts Center. And the community came out — some 700 — to listen to the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anthony Doerr, who believes in “being as generous as you can with language.”
Although one would expect a novel about two children in ravaged France during World War II to be conducive to a somber talk, Doerr was anything but subdued and dour. On the contrary, his amusing anecdotes about his background and revelations regarding his writing process were uplifting and inspiring.
Audience members, perhaps a bit bewildered, were caught off guard by his humorous delivery and compelling slide presentation that included scanning electron microscope images of a dust mite on a housefly, a human eyebrow, and used dental floss. As the lecture progressed and the Guggenheim Fellowship award winner’s passion for science became clear, the method to his madness fell into place. He is completely awed by all that allows him “to see ordinary things in extraordinary ways.”
As a child growing up in Cleveland, Doerr admitted he was “a weird kid,” but loved reading, starting with “Call of the Wild” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Through books, he proposed, “We can nudge the world toward goodness.”
In college, he thought of the course catalogue as an “all-you-can-eat buffet.” When a frustrated college advisor at Bowdoin College called him a “dilettante,” he admitted he didn’t know the definition. It turned out, however, that his vast array of interests, insatiable thirst for knowledge, and childlike curiosity have served him remarkably well through his literary journey.
His narrative, on the New York Times bestseller list 78 weeks and counting, took him on a long and winding road for a decade. Rather than approaching the novel by way of World War II archives as many writers might have, he came at it from every direction. In addition to extensive research, his fascination with radio receivers, light, snails, diamonds, granite mansions, and “the strangeness and sorcery of communication” enriched his lyrical novel. It was while on a book tour in 2005 promoting his first novel, “About Grace,” that he was introduced to Saint-Malo, the port city in northwestern France destroyed in the war and integral to “All the Light We Cannot See.”
As far as his protagonists, Werner and Marie-Laure, the author knew that asking readers to empathize with a German Hitler Youth as much as with a blind French girl was a tall order, so he fleshed them out meticulously. “I let my own enthusiasm seep into the lives of my characters,” remarked Doerr, who believes the novel is a celebration of individuals. He also treated blindness “as an ability rather than a disability.”
He added, “Ultimately, I feel so blessed that a reader is giving me 10 or 12 hours of her life.”
About the inaugural program’s resounding success, Rye Free Reading Room Director Chris Shoemaker offered, “Rye Reads gave the community a platform to gather around, bringing passionate readers, non-readers, and all Rye residents together for an amazing evening of discussion and learning.”