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The Reader Paperback – February 26, 1999
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Oprah Book Club® Selection, February 1999: Originally published in Switzerland, and gracefully translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, The Reader is a brief tale about sex, love, reading, and shame in postwar Germany. Michael Berg is 15 when he begins a long, obsessive affair with Hanna, an enigmatic older woman. He never learns very much about her, and when she disappears one day, he expects never to see her again. But, to his horror, he does. Hanna is a defendant in a trial related to Germany's Nazi past, and it soon becomes clear that she is guilty of an unspeakable crime. As Michael follows the trial, he struggles with an overwhelming question: What should his generation do with its knowledge of the Holocaust? "We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible, we may not compare the incomparable.... Should we only fall silent in revulsion, shame, and guilt? To what purpose?"
The Reader, which won the Boston Book Review's Fisk Fiction Prize, wrestles with many more demons in its few, remarkably lucid pages. What does it mean to love those people--parents, grandparents, even lovers--who committed the worst atrocities the world has ever known? And is any atonement possible through literature? Schlink's prose is clean and pared down, stripped of unnecessary imagery, dialogue, and excess in any form. What remains is an austerely beautiful narrative of the attempt to breach the gap between Germany's pre- and postwar generations, between the guilty and the innocent, and between words and silence. --R. Ellis
"A formally beautiful, disturbing and finally morally devastating novel."
—Los Angeles Times
"Moving, suggestive and ultimately hopeful. . . . [The Reader] leaps national boundaries and speaks straight to the heart."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Arresting, philosophically elegant, morally complex. . . . Mr. Schlink tells his story with marvelous directness and simplicity."
—The New York Times
"Haunting. . . . What Schlink does best, what makes this novel most memorable, are the small moments of highly charged eroticism." —Francine Prose, Elle
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This book is moving, romantic, sad, upsetting, and ... poignant. All of which seem unimportant, really, but this is one of those books that ought to be read, including by you. It's not just about 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung," really, but about our care and lack of care for other human beings. Which, really, is the crux of life, no?
In another way, this is a book about books, not in a primary way, but in a secondary way that is quite beautiful, even if it isn't the point.
The author says,"The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive.” It couldn't be more true.
I think Hanna was a victim of circumstances & that Michael was to harsh in his judgement of her.
At the beginning of the book she shows great compassion as she helps a vomiting Michael & walks him back home.
When it is later revealed that she picked the weaker children to read to her before they were put to death, I think she was trapped by the horrible circumstances & reality of the Nazi regime, & that making their lives a little more livable before their untimely deaths was the only thing she had in her power to do to show compassion.
There is also a lot of symbolism in the book. For example: Hanna is illiterate at a time when Germany's average citizen had a Bachelor's degree.
As for her anger toward a young Michael Berg during their vacation, I think this was do to a feeling of helplessness. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment & imagine not being able to read at all. You are 100% reliant on your lover to read the signs to get were your going & thus to get back from whence you came. You can't even order from a menu. You wake up miles from home & that lover you are reliant on to read signs & order food has vanished & left you a piece a paper with writing on it, & you can't read it. You must feel stranded & hopeless. Thus when the young Mr. Berg returns he is surprised by an understandably irate Frau Schmidt.
She is innocent to an extent, & her more guilty ex-coworkers get much more lenient sentences by contrast.
Where does guilt begin or innocence win? I think that is an unanswerable question, & one for the history of not only Hanna, but all of mankind throughout all of history.
It starts out at the love story between the boy and the woman, who likes him to read to her, but before long it takes an unexpected turn, and then another, and another, until the reader has no idea where it is going until the unexpected ending.
The writing is spare and lean, with not a word wasted. I was right, it is short. At 224 pages, it can be read in a matter of hours, but the moral question at the center of the story will haunt you for days.
Michael Berg was fifteen when he got hepitatis and had to spend a lot of time out of school. As he got better, he was to take walks to get his strength back. As he was walking, he saw a woman on the street and he thought he wanted to talk to her. He made his move and started helping carry coal for Hanna. This turned into something more and they started a sexual relationship. She treated him as a child while she treated him as an adult. They would also read or at least he would read aloud which she loved. Eventually, the relationship ended and she moved away.
She simply left and he was left with nothing. The next time he saw her was when he was in law school and his class was studying the Frankfort Nazi trials. They were required to attend the trial and he found one of the defendants was Hanna. What was he to do and to think? How is he to reconcile the lady he knew with this evil lady on trial?
It is a thoughtful and provoking story, but didn't offer much more than the movie--which is surprising to me. I generally find more depth in a story that I've read than watched. Even though I don't remember the movie well (I saw it ages ago), maybe those images stayed in my head and skewed my perception.
Thus this wasn't a full 5-star read for me, but still very good.
Most recent customer reviews
I'm impressed. The Reader knocked me out. Okay, some reviewers wrote that the story was emotionless, the characters cold.Read more