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Review: The Reader

May 5, 2009

the-reader-bookFifteen year old Michael Berg gets sick on his way home from school one day and he is helped by Hanna Schmitz.  After he’s better, he goes by to thank Hanna and they embark on an affair.  He sees her as often as possible and when Hanna asks Michael what he’s studying in school, he begins reading to her.  Their affair continues until Hanna mysteriously leaves town one day.

Michael doesn’t see Hanna again until he’s a law student attending the trial of Nazi war criminals for a seminar he’s taking.  He’s shocked to see Hanna is one of the female guards being tried.  He attends the trial every day and slowly comes to the realization that Hanna is illiterate. While he’s attending the trial, Michael thinks,

I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it.  But it was too terrible for that.  When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned.  When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.

Hanna accepts more blame, and a harsher sentence because of it, rather than admit to the shame of being illiterate.  After Hanna is in prison for several years, Michael starts recording books on cassette tapes and mailing them to her, because he can’t get her out of his mind.  After several years in prison, Hanna writes Michael and note and he says,

I read the note and was filled with joy and jubilation.  “She can write, she can write!” In these years I had read everything I could lay my hands on to do with illiteracy.  I knew about the helplessness in everyday activities, finding one’s way or finding an address or choosing a meal in a restaurant, about how illiterates anxiously stick to prescribed patterns and familiar routines, about how much energy it takes to conceal one’s inability to read and write, energy lost to actual living.  Illiteracy is dependence.

Wow,  The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is a book full of controversial subjects!  If this book doesn’t make you think, nothing will.  It would make a great book club pick because there is just so much to talk about in it.  First is the love affair between a minor and a grown woman.  During the war trial, Michael never absolves the guards of guilt, but questions how much of the blame the society that allowed the atrocities to go on should shoulder.  I was struck by how many of the choices in Hanna’s life were made because of her shame in being illiterate.  It made me even more thankful that I can read.  This book does contain sexual situations, but I recommend it and the movie that was made from it.

52 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2009 6:29 am

    I’m pretty sure I said the same thing when you posted about the movie, but I am dumbfounded each time that I see this that I could have read the book and so thoroughly have forgotten it.

    Anyway, you are definitely right that there is a lot to think about here. I got that from the movie and the quotes that you’ve included in your review. Great choices.

  2. May 5, 2009 7:03 am

    I have seen the movie but haven’t read the book. In the movie, when he sees her note, his reaction is more subdued than ‘She can write, she can write’. It’s interesting to see the changes made while incorporating a book into a movie.

  3. May 5, 2009 7:13 am

    This book has been on the TBR list for quite some time. I think it is one of those books for which I need to mentally prepare before reading.

  4. May 5, 2009 7:19 am

    I have this book in my TBR and it really looks wonderful.

  5. May 5, 2009 7:24 am

    FANTASTIC REVIEW!!! I read this one years ago when Oprah suggested it. I think I’d appreciate it more now.

  6. May 5, 2009 8:02 am

    I thought this was a beautifully written book, and I hope to see the movie soon. I agree, so many of Hanna’s decisions were based in shame. What an unfortunate way to go through life.

  7. May 5, 2009 8:23 am

    I didn’t really know what this book/movie was about until I read your review. I was sort of avoiding it because things with WWII depress me too much. This book sounds good though, thanks for the review.

  8. May 5, 2009 8:53 am

    Great review Kathy! I’ve held off on seeing the movie because I want to read the book first. After reading your review, I’m moving it up on my list ~ thanks!

  9. May 5, 2009 9:29 am

    It sounds like the author set out to shock readers but instead has been applauded. I still don’t think that the book nor the movie is really something I would particularly enjoy but I’m glad that you and most people enjoyed it1

  10. May 5, 2009 10:04 am

    This is definitely one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read. Glad you thought it was worthwhile, too.

  11. May 5, 2009 10:14 am

    I’m with you – I can’t imagine my life without reading. I’ve known a couple of people during my working years who couldn’t read. They were very proud people who did not want anyone to know about their handicap. They worked in janitorial jobs but were actually rather smart. I’m going to have to read this book, I can see.

  12. May 5, 2009 10:51 am

    I bought this at the used library sale. I have been eying it lately! Thanks for the review. The content was making me somewhat nervous, but maybe I should just take the plunge~!

  13. May 5, 2009 11:06 am

    I read this a LONG time ago – I think I should give it another read. I know I liked it, but think its one that would stand up to a re-read.

  14. May 5, 2009 11:21 am

    Nice review. I want to read and watch the movie. I have been holding off because of the heavy subject matter. But I think like Bethany, I should take the plunge.

  15. May 5, 2009 12:16 pm

    I loved your review, very well stated. I missed the movie; hope to see it soon.

  16. May 5, 2009 12:28 pm

    This book was wonderful to get you thinking. So many different aspects to the story. I still need to see the movie.

  17. May 5, 2009 12:39 pm

    My book group read this ages ago and we didn’t care for it. It was sort of hard to read but it’s been so long I can’t remember why exactly. The movie did intrigue me but I never got around to watching it. I do recall a good discussion on it though.

  18. May 5, 2009 1:27 pm

    This one’s been on my list for a while, but I’ve read mixed reviews of it. I’ve been holding off on reading it because of those reviews. I think it’s just one of those books that people are very divided on. I guess I’ll just have to read it sometime and see for myself. 🙂 Great review!

  19. May 5, 2009 1:28 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this book. Thanks for the review. Now, I have no excuse!

  20. May 5, 2009 1:50 pm

    I’ve had the audio of this for a while. I’m not sure why I haven’t started listening. I’ll have to try to get to it over the summer.

  21. May 5, 2009 3:03 pm

    I can’t imagine not being able to read. Sounds like there are lots of twists to keep me interested. Thanks for the review!

  22. May 5, 2009 3:27 pm

    The passage you quoted about the conflict in condemning and understanding Hanna’s crime is incredibly powerful. On the strength of that, I’m convince I need to read this book. Thanks for posting your review.

  23. May 5, 2009 3:42 pm

    I just got lucky and found a copy of this one in our library sale for a quarter. So glad you enjoyed it!

  24. May 5, 2009 5:25 pm

    Me, too! I loved both the book and the movie. I reviewed them both as well.

    I’m glad you liked it and I agree that it would make an excelled book club read.

  25. May 5, 2009 5:53 pm

    I got this one from PBS recently. It’s hard for me to pick up the more serious books but I really need to make time for this one.

  26. May 5, 2009 7:19 pm

    Great review. This one has been on my list to read for a long time. I’ve not seen the movie either.

  27. May 5, 2009 8:04 pm

    I definitely plan to read this one at some point. It sounds like it gives you a lot to think about. Thanks for the review. I’ll post a link on the WWII challenge blog. (Thanks!)


  28. May 5, 2009 8:17 pm

    I keep waffling on whether or not to read this one…and I still can’t make up my mind!

  29. May 5, 2009 9:10 pm

    What a terrific review! I’m still torn on whether I enjoyed the story itself or the things it made me consider. There are just so many things to think about after reading it.

  30. May 5, 2009 9:59 pm

    I read this quite some time ago and I really enjoyed your review. I do plan on watching the movie!!

  31. May 5, 2009 11:01 pm

    Wonderful review – I’m going to get off the fence and add this one to my to-read list.

  32. Carol permalink
    May 6, 2009 10:02 am

    I found that this is one of those books I like more after reading it. Thinking about it and discussing it really enhanced it for me.

  33. May 6, 2009 10:51 am

    I’ve heard more about the movie so I was glad to hear about the book. I think I need to check them both out.

  34. stacybuckeye permalink
    May 6, 2009 11:25 am

    I thought the movie was wonderful, I’ll have to get the book!

  35. May 6, 2009 12:43 pm

    This sounds SO good!!

  36. May 6, 2009 1:22 pm

    I want to see the movie, but want to read the book first, which is on my TBR Shelf. So glad to see that you recommend it.

    BTW – my NYT paper is FINALLY being framed! 🙂

  37. May 6, 2009 2:27 pm

    I really liked this book and can’t wait to see the movie. Great review.

  38. May 6, 2009 3:45 pm

    I really enjoyed this book! I read it years ago, though, and I keep planning a reread! I haven’t seen the movie yet, though. It didn’t play here, which is no big surprise! I don’t even know if it is out on DVD yet. Must check.

  39. callista83 permalink
    May 6, 2009 5:27 pm

    Wow that was the best review of the book I’ve read so far. I admit I haven’t read them all but the rest made it seem boring. Your review makes me want to read the book!

  40. May 7, 2009 8:08 am

    Hey, really great review. I too have been putting off seeing the movie till I read the book. Seems like I will be doing both pretty soon.

  41. May 7, 2009 8:45 am

    I’ve heard great things about the movie but I’d really like to read the book first. Wonderful revew! Thank you.

  42. May 7, 2009 1:29 pm

    This would be an excellent book for the WWII reading challenge, have you joined??? You should…I think you’ve read 3 and you only need to read 5 minimum through Dec. 31, 2009

  43. May 7, 2009 8:18 pm

    Beautiful and entertaining review, Kathy! I love that this book makes you think. Those are the best kinds in my opinion! I still have not gotten my hands on this one, but I look forward to reading it one day!

  44. May 7, 2009 9:52 pm

    What an intriguing plot. This one sounds interesting.

  45. May 8, 2009 3:27 pm

    Excellent review!
    I like books that make you think about society’s larger role or influence on human behavior.
    So the movie lived up to the translation from the book? That’s pretty rare these days.

  46. May 11, 2009 8:18 pm

    I heard wonderful things about this one from a friend. I can’t decide if I’d love it or not – I probably should just try it 🙂

  47. May 14, 2009 12:06 am

    I just bought this book today. Looking forward to reading it.

  48. May 14, 2009 2:32 pm

    Wow, I wasn’t familiar with the book and hadn’t seen the movie, but I am definitely interested. Thanks for the great review.

  49. Cindy permalink
    May 28, 2009 10:56 am

    I read this book years ago when it first came out. I had totally forgotten reading it, and after reading your review I think I’ll read it again.
    Thanks for a great review.

  50. June 26, 2009 10:46 am

    I posted this on the challenge site here.


  51. November 4, 2009 3:13 am

    This would make a great book choice for a book club!

    Somehow, both my review and yours have dealt with similar points in the book.

    If you’d like to see, my review is up here:

  52. April 14, 2011 7:16 am

    I really enjoyed the movie so I will definitely be looking at this!

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