Summary of “The Reader”: This powerful book manages to address three fundamental themes: the written word, love and human relations, and it expounds on certain ethical issues, within a historical context (Second World War), through the story of a very unusual encounter.
By Bernhard Schlink, 1996, 242 pages.
Original German title: Der Vorleser
Note: this is a guest review written by Nathalie from the blog, Je comprends l’anglais! (“I understand English”)
Review and Summary of “The Reader”:
This is a review of Berhnard Schlink’s novel, The Reader. I chose to write the review of The Reader because, although it’s a novel, it can really be considered as a practical book. Indeed, through the themes addressed, it provides several keys relating to personal development that can be applied to the concrete problems of existence. These keys can be used concretely, in everyday life.
In order to review the book without revealing the plot, I will go into the main themes that are addressed throughout it by briefly mentioning the characters.
One of the fundamental themes of this novel is the written word, and its title is quite representative of this. In fact, the author, Bernhard Schlink, tells us straight away that reading is the keystone and that the book is the central element of the novel. The book… this small assembly of sheets brought together in a compact volume, however, it’s around the book that everything (or almost everything) is played out in the novel.
Although the encounter between the two main characters is fortuitous, the book coming into their relationship is not. Pretty soon, the book becomes an element that is intrinsically part of their relationship, and reading is a necessary step. This reading routine will be driven by the main female character, who is particularly fond of reading aloud.
Now, here are the main concepts that are covered.
Surprisingly, it is addressed very early on in The Reader, although it is far from being the most represented concept.
Bernhard Schlink presents the main male character of The Reader – Michael Berg – in two forms if I may say: as a teenager-high school student, and as an adult. At the beginning of the book, he operates in his personal environment, namely at home and at school; it turns out that he is bored.
Boredom is often an indicator that what we are doing or what we are being asked to do does not suit us and that there is an urgent need to remedy it. That said, it’s not necessarily because the activity is not interesting. Quite often, it’s enough to just find the right angle, the one that will bring us enthusiasm, which will give rise to motivation; quite often, it’s enough to just find the “why”, the one that will give us wings and allow us to reach our true potential.
Keeping with your values
One of the ways to get out of boredom is to find something that is in keeping with your values and to embark on a project that you care about. Remaining in a situation of profound boredom can be detrimental, both to yourself and those around you. This will eventually erode morale, reduce communication with others, and may even lead to depression. Indeed, living in profound boredom is like eating a tasteless dish every day and with every meal. It’s like seeing everything around you without any color, in black and white. Inevitably, this state will eventually, in turn, drive away the people around you.
Taking on a project in tune with yourself, something with which you are aligned, allows you to find or regain enthusiasm, energy and good spirits, which is infectious and will allow you to meet new people. And these encounters are doubly positive. Not only do you share what you care about with people having good energy and a thirst for learning, and hence develop your skills in that regard, but in addition you also learn a lot from these people. Thus, you create around you a positive and friendly microcosm of sharing.
Helping One Another
One day, in transit, he begins to feel sick. He then finds himself in the street, and it is obvious that he needs help. In our western society where everything goes fast and where we are often (if not always) in a hurry, we no longer pay too much attention to each other on the street or in transit. Because of this, we don’t necessarily see those who are in need. And when we do see them, we often have little time to stop and communicate with them so as to potentially help them out.
That day, a woman named Hanna – the main female character – walks past him and sees that he is unwell. She takes the time to inquire as to what’s wrong with him, and she spontaneously helps him. This encounter will be the catalyst for the story and everything that follows. So, we see that the catalyst for the book is to help one another. The Reader highlights this key concept of mutual support. Indeed, in all areas of our life, we inevitably needed help at some point, and conversely, we offered help to others. Strength in numbers, right? 🙂
Furthermore, everyone knows the famous adage, “God helps those who help themselves”. This is another way of addressing the concept. Indeed, in any business or action that you wish to carry out, you are the first person who holds the key to the success of that business or action, because if, in fact, you do not make the first move, no one else will for you. And along the way, you will inevitably meet people who will help you, and people whom you will help in turn. We see here that helping one another is one of the components to personal development.
This encounter based on helping one another will give rise to a love story, but a love story like you have probably never seen before. I won’t tell you anymore about the plot and invite you to read The Reader to find out everything!
I will just tell you that love is addressed in a number of ways in the book. There is in particular:
- Paternal love, which often finds it difficult to fully reveal itself.
- Passionate love, which will allow you to discover and reveal your true self.
- Selfless love, where one of the partners prefers to give than to receive.
In our daily lives, several forms of love exist. Some friction can emerge within the framework of a romantic relationship, whether within the couple or outside the couple. Some people may look favorably on a romantic relationship, while others may be ashamed of it.
Shame and Isolation
Let’s start by defining shame. There are several definitions; among them, and according to Larousse, shame is the “feeling of having committed an act unworthy of oneself, or fear of having to face the unfavorable judgment of others.”
In The Reader, this definition takes on its full meaning, and affects different characters. This shame is like an anvil placed deep inside yourself, which holds you down and keeps you from flourishing. Contrary to what one might think at first glance, shame is undoubtedly the concept that is the most comprehensively addressed in the book, along with illiteracy.
Isolation is often the consequence of shame. In fact, quite often, shame causes us to remain guarded, to not reveal too much for fear that someone will discover our secret, the burden on our shoulders. Failure to come to terms with our weaknesses pushes us even further into this isolation and places us in a vicious circle from which it is very difficult to get out. Acknowledging and coming to terms with your weaknesses is the first step towards getting out of this isolation.
Before getting into illiteracy, it is very important to make a point of comparison with functional illiteracy because these are two very different, but often confused, concepts.
Functional illiteracy is having learned to read and write but having completely lost the use to do so because the learning was not mastered and put into practice enough. Illiteracy is not knowing how to read or write, never having learned to read and write, or to count. That is a significant difference. In 2014, the newspaper Le Monde reported that in France, “only 1% to 2% of French people are affected by illiteracy, according to INSEE”, and that in 2011, there were 2.5 million functional illiterates from 18 to 65 years old in mainland France, or 7% of the population, still according to INSEE ¹.
The Reader was able to take on this concept of illiteracy in a totally unexpected way. It is almost as if Bernhard Schlink had taken the historical context as an excuse to study the concept. He addressed it by excellently binding the ebullient literacy of one character to the underlying illiteracy of another. Illiteracy is a handicap for millions of people around the world. The Reader shows how it is possible to live despite this handicap but also the limitations and the obstacles which result from it.
An interesting parallel is also drawn on the categories of illiterate people: between those who seemingly had no reason to be illiterate but were, and those who had every reason to become illiterate but did not.
Fate Versus Learning
People with illiteracy tend to believe that it is fate, and one can rather easily understand that. The written world around them is like a world of hieroglyphs that is totally inaccessible, and nothing is done around them to help them change this. In addition, these people have quite often managed to overcome this disability and to ensure that they can live with it. However, illiteracy is not fate. Learning is a lifelong process.
Thus, an illiterate person, with the right tools, the right resources and the right people, will be able to learn to read, write and count and become literate, regardless of age. And I am well placed to be testament to this. In fact, within the framework of my professional activity as an instructor in modern languages, I was confronted with illiteracy and functional illiteracy. I saw that it affected middle-aged people and older, people who are more or less integrated into society in the sense that they had a job. Despite their age, they wanted to learn, and from there, everything is possible.
In a way that is still unusual, The Reader teaches us that it is never too late to improve, develop personally and redeem yourself.
Those committed to personal development know that forgiveness is an essential concept for finding inner peace. The Reader implicitly addresses this concept. Indeed, the historical background of the book is the Second World War, which wreaked havoc both physically and psychologically. It’s interesting to see through the different characters how forgiveness is experienced and granted.
In many literary or cinematographic works, this concept is often addressed through the prism of a religious figure, a figure of morality, a possessor of forgiveness. This is not at all the case in the novel. That said, a guardian figure of morality, or at least embodying morality and justice, appears in the book and will play a key role in the plot’s development.
Resilience and State of Mind
It’s difficult to talk about the Second World War without talking about resilience.
The term “resilience” appeared quite late in France (in the 1990s), while it had already been discussed for a long time in the United States. So, it remains a relatively abstract concept for many people. Therefore, let’s start by giving a simple definition: “in psychology, resilience is the ability to live, to succeed, to develop despite adversity”². Resilience is often discussed in the context of children, although the concept can be applied to people of all ages.
In The Reader, several characters embody the concept of resilience; some more than others, but ultimately, more characters than we might expect. The Second World War caused trauma, which, in some cases, was irrevocable. The survivors had to develop survival and reconstruction mechanisms in order to continue living on.
The characters in the novel also embody hope and the importance of having a good state of mind. Depending on one’s perspective, two different people can see the same exact situation in two different ways. This brings us to the famous glass that is half full or half empty. A pessimistic person will see a half-filled glass as being half empty, while an optimist will see it half full. Everything is a question of state of mind.
The Reader takes on these concepts by emphasizing human relationships, by showing that there is always something positive even in the worst situations; you just need to have the right state of mind, the right mindset to be able to see it and take advantage of it.
Judging. With such a historical context, judgment is inevitably addressed in The Reader. But then again, not like what we might expect. It is addressed in a banal, common way, but at the same time, in a very personal way. Bernhard Schlink manages to do this by highlighting human relationships that were once well established.
At the root of the word, there is the Latin judicare, which means “to pass judgment, to decide, to assess” (ref. CNRTL). These three meanings of the word are found in the book.
On the one hand, there will be an assessment by a large panel of sometimes unexpected characters. On the other hand, the decision. Again, this is not just a unilateral decision; the decision is not only made by the person who is the supposed guarantor of THE decision, other parameters come into play. And finally, the judgment.
In The Reader, the judgment is not the end, it is far from the end… Often when we think of judgment, we think of condemnation; it is true that, in a legal framework, this is often the case. However, there is always an afterward.
In everyday life, judgment is not action, unlike that of the judicial world.
The judge, while pronouncing the sentence, simultaneously acts to condemn. Whereas when we judge someone, there are no direct consequences for the person being judged. But what about the judgment handed?
Just as much as we are, we go through experiences, we have elements in our daily life and in our past which prompt us to do such or such thing, to carry out such or such action, to make such and such choice.
From an external point of view, these choices and their actions can sometimes seem foolish, even bad; we could say to ourselves “it’s wrong”. If we say that, we pass judgment because the adjective “wrong” is based on a judgment. Wrong and right are terms of judgment.
But do we have all the details; all the ins and outs to be able to tell if something is right or wrong? Do we have the whole context to make a judgment? In 99% of cases, we don’t. We do not have all the parameters enabling us to make a well-founded judgment with regard to such and such a person and their actions. For that, it would be necessary to live 24 hours a day with the person, and to know all or a large part of his/her past. This is the reason why, generally, we should be careful not to pass judgment, simply because we do not have all the cards to do so. This is very clearly demonstrated in the novel.
Book critique of “The Reader”:
In his book, The Reader, Bernhard Schlink managed to blend all the more important concepts; without falling into the pitfall of simplistic judgment.
I got to know The Reader very well for having read it several times. First in French because it was not available in English when I wanted to read it and was dying to do so. I bought the French version, I couldn’t wait. Then, as soon as possible, I bought it and read it in English. And I also saw the film, in English of course. And even though I have seen it several times, just like reading the book; it still rekindles so many strong emotions within me.
Personally, it caused me to think more about the issue of abandonment. This theme appears furtively in the book, but it did and still does strongly resonate with me.
I think that The Reader will open you to many essential themes and above all will provide you with concrete examples regarding the key concepts that are addressed throughout it.
I find the book to be of exceptional quality. The plot, the writing, the suspense, the flashbacks… Everything is done so that we become absorbed deep within the story, the relationships and interactions between the characters.
Despite a very difficult historical context, the novel does not immerse us from start to finish in a dark and morbid atmosphere. No, not in the slightest. In my opinion, everything is very well balanced.
- The Reader remarkably gets into the maze of emotions, feelings and human relationships
- It teaches many lessons concerning personal development
- The book subtly blends romance and history
- It’s full of twists and turns
- The Reader doesn’t fall into simplistic judgment and it gives food for thought
- For some, it may not put enough emphasis on the bowels of history, the atrocity of the Second World War.
My rating :
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