I finished reading my favorite book, The Book Thief, for the third time a few days ago. I first read it in middle school when my English teacher lent me her copy. I read it again freshman year of high school. It was time to study World War II and our English teacher let us choose from a list of about six what book we wanted to read. We weren’t supposed to choose one we had already read but I loved The Book Thief so dearly that I told her I would read two books in the time everyone else read one. I was delighted to have this dense stack of poetry-disguised-as-prose in my hands again.
Now in my final year of college, I have been indulging in it a chapter or two at a time, mostly in lamplit minutes stolen before sleep. I think it has taken me until this third reading to comprehend what exactly The Book Thief is about.
It’s about the power of words.
I used to tell people that the plot of this book didn’t matter to me, that I loved it simply for the heart-wrenching beauty of the words Zusak chooses to describe Max’s hair (“Feathers turned to twigs again.”) or the sky as Liesel looks over the city (“The sky was dripping. Like a tap a child has tried its hardest to turn off but hasn’t quite managed.”) or countless other instances when I had to stop reading and squeeze my eyes shut to soak in the brilliance of the words. But now I see that The Book Thief’s plot and setting and characters are essential to the success of the book. Liesel’s sprouting love affair with words needs to be set against Hitler’s abominable defamation of them. There are few other situations that highlight so clearly the distance between the two uses of words.
This isn’t just a 550-page manifesto about words, though. It is a marvelously crafted novel that draws you into the lives of Hans and Rosa, Liesel and Rudy, Max and Death and all the others. When the tragedies come (as they must in a novel about World War II Germany) you feel the weight of them alongside the characters. But you also feel the love between the characters ringing true and that is what will bring me back for a fourth reading of The Book Thief.
I believe in the power of words, just as Liesel does—words and the books that bind them together.
If you’ve read The Book Thief, what are your thoughts on it?