“The Book Thief” and taking words for granted

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out, like the rain. (p. 85)” ― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

book thief

My daughter, Ella (age 10), just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I encouraged her to read it and she did this past month and we’ve been talking about it ever since — World War II, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, Liesel and Rudy, Max and what the written word does for a person and a community. It is a marvelous, breathtaking book, beautifully written. It tells an important story, and if you haven’t read it I urge you to do so. It is worth the investment of time and tears.

I read it first, in January, and I’m still not over it. Specifically, I keep coming back to the basic truth that words — and the ideas those words capture — matter.  They matter infinitely.

There have been times and places where books were burned. They were burned because the ideas in them threatened the powers that be. They were burned because powerful people wanted to control the thoughts and ideas, the beliefs and choices of others. In our modern moment we look at those book burnings and decry them and say we would never participate.  And we wouldn’t.

But I wonder: do we really realize the gift we have at our fingertips? Do we realize just how amazing it is to have access via the Internet and eBooks and traditional booksellers to ideas that differ from our own, to stories that offer us a way to see the world and our place in it differently? Or do we just keep reading the stuff that reinforces what we already believe, what we already think? We return over and over again to the pundits and the websites that regurgitate what we want to hear and in so doing we feel that we are not quite so alone. I understand this. I fall prey to it too at times. Perhaps it is an essentially human thing to do, this seeking out of solidarity, no matter where it presents itself.

But I wonder: if we didn’t have this outrageous wealth of ideas from which to pick and choose, if freedom wasn’t ours in the extravagant way it is today, would we, like Liesel, simply grab the first book we could out of the pile of flames, tuck it into our coats at the risk of a beating or death, simply to pour over the words, hold them in our hands, let them change us? Or would we pause at that flaming pile and decide which book to choose based on our entrenched ideology?

I watch Ella process this book, The Book Thief, as she awakens into the breaking dawn of her adolescence, and it is shaping her in matters of the heart and conscience. It is opening her eyes to a world she has to struggle to make sense of, and rightly so. It has ignited passion and given her a vision of heroism in the form of an 11 year old girl, an emaciated Jew and the accordion-playing German who taught them both the meaning of love.

I wondered for a while if Ella was too young to read The Book Thief. Listening to her now, hearing the crack in her voice when she describes the book, I know my answer.


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