The Reader – Book Review

During the weeks of the trial, I felt nothing: my feelings were numbed. -from The Reader, page 100-

It is post-War Germany. Fifteen year old Michael Berg falls ill to hepatitis and meets Hanna, a woman who is more than twice his age. They become lovers. Michael reads to her. Later she disappears, only to resurface as a defendent in a trial – accused of horrific crimes against humanity. Michael remains obsessed with Hanna and later uncovers another of her secrets.

That’s the book, in a nutshell. The problem was I never felt a thing for either Michael nor Hanna, and was never emotionally engaged in their story. Michael narrates this short novel and repeatedly tells us that he feels nothing. Sadly, Schlink left this reader the same way.

Bernhard Schlink’s style is one which tells the story instead of showing it. The courtroom scenes could have been dramatic, emotional, and revealing had Schlink used dialogue to show us what was happening. Instead he simply tells the reader what is going on – a dry recitation of facts which left me oddly detached.

The Reader is a story about illiteracy which falls flat perhaps, in part, because it is paralleled with the horror of the Nazi atrocities. Schlink wants the reader to believe that illiteracy is somehow more appalling than a Nazi guard’s role in the deaths of thousands. It is a rather ludicrous position.

At one point in the novel, Michael tells us about a book written by a concentration camp survivor:

Years later I reread it and discovered that it is the book that creates distance. It does not invite one to identify with it and makes no one sympathetic, neither the mother nor the daughter, nor those who shared their fate in the various camps and finally in Auschwitz and the satellite camp near Cracow. -from The Reader, page 118-

And this was exactly how I felt about The Reader. Unconnected. Distanced from the characters. Unsympathetic toward either of the protagonists.

The Reader was a best seller in the United States and Germany and an Oprah pick, as well as a NYT Most Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. With those kind of credentials, I expected to love it. I did not.

Not recommended.

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    • Trish on August 16, 2008 at 11:51

    I felt the same way, Wendy. I think it is actually also on the 1001 books you must read list. I picked up his newer book recently at a booksale–but I think mostly because I had forgotten about this one.

  1. I couldn’t even finish the book. Here’s my (short) take on it:

  2. I’ve never heard of this book. Thanks for the review – I think I’ll skip it.

    • Laura on August 16, 2008 at 17:01

    Ouch! I’ve seen this at book sales from time to time and now I know not to be tempted. Thanks!

    • Wendy on August 16, 2008 at 19:26

    Trish: Yes it made the 1001 books list too…I just don’t see how it got all the accolades.

    Les: LOL – I read your thoughts. I shouldn’t have wasted four days reading this book…but I kept expecting it to get better.

    Bobbi: You’re welcome 🙂

    Laura: I sometimes feel bad giving negative reviews…but this one deserved it. I usually can find something redeeming to say…not so here and thus a very rare 1.5 stars from me!

  3. I am sorry you didn’t care for this one, Wendy. I guess I must have read it at the perfect time for me because I really loved it.

    • Wendy on August 17, 2008 at 13:10

    WendyCat: You’re not alone – several people have told me they loved this book…it just wasn’t for me, I guess!

    • Jeane on August 18, 2008 at 18:44

    A family member urged me to read this book, but I felt so unmoved by it that as soon as I finished I could remember little of it! I don’t know why people rave about it so.

    • Lori L on August 20, 2008 at 11:47

    Not only did I hate this book, I threw it away. I totally agree with your review. The crimes in this book, to me, were the atrocities committed by Hanna in WWII and her sexual abuse of Michael. To equate either with the horror of illiteracy was absurd.

    • Wendy on August 21, 2008 at 07:40

    Jeane: You and I are in complete agreement.

    Lori: I agree – we are having an interesting discussion of the book on one of my Yahoo book groups and I still don’t understand why anyone really likes this book. I think for me the idea of trying to show sexual love between a 36 year old woman and a 15 year old boy is just too repellent…which is one reason I’ve never been able to read Lolita. I get angry about stuff like this being portrayed as literature (but that said – I certainly grant other readers their right to read this stuff and enjoy it!).

    • Jena on August 21, 2008 at 08:39

    I read this in the days before I would give up on what I was reading, so I struggled to finish it. (It took over a month.) At the time, I thought maybe I was just too inexperienced to appreciate it (I was only 20), but seeing the cover still makes me want to wince, even though I barely remember anything about it except what a drag it was to get from beginning to end.

  4. Wow! I loved this book. I didn’t think it glorified pedophilia at all. I also didn’t think Hanna was a particularly likeable character in any way shape or form. She did many bad things. Despite that, I could still feel sorrow for the fact that perhaps some of these things happened because she was illiterate. Gosh, I get tears in my eyes just feeling unable to express how much I value literacy and essential it is to the development of critical thinking. While not an excuse for Hanna’s behavior at all, it did in some ways illuminate it.

    The thing is, sometimes these things happen. Complicated wrong unhealthy relationships happen and because it happened to Michael at a young age it shaped everything about who he was. he was unable to form healthy attachments after that. He was also unable to let go of Hanna completely. It tormented him and I just don’t think the book took the perspective that it was a good thing.

    Whew….I really loved this book, so I guess I had something to say about it. I will say the movie seemed a bit more interested in the sex of it all. In fact, I wondered if the book was going to be sex scene after sex scene after I saw the movie, and I was so glad it wasn’t.

    I’ve read a lot of other people who felt the same way you did, though.

    • Anna on February 19, 2009 at 06:02

    I think you raise some interesting points. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say much. Would it be okay to link to your review on the book reviews page at War Through the Generations?

    • Wendy on February 19, 2009 at 07:44

    Jena: I am sorry I never responded to your comment! If you are still out there, I agree with you assessment!

    Amy: This may be the first book we completely disagree about *smiles* I’m with you on illiteracy, I just didn’t think Schlink wrote a very good book about it (and it bothered me immensely that he put it on the same level as the Holocaust…I never bought that Hanna’s illiteracy is what made her do the horrible things she did). I think this book tends to polarize people…either they love it or hate it. I’ve seen equal amounts of comments on both sides.

    Anna: I would be flattered if you wanted to link to my review…feel free to do so 🙂

    • Serena on February 20, 2009 at 23:51

    Does anybody not see that by being illiterate, especially in a time when women had very few choices about careers, Hannah’s lot in life was total oppression by the society in which she lived. like a slave under absolute submission to his/her master, any sense of morality would have been early on eliminated from her sensibility as her life (e.g her mind) was never her own. As a young woman she had had no ability to make moral decisions or judgments. Survival was all she could relate to and also probably the only sense of happiness that she ever experienced was her young childhood– before she would have had to know how to read to survive socially; which could be why she felt the strong attraction to youth. I don’t believe the sex was for sex’ sake, but it was, for her (and this might be what is behind the pedophile mentality–though I’m inclined to think that a woman’s attraction to young men is totally different in motivation from a man’s to a young girl–), I think her sexual impulse for him was not predatory, but rather the need for non-judgmental, innocent acceptance and affection, which this innocent youth could give her. Having youth (in particular and especially infirm and weak youth) read to her, she would not have been judged by them and hence she was free from self-loathing and shame which her lack of reading ability had brought her all her adult life. Her actions as a guard were never motivated by evil or hatred, any more than the house slave who is forced to lord over the field slave. He has no moral drive or choice because it’s been whipped out of him. He does what he’s told for survival and then as time goes on survival morphs into duty which, by doing his duty well, brings its own rewards of some fashion, reinforcing some sense of self-worth. This was the only “morality” she knew as an adult. She didn’t open the church door because years of oppressive societal (i.e Nazi) conditioning had resulted in the morality of orderliness vs chaos. The fact that 300 people were dying in the church was not the issue morally for her, because her morality was all messed up because of Nazi (societal) conditioning. It wasn’t the same cowardly “I did what I was told” mentality that was expressed by the other women in the court. She never lied to the judge (as did the other women) but answered all questions without guile, with honesty and even with a sense of innocent confession.

    So, I believe that, while her deeds were evil, her morality and motivation were misguided, similarly to the mentality that is conditioned to believe that genocide is justified for whatever doctrinal reason, if that’s all theyve known. It usually takes a strong moral re-conditioning of some sort that turns someone around who had believed that evil-doing was righteous; which is what happened to her at the end. Her awakening by Michael’s simple question about her thinking about the past resulted in jarring her self-loathing and contrition, hence her desire to give the money to the daughter. Everyone deserves redemption, but so many are hardened to it by over-powering oppressive conditioning.

  5. Serena…very well said. Excellent, excellent.

    • Wendy on February 21, 2009 at 07:14


    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your well-written rebuttal for those of use who did not like this book! I understand the points you are making, but I disagree. I’m not sure you can entirely draw a parallel between the enslavement of African-Americans with Hanna being illiterate – although I will agree that if one cannot read they are significantly limited in society (and many slaves were illiterate too). I would argue, however, that most illiterate slaves did not perform evil acts – in fact, the rich history of African Americans shows a strong moral base even during the periods of slavery despite illiteracy and regular abuse by their captors.

    What is the basis of morality? How does it develop? There are many wonderful studies and articles that deal with this…which would be an article on this blog in and of itself! Being illiterate does not mean that Hanna had no heart in her chest – she stood and watched a church burn with women and children locked inside even though she held the key to save them. This, I think, was less about her being illiterate and more about her being completely embroiled in the Nazi doctrine and afraid to be the only one who would do the right thing.

    Certainly we do not condone (or excuse) the acts of the serial killer because his parents abused him…we acknowledge his horrible childhood and we still convict him of the crimes (and often give him the death penalty). So, although there were reasons Hanna may have acted as she did (and we want to understand them), we should not excuse her actions because of those reasons. Likewise, the terrorists who attacked our nation were misguided in their religious zeal, and yet there are few (if any) of us who would argue that what they did should be excused because they were misguided.

    Lastly, I do not think that an adult woman preying on a child is less than an adult man preying on a child. The damage to the child is no different based on the sex of the abuser. Yes, Hanna had her needs met…and that narcissistic behavior had far reaching (negative) impacts on her victim. I don’t care why she did it. She was the adult; she needed to resist her own selfish needs (wherever they came from) and not do what she did.

    I want to make one final point – although I disagreed with this book’s basic premise, I might have rated it higher (based on how it stimulates discussion) had Schlink been a decent writer. But I thought his writing was dull…poor in fact. He took what could have been compelling (in my opinion) and weighted it down with crappy prose…which was (and is) one of my biggest complaints of the book.

    Thank you for your comments, Serena – although we disagree, I have found this to be a stimulating and interesting discussion!

  6. Wow, I had no idea that there is another Serena reviewing books out on the Internet. Great discussion ladies.

    • Wendy on February 24, 2009 at 07:57

    Serena (Savvy Verse): *laughing* I must admit that I at first thought Serena #1’s comment was from you 🙂 I like when we can get a good discussion going here…and it has remained civil despite the very wide separation of opinion!

  7. I really liked the discussion. Too bad it isn’t me. I have not read nor seen the movie of this book yet, so alas I have nothing to add! 🙂

    • Wendy on February 25, 2009 at 13:18

    Serena: Glad you have enjoyed the discussion (there is also more of this on the Noteworthy News thread). If I had liked the book, I’d recommend you read it…but I can’t really recommend it *laughs*

  8. I laughed when I came across your review because I folded down the exact same pages to make the exact same points!

    However, I was mostly annoyed by Michael’s lack of true introspection and his contentment to blame everyone else, which seems like the easiest road to take:

    • Wendy on April 29, 2009 at 18:44

    30 Great Books: THANK YOU for stopping by. I have gotten so slammed on my position on this book – so it is great to hear from another reader who felt as I did. There was so much I hated about this book, I could have written my own book talking about it *laughs*

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