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When you read the title of a book, you can sometimes tell what the book is about. Bernhard Schlink used foreshadowing when naming his International Bestselling novel, The Reader. At first glance this title could prove the book to be about any number of subjects. It is not until you finish it that you truly can understand the scope of the title and why it was named as such. The Reader is not the only novel of Schlink's to gain praise, he has also written numerous crime novels such as Guilt About the Past, Homecoming, Self's Murder, and Flights of Love: Stories.
This novel of Schlink's is much different than others he has written because is has a somewhat real setting rather than the crime novels. The Reader is told by the main character, fifteen year old Michael Berg, in three parts or sections, which all take place during a different point in his life. This novel is set in Post World War II Germany. The novel begins when Michael is describing how he met the woman who is to change his life completely. He describes how he becomes ill on his way home, and how a complete stranger, Hanna Schmitz, helps him home. When he is better and able to get out of his home in Bahnhofstrasse, Germany where he lives with his mother, a house-wife, his father, a professor of philosophy, a brother, and a younger sister, he goes and visits Hanna to thank her for her help and realizes that he is physically attracted to her. After he returns one day, Hanna entices him and they start a habit of having sex, and then after a few weeks, she asks him to read aloud to her, he would read literature like, The Lady with the Little Dog, the Odyssey, and other foreign works as Michael was studying different things in school. Despite their personal link, they do not discuss their lives before they met, and Hanna is at times abusive to Michael. Their relationship had become more work than fun, and a growing void in their lives eventually sends Hanna running away. The memory of Hanna ruins all his other relationships with women, including his brief marriage, because he never feels like he truly can please the women. In Part II, after his high school graduation, Michael decides to attend law school, one of his classes requires him to observe a war crimes trial. A group of women who had served as guards at certain concentration camps from the Holocaust are being tried for allowing a huge group of Jewish women who were marching to another camp to die in a fire while they were locked in a church during the night of the march. The fire was caused by a bombing. The reason that these women were on trial was because there were two survivors of the fire. One of the survivors wrote a "tell-all" book. To Michael's shock, Hanna is one of the women. She was on trial because it was her name on the government's report of the fire. At first she denies it, but then admits it because she does not want to give a sample of her handwriting, and this is when Michael realizes that Hanna is illiterate, which is why she always had her read to him, and why she got angry at him while they were on a bicycle trip when he left her a note. Hanna could not read or write, and instead of admitting that and possibly being acquitted, she is sentenced to life in prison, which sends Michael over the edge, and he seriously thinks about telling the judge that she is illiterate. It also comes out during the trial that she made the sick and weak women and children of the camps she was assigned to read to her, instead of working in the camps. Michael cannot figure out why she did this then sent them off to their deaths at the gas chambers. Part III begins when Michael begins to tape record himself while reading books, and then sending them to Hanna in prison. Hanna begins to teach herself to read and write by borrowing the books from the prison library and following the tapes with the book in front of her. She writes to Michael to tell him what she wants him to read, and he does so, but he cannot bring himself to write her letters back. After 18 years, Hanna is about to be released on parole. The Warden of the prison writes to Michael to see if she can stay with him because he is the only one who ever sends Hanna anything. He agrees after a while, and then visits her a week before to tell her of the good news. They say good-bye and on the day of her release when Michael arrives, he is told she hung herself. Michael is heartbroken. Hanna left a letter and in the letter Michael was told to give all her money to the survivor of the church fire. When Michael travels to Boston for a conference for his job, he goes to visit the survivor who wrote the book. The woman refuses to take the savings Hanna had asked Michael to give her. She asks that he do whatever he likes with it, and he suggests giving it to a Jewish charity for combating illiteracy, and she agrees but suggests doing it in Hanna's name. The woman does, however, take the old tin tea box in which Hanna had kept her money, because it reminded her of the one she had when she left for the camps. The novel ends when Michael is visiting Hanna's grave, ten years later, for the first and last time.
As I stated before, it is not until we learn that Hanna is illiterate that we can fully comprehend the title, The Reader. I must admit that before I read this, after finding out that it was set in Post World War II, I thought "the reader" meant a translator or something of that nature, or someone who would read while in the camps to pass the time, but it is called this because Michael was just a reader to Hanna. This novel is mesmerizing and meant for anyone who has an interest in a story filled with love, passion, and surprise endings.
According to reviews such as Susan Whelan, book-reviewer for Suite101.com, this novel is also about "the sense of guilt experienced by the generation of German citizens too young to have participated in the atrocities of the Second World War, but experiencing guilt, shame and anger nonetheless (Whelan online)." I do believe that Michael feels guilty in the book, but I do not believe he feels guilty about not being apart or being able to stop the Holocaust, but he feels guilty about letting Hanna go and not fighting to keep her out of prison. If he had told the Judge that she was illiterate, maybe she would have just gotten in trouble for perjury rather than being blamed for the whole incident. I also believe that Hanna was at fault and deserved to go to prison because she did do nothing to stop the people from dying.
Bernhard Schlink, a very talented writer, has a knack for keeping the reader entertained and their focus on the story. I believe that is a very important characteristic in a writer, and it only gets better with time. This novel was well written, and Schlink did an amazing job using imagery in most of the scenes, while reading you feel as though you are submersed in the story and frantically flip the pages to find out what is happening next.