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A few thoughts on The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

the reader

The Reader
by Bernhard Schlink
218 pages
Published 1995 (1997 in the United States)

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was picked by my book club. I was excited since this book was already on my radar. I won’t be doing a normal review, but instead just giving you a few thoughts because it’s been so long between when I actually read the book and right now typing up this post.

A quick sketch of the plot: It’s set sometime in the 1960s in Germany. Michael Berg meets Hanna when he’s 15 and she’s 40. They start a sexual relationship that goes on for a while, until one day Hanna just disappears. Their relationship was very sexual, and Hanna had Michael read stories to her. When Michael next sees Hanna, he’s a young law student and Hanna is on trial for Nazi war crimes.

There’s not a whole lot of plot in this book; it’s really a character driven novel. I was worried that I wouldn’t like the 15-year-old with a 30-year-old, but it wasn’t icky, and obviously no one would condone it, but it just *was*. A friend (hi, Becky!) pointed out that the author didn’t *have* to use a 15-year-old boy. He could have just as easily been 17 or 18, making it far less objectionable, and the relationship would have still meant just as much to Michael.

I really liked this book. I thought Hanna and Michael had an interesting dynamic that lent itself to a book club discussion. I thought the story was beautiful and tragic, though I don’t think the story was romanticized at all. If anything, the narrator was unemotional, and merely told the story. No sentimentality leaked in, so it was an easy book to stay unattached to. I know that seems counter-intuitive to a good book, but I really think it works here.

One thing that frustrated me in the book club discussion was when I asked whether people thought the story was happy or sad or neither. I asked this question because of the following passage:

For the last few years I’ve left our story alone. I’ve made peace with it. And it came back, detail by detail and in such a fully rounded fashion, with its own direction and its own senses of completion, that it no longer makes me sad. What a sad story, I thought for so long. Not that I now think it was happy. But I think it is true and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatsoever.

So I ask people whether they thought the story was happy or sad or neither, and this one member says it was sad. And I asked her why, even though the narrator is telling us it’s really *not* a sad story. And she has no reason, just that she thinks it’s a sad story. I know I’m uptight, but is it really unreasonable to ask people to back their opinions and feelings up with actual facts and passages from the book??

All that to say, I loved The Reader.

Rating: 90 out of 100


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21 Responses to “A few thoughts on The Reader by Bernhard Schlink”

  1. Sandy

    I bought this book impulsively after I saw the movie but there it sits. I know alot of people couldn’t get past the age difference, and many hated the book as a result. But I suspect there is much more to the story than sex, if the movie is anything close to the written word. And I agree with you. It would be great if people just gave a little bit of thought towards their feelings on the books they read!


  2. bermudaonion (Kathy) ()

    I loved this book too! You must see the movie now. I think the book is sad, because Hanna was so ashamed of being illiterate that she was willing to spend the rest of her life in prison rather than admit it. Plus, I don’t think Michael ever got over her.


  3. Steph

    You win some, you lose some… in this case I lose, because as you know, I did not like this book at all! I think it had some potential, but nothing about it really worked for me. I HATED the writing (so dry, so unemotional!), and the story just seemed really manipulative to me and over the top. I could see how it would be provocative for a book club to discuss (though perhaps not with your group! 😉 ) but as for a book that I read and thought about on my own, I didn’t care for it.


  4. zibilee ()

    I read this such a long time ago, and also saw the movie when it came out. I think this was definitely as sad book because of Hannah’s suicide, and also because of the terrible things that she did during the war. I also think her illiteracy and the lengths she went to to hide it was sad. I will be interested to hear what you think of the movie if you get a chance to see it.


  5. Anna ()

    The age difference didn’t keep me from enjoying the book. And you’re right that it’s good in this case to be unsentimental and unattached. It really does work. I hope it’s okay to link to your post on War Through the Generations.


  6. Gayle ()

    Interesting review! I liked this book a lot too. I read it after I saw the movie, even though I usually do the reverse, and I highly recommend the movie. The unemotional writing didn’t bother me. I think that’s bc I had Ralph Fiennes in my mind, acting, and I could fill in the unemotional writing with his acting and emoting (though he was admittedly understated in the movie). I did find this a sad book, for a whole host of reasons – their doomed love, her blind loyalty to the Nazis, the needless deaths during WWII, both of their loneliness, her sad suicide at the end, her illiteracy, his inablity to have a happy romantic relationship as an adult. The narrator may say it’s not a sad story, but I don’t think as a reader I necessarily have to take that as gospel…


  7. Amused ()

    I loved this book too when I read back in college. I just remember thinking it was so different from anything I’d read and I was in a ‘German’ fiction phase. I would have thought this would have been a great book club so that’s too bad that it didn’t happen. It bugs me when my book club gets like that too.


  8. Willa

    I really need to read this one because I love the movie!


  9. frankie

    I enjoyed this book and the movie(which is not usually the case). I found it sad. Michael never gets over Hannah and move on to a healthier relationship. It’s only later in life that he comes to terms with things. Hannah just breaks my heart. She hides her inability to read. She misses out on a promotion and then ends up working for the Nazis and takes the blame for other’s actions. I think she killed herself because she had educated herself enough to know that her actions during the war were wrong and immoral .


  10. Stacybuckeye ()

    I’ve seen the movie twice and do want to read the book. I think the movie left me feeling sad because of the obvious lonliness of the two.


  11. Jeanne ()

    I think this is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, because both characters are so lonely, and their relationship shadows his life–I think of the phrase “the sins of the fathers.” Every time I read it, I cry, especially because of how he must have felt when he went to the prison and she had killed herself. Like with so many tragic figures, the pride she can’t let go is her fatal flaw.


  12. Sheila DeChantal ()

    This book has been on my shelf for over a year… I really need to make the time to read it.


  13. Staci

    I read this one quite a few years ago but I do remember being quite moved by the story and thought it was very thought provoking!


  14. Bibliophile By the Sea

    I can still remember reading this book on the beach in Aruba about years ago. I liked it a lot, and hope to read his new book The Weekend soon. Glad u liked this one Trish.


  15. Trisha ()

    The age difference didn’t bug me; I’m not sure what that says about me… but I like to think it has to do with the skill of the author instead of any creepiness on my part. 🙂


  16. Biblibio

    I think that readers often mistake melancholy or emotions that are distinctly “not cheerful” with “sad”. You yourself say that the story is tragic – does that make it a sad story?

    I don’t believe that the characters in the book can accurately reflect whether or not their own story is happy or sad. The passage you quote is quite revealing (though I have not read the book) in that it shows that the narrator has thought about the matter. This doesn’t mean that what is said is necessarily true. It’s accurate to the character, but an objective observer may take other meaning from the story.


  17. Beth F ()

    Haven’t read it, haven’t seen the movie. No reason — just can’t get to everything. And it seems reasonable to expect people to have a reason for their opinions. But that’s just me.


  18. Carina ()

    I listened to this one as an audiobook a while back, and really loved it! I haven’t seen the movie yet, but want to; perhaps the age gap will bother me more in the movie form, but in the book, it really wasn’t an issue. Not sure why, to be honest.


  19. kathy d.

    I can’t read this book or see the movie. The last thing I want to see is a sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi camp guard, who collaborates in mass murder. She should feel guilty and horrible.

    The age difference wouldn’t bother me.

    What bothers me is that there are so many “ex” Nazi commanders who are living well in Europe, South America, the U.S. and Canada, who were giving orders that people like this character carried out. And they have been allowed to live well, unprosecuted and not imprisoned.

    I see obituaries of these people all of the time. They’re elderly and lived well, undisturbed.

    Half of my family came from Poland way before WWII, but they are Jewish and had family and friends still there when the war began. So I have no sympathy for anyone who collaborated.

    Many Polish people were courageous and hid Jewish people, risking their lives and those of their families. Those people I admire.


  20. cbjames

    I’m with Kathy on this one. When I first read it, I loved it. But I was also a bit uncomfortable with the fact that the author is asking us to feel sorry for a camp gaurd who committed a terrible act of mass murder.

    She had her reasons.

    But, I could let my reservations go enough to admire what is good about The Reader. However, the book that followed was even more problematic. Homecoming, I think. At this point I’m not willing to give Mr. Sclink any lee-way. Attempting to make the actions of Nazi’s understandable by making their situtaions sympathetic should be called out.

    But I do agree with you about backing up your point of view in a book club. The point of a book club is discussion. Have something to say, for crying out loud.


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