Arts You Are What You Read Muse

You Are What You Read: The Book Thief

Alice Cresswell examines the impact of words and literature in Zusak’s most popular novel .

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Image Credit: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak will always mean a lot to me. The profound language and beautifully vivid and complex characters still intrude into my thoughts five years after first  reading it. It was the first time I started being more analytical when reading a book for fun.

The novel drew me into the worlds of literature and history and paved the way for my  subject choices from GCSE to degree level. It taught me the unequivocal power of words and the importance of books. Written from the perspective of Death, the novel feels like a testament to the strength of humans and the beauty of humanity. Even when engulfed in so much darkness and torment, Death demonstrates what good can be brought out of people. It is devastatingly emotional and a novel that readers will get the most out of when read slowly.

Markus Zusak’s immense love of literature is heavily reflected upon, and this is what makes The Book Thief one of my favourite books. Ironically, the book thief, Liesel Meminger cannot read at the beginning of the book. As she faces the world without her mother or brother, and begins a new life with her foster family at the brink of World War II, she draws strength and grounds herself with words. When these words arrive ‘Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain’. As uncertainty surrounds her in every area of her life, the one thing that keeps her focus and restores her self-confidence is literature.

This is literature of any kind; the first book she learns to read is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, stolen from a young man who buries her brother in the first chapter. Perhaps subconsciously, this was Liesel’s way of coming to terms with his death and trying to understand it. She learns how to read with her foster father, cementing  the strongest bond in the book. The power of words is reiterated relentlessly throughout The Book Thief.

In particular, this is brought to the forefront when the family is faced with the life-threatening responsibility of hiding a Jew in their basement. As Max cannot freely walk upstairs to peer out of the window, he requests that Liesel describes the weather to him each day. Her childlike tangible descriptions and wondrous metaphors are the highlights of each passing day. Max also writes over Mein Kampf, providing some kind of therapy for the torment he faces. He erases Hitler’s words of hate, which attempt to eradicate his voice within his own story of meeting Liesel.

The Book Thief, while reminding me of the power of words and the strength literature brings, also made me think about a world without books. The burning of books in Nazi Germany was shocking but was not the first time it had happened in the past and certainly was not the last. A world without books encourages ignorance among its citizens and dependency on the elite to know how to rule best. Without literature, people stop being inquisitive and continue their idle submission into destruction. This touches on the dangers of an echo chamber and the need to read expansively and widely to be better educated on all areas of life. It is crucial to be aware of and acknowledge the opinions of people you might disagree with. Max’s reading of Mein Kampf becomes a mechanism for him to fuel his anger at something, as he dreams of fighting Hitler face to face. Literature creates a more free-thinking, empathic society, thus burning books is an attack against humanity.

The main reason The Book Thief caught my interest when I saw it in the bookshop was the fact that it was narrated by Death. This was one of my favourite elements of the novel as it provided an interesting philosophical perspective. Although creating a morbid tone that overlays the narrative, it provides an outsider’s optimism on the strength of humanity and the beauty of the human heart. While not all the characters are very likeable at the beginning, you will become emotionally attached to them without even realising. Because Death is so physically detached from the scenes, readers are given the freedom to form their own judgement of the characters. The strength of humanity is what is valued as most fascinating by Death, and therefore the well drawn characters drive the story.

I would absolutely recommend reading The Book Thief if you have not picked it up already. Classed as Young Adult fiction, it is also not at all laborious to read. Unlike many other film adaptations of books, Brian Percival’s portrayal of the book in 2013 is incredible and a true representation of the novel. If you do not have the time to read it, definitely watch it. You will not be disappointed.

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