Book Review: The Reader


**Reposted from September 2009–I first wrote this on my previous blog when I read this book shortly after having moved to Germany.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I wasn’t especially excited about reading this book. I had just finished Night and wasn’t really looking for another Holocaust book. In addition, I usually don’t get too excited about books that have been made into movies. But, the selection of English language books at our local Bayreuth bookstore was scant. There is a very small English section with a few bestsellers, such as The DaVinci Code and a couple of Harry Potter books, and some classics, many of which I have either already read or were in the box which I shipped to myself here in Germany and would be receiving any day.

So, I picked up The Reader. As I thumbed through it, I noticed that the chapters were really short, which made it convenient to read in short intervals while I was traveling. Plus, I noticed that it involved a law student observing a trial, so it interested me. And, I hadn’t seen the movie. And, it was written by a law professor.

It turned out to be really good–a thoughtful, provocative novel that provides a unique perspective of the horrific events of the Holocaust. The story is told from the perspective of Michael, a 15-year-old at the beginning of the book when he has a semi-long-term affair with the 30-something Hanna. After the affair ends, Michael next encounters Hanna when he is a law student observing a trial in which Hanna is being prosecuted for war crimes she committed well before her affair with Michael, when she was an SS guard first at Auschwitz and later at a smaller concentration camp near Cracow.

The book deals with issues of shame, guilt, and blame for the Holocaust–for the perpetrators themselves as well as those who simply stood by and did nothing to prevent it. The book raises the issue of how a child, who may have been very young or not even born at the time of World War II, should think about his parents’ generation’s actions or inactions during the Holocaust.

In addition, the book raises the question of how and to what extent low-level guards should be punished for acts that were undertaken pursuant to the orders of superior officers. This is the same issue the U.S. must consider today in deciding whether to prosecute the lower-level officers who violated the law by torturing terror suspects. Should only the high-level officers who ordered the illegal activity be held accountable, or should the low-level soldiers, who were acting on orders, be prosecuted for actions they knew or should have known were illegal? There are obviously significant differences between the Holocaust and the torture issues facing the United States. However, there are also similarities, and this novel provides a framework for considering these issues. The legal policy issues surrounding prosecuting underlings are discussed here.

The Reader is concise, well-written, and not overly emotional despite the romantic story line. It raises issues that are as relevant today as they were in 1965 (when the trial in The Reader took place).

UPDATE March 2018: I have now taught a course for the last five year, which covers the issues raised in this book.  I have sometimes assigned the class to watch the movie, and always encourage them to read the book. It is one of the few books that considers the Holocaust from a legal perspective and the only one I know of that tells the story from the perspective of a law student. Therefore, my hope is that my students can relate to the main character and begin to understand the complexity of the issues raised in the book.

I also assign another book by the same author: Guilt About the Past, which is an excellent short book about the meaning and ramifications of collective guilt.

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