Thursday, 29 October 2009

Ruminating about reading...

Have you read The Reader by Bernhard Schlink? I saw a copy in Gertrude and Alice’s the other day and bought it on a whim. I haven’t seen the film adaptation, but I do remember hearing how controversial it was, that it humanised the perpertrators of the Holocaust and that Kate Winslet had won an Oscar for her role as Hanna, former SS guard at Auschwitz and the main antagonist of the book. I thought I’d give it a go.

I finished reading it last night just after I hopped off the train. Even though I only ever read it in blocks of 10 or 20 minutes whilst on the bus, train, or walking home, it easily captured my attention and despite the lack of thrilling plotline, (It’s no Millenium Trilogy) the emotional ‘thrill’ (for want of a better word) had me turning the pages at great speed. Then, unexpectedly, tears were pouring down my face, mixing with the snot dribbling from my nose (I have a cold!) and I had to turn on my windscreen wipers (also known as hands and sleeves) super fast in order to finish the last few pages. I must have looked pretty strange.

“A flash flood of emotion was reported to have hit Oxford Street mall in Bondi Junction yesterday evening at approximately 5.47pm. Witnesses claim to have seen a small, pre-loved copy of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader floating at the top of the foam and flotsam. The Weather Bureau states it had no way of predicting this downpour of salty discharge but warn that the phenomenon is not uncommon and many sightings have been reported in the Eastern Suburbs area.”

Schlink describes feelings of shame, confusion and unrequited love in a way that reached deep into my subconscious and wrenched out buried memories from my teenage years. Sure, I have nothing in common with Michael Berg, the story’s protagonist who at 15 begins a love affair with 36 year old Hanna Schmidt, the tram operator with a secret past. Sure, I haven’t experienced the Holocaust and it’s devastating consequences in the way that entire countries and races and subsequent generations have. In fact, that whole part of the story remained strangely detached in my mind. Too lazy to enter the moral discussion? Perhaps I am. But whatever your moral veiwpoint, there's no denying that the way Schlink writes about shame, guilt, confusion and love is powerful and impressive.  

Click here to read a review of The Reader published by The New York Times. I don’t exactly agree with everything written, but it’s an interesting review.
Click here to read an interesting article about the author Bernhard Schlink on The Guardian.

What gripped me as a reader, or ‘the reader’ even, was Hanna’s illiteracy and it’s devastating impact. Now, that’s not giving anything away, I haven’t spoilt the ending for you and perhaps you’ve seen the film anyway or read about the book anyway. If not, go ahead and give it a go. I'd love to know what you think.

Can you imagine not being able to read? I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to. I can’t imagine what life would be like without books. Hanna’s life, and therefore everyone she comes in contact with during the course of her life, are deeply affected by her illiteracy and her consequent shame. What would her life have been like had she learnt to read as a child? I can’t imagine who I would be without the books I have read. I know I had an imagination before I could read, and was curious about the world, but being able to travel all around the universe in the safety and privacy of your own bedroom is something every child should experience.

Would I have a love of adventure, a never ending urge to travel, be as curious and inquisitive had I never read these books as a child?
The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield
The Adventure Series by Enid Blyton
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis

Would I be as mischievous, bossy, confident, impetuous, bold and opinionated had I never read these books as a child? (Some might argue these traits are not complimentary to a lady, I argue otherwise!)
The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary.
The Eloise Books by Kay Thompson
The Naughtiest Girl in School series by Enid Blyton
The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl
The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Would I strive to be as brave and compassionate if I’d never read these books?
The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren
The BFG by Roald Dahl

Would I have survived puberty without every book written by Judy Bloom?!

And that’s just a handful of books I read as a child. I think I’d need a whole new post for books that influenced me as a teenager and as an adult!

I’m not saying that just because Hanna is illiterate that she’s somehow not responsible for her actions in The Reader, not at all. Just that it’s awfully sad.

What books changed you as a child? Tell me about them and I’ll try to read them. I’ve still got loads of growing up to do!


Claire said...

I didn't like that book at all. I read it directly after The Alchemist and I think some of my disdain for the latter rubbed off on the former.

I thought it was way heavy handed.

Charles said...

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

We live in an age of vulnerability. Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews (and others) were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote "Jacob's Courage" to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"

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