It's very difficult to get away with comparing books, particularly if the books are not all that similar. Somehow, though, as I finished reading Primo Levi's "If This is a Man" ("Survival in Auschwitz" in the U.S.), I found myself thinking a number of things which led me to some comparisons. Reading this powerful account of Auschwitz made me wonder how "If This is a Man", written in 1946, was not required reading for me at any point while many other Holocaust memoirs and stories were. Following that train of thought, I pondered over books that are frequent class reads: "Night", by Elie Wiesel and the ubiquitous "The Diary of Anne Frank" or its various poor variations (the play version that my class suffered through, for instance, was terrible).
Anne Frank quickly falls into another category. Hers is a diary, childishly written and focusing (understandably) on her small world. It's the story of hiding. Levi and Wiesel's accounts fall into a different but shared category of survival in the work camps, specifically Auschwitz. One is by a living author, a man who has received the Nobel Peace Prize and whose work was picked as an Oprah book club choice. The other author is a suspected suicide case (on which Wiesel actually commented with a famous quote), a man whose writing appeared only relatively late in his life (the exception being the aforementioned book), and enjoys little fame in the U.S. (though he curiously enough appears to be much more popular than Wiesel in the U.K.*).
The main difference between their books, though, is in the actual content. Wiesel's account is almost literary: it's an emotional read where he presents the story in simple, touching phrases. Levi's memoir, meanwhile, is factual. Instead of delving into the emotional turmoil of Auschwitz, he presents the way prisoners "lived" there, highlighting various aspects of survival in the camp, from stealing to friendships. Levi writes rather intellectually and almost distantly, keeping himself fairly far, for the most part, from the actual goings-on. "Night" is clearly about Wiesel's own personal views.
The reason for comparing these two books is stupid. So I've heard of "Night" my entire life and only now encountered the strength and importance to Levi's words in "If This is a Man". Yes, many very bad novelizations and memoirs are taught around the world during Holocaust units over the calm brilliance of Levi's writing. "Night" is fairly ignored in the U.K. and in the U.S. "If This is a Man" continues to be minor. The comparison serves only to highlight how some books achieve fame in different ways and how their popularity is so completely contrasted. Perhaps there is a reason why Levi is not taught and Wiesel is. Perhaps there is only room for one such memoir and between the two, "Night" was picked. But it seems to me like these books come as complimentary to each other. First comes Primo Levi with the facts of life in Auschwitz and then comes Elie Wiesel, filling in the missing emotion from Levi's account.
The conclusion from comparing incomparable works is simple. Each book deserves its own attention and fame. Each seeks to present a different side of Auschwitz, different literary tactics and very different lives. Attempting to justify the popularity of one over the other proves to be pointless: both books are excellent and special - and must be read.
*Based on Amazon.com, goodreads.com, Amazon.co.uk, and bookdepository.co.uk sales ranks, number of reviews and number of ratings