Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief hurts to read. In the most straightforward way it’s the story of a young German girl and the town that raises her before and during World War Two. It is also the story of the power of words to save people from the insanity of isolation and the power of words to ignite and fuel beliefs that argue for dominance and destruction.
I have had over the course of this latest reading project opportunities to consider why I read, what effects reading has on me and what reading cannot accomplish. The Book Thief adds to this ongoing conversation I’m having with myself about the utility and responsibility of reading by arguing that it is in sharing stories – reading to others; showing others the painful and glorious experiences we’ve had; giving away, stealing and borrowing stories – that something like a common humanity emerges. I know that will sound trite, and perhaps it is, but on finishing The Book Thief I feel, well, simply overwhelmed with a kind of reverence for story-telling. And so if I fall into cliche I do so out of a helplessness for other words that might convey the power of this story in particular, but of stories – for me, at least – entirely.
I need not give anything away about this book – not comments on the at first irritating, but later endearing narrator, nor comments on the unexpected setting; neither comments on the pace of plot or the fully realized characters – because the narrator routinely tells the reader what is coming. And maybe it is this foreknowledge, this preparation, that makes the story so devastating. The recognition as you lie, sobbing your way through the final chapters, that the story, to be true, could only end this way. But that knowing the outcome doesn’t affect the imperative to read and hear the whole story. That you read because you must know not what happened, but how and why. And that the justifications and explanations will never be satisfactory, that you will want to write another, a happier, ending, even while you recognize that a neater ending would be somehow worse.