The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

As part of my ongoing but occasional series of book reviews, I wanted to share my Goodreads review of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, in slightly revised form.

I wanted to like The Reader by Bernhard Schlink so much more and I think if you approached it as more of a lay reader rather than someone who has studied German history extensively it would be a better read.  Another Goodsread reviewer described this book as a “Buildungsroman” and I wish I could remember who it was because they were spot on.  The plot unfolds along traditional lines. A great deal of time is devoted to the loss of innocence, particularly the narrators sexual education at the hands of an older woman.  We understand why the narrator is so smitten, but the woman, Hanna, remains aloof. I found this off-putting, particularly because the relationship reminded me of something that would be a sensationalist headline in today’s media like “Teacher seduces student.”  I wanted to know her motivation, but was left wanting.  The teaser on the back of the book promises a shocking reveal when the two meet again after a lengthy separation.  For me, even the “surprises” were predictable and that may have taken away some of my enjoyment of The Reader.

That being said, I think there is a lot to recommend in this book. I hope it is not a spoiler to say the relationship between Hanna and the narrator is meant to symbolize larger patterns of German history and an idea of who, if anyone, should be held guilty and responsible for past German crimes. For many people, this slim novel is a good way to open the door to a fuller discussion of morality, government crime, and the idea of who is a perpetrator and who is a bystander and why the distinction matters.  The memory of the Holocaust is an important issue and The Reader considers who is responsible for keeping the memory but also if it is necessary to keep the memory alive and what is the burden of knowledge.

On the other hand, for those already well versed in Holocaust literature and memory, there is not much to be gleaned from the otherwise predictable book.  Gunter Grass, the former Hitler Youth, does a better job of addressing guilt, national character and responsibility and does so in more innovative ways.  It is as if Schlink has bundled those ideas in a sexier more casual reader friendly form.  You could do worse than The Reader, but you could also do better.

Remembering 9/11

A lot has happened in the ten years since terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers. I’ll leave others to ruminate on the long-term changes in society. This is, after all, my blog. I’m going to be selfish and share with you two of the ways I process what happened on that day.

Part I It could have been me.  I used to live in New Jersey. I worked in the purchasing and shipping department of a Fortune 500 company. Because we dealt with hazardous materials, my company paid for me to get certain certifications as part of my job training. I did all my course work at the World Trade Center Institute. On that awful day, other students sat in the same chair I did, but instead of watching boats in the harbor, they watched a plane crash into the building they occupied. Today, I still wonder how they made sense of the inconceivable.  Did they rush down the stairs or for elevators immediately or wait until the true terror of fire and collapsing buildings pressed upon them? Did they make it out alive? Did their teachers? Did my teachers? How did their worlds change when mine continued more or less as it had before?

Part II The Lost.

September 11, 2001 was supposed to by my first day of Graduate school at the Ohio State University. One week later classes began as scheduled but with a notably subdued atmosphere. Students sat nervously in the classrooms, no-one talking about crazy things they did over the summer because it all seemed too trivial.  I faced my first class, a discussion section with 35 students, men and women. I ended class early, then as instructed, asked those students in ROTC, the reserves or the National Guard to stay behind. Three young men did. As I explained the quickly drafted policies regarding what would happen in the unlikely event they were called to service, I saw a range of emotions in their expressions, anger, bravery and a look I’d never seen on anyone before. The fear of dying.

They were good young men, hard workers and leaders in the classroom. One, an Ohio born Muslim-American regularly came to office hours both that quarter and the following when he was once again in my class.  Over time, I became if not a friend exactly, a trusted person in his life.  We talked of his past and his future. He wanted to be a teacher.

The following year, he showed up in my office hours again one day. He’d been called up.

Two years later, as I took a rare chance to indulge in the morning news before my daughter awoke, I learned his unit took heavy casualties. I don’t remember if it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I remember spending the next few days hoping against hope that he was okay. He wasn’t.

When I consider all that was lost on 9/11 and in the subsequent decade, his is the face I see. We lost his dreams, his work ethic, his curious mind and humble demeanor. I try not to think about what was lost too much. It always makes me cry.