Published in Switzerland in 1995, in the USA in 1997, chosen as an Oprah Book Club choice in 1999, and a movie made of the novel, coming out in 2009, The Reader has already had plenty of success. The unabridged audiobook is read by Campbell Scott, who sustains a serious tone all the way through.
It's a short book, and those who don't want any surprised revealed should stop reading this review, although if you have seen the movie trailer, you will already know the main themes. Michael Berg tells the story of an affair he had at the age of 15 in 1958 Germany, with a 36 year old woman, Hanna. They have an intense relationship, and he is obsessed with her, although she dominates him with her personality, despite the fact that she has a menial job as a tramline ticket collector, and he is destined for a successful career in law. He reads to her, and they make love afterwards. Yet she is uncommunicative with him and occasionally hostile. She disappears at the end of the summer.
Eight years later he is a law student, and he finds that she is a defendant at a Nazi war trial, accused to being instrumental in the deaths of a group of Jewish women and children who got locked in a church that was then bombed. The guards refused to unlock the church doors. Hanna was one of those guards. In the course of the trial, he realizes that she is being unfairly blamed for actions performed by others, but that she is still guilty. She is sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. When she is in prison, he sends her recordings of himself reading books.
The Reader is a morally complex book, leaving the reader unsure how much to blame Hanna. She participated in an atrocity, yet she was treated unfairly at her trial. She had an affair with an underage boy, yet he never complained to her, and she made him more confident. Michael did not stand up for Hanna at the trial even though he could have spoken in her defense. He was kind to her when she was in prison, yet he refused to answer her letters.
So The Reader is a book that does not let one settle on a straightforward moral position. Yet the Holocaust is generally used as the prime example of a clearcut moral truth, that the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis was wrong. Nothing in the novel denies this truth, but nevertheless the book does not leave one with a comfortable moral resting point. It raises many questions, especially since Michael's father is a philosophy professor who gives him some advice when Michael goes to him during the trial.
This would be a good book to use in an ethics course, to discuss different philosophical theories about the nature of the good, and one could focus on whether Michael's father gave him good advice. It is a short book, and the plot is both straightforward and mostly linear. It's enjoyable to read even with its dark themes, largely due to the voice of Michael, looking back over his life, leaving the reader to wonder whether his life was ruined by Hanna.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.