Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Review and Experience of The Book Thief

The Experience
Today I finished The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. In all my years of reading, my only memory of being moved to sobbing like this from a book or story way was caused by James Hurst's The Scarlet Ibis in 8th or 9th grade.

My wife was worried about me. My little daughter walked in and saw me in the aftermath of Himmel Street's destruction, and was concerned, but said nothing. They wonder why, and I have an answer. But how can I express it?

I imagine the questions. Or rather, I've heard the questions, and imagine the answers, if any askers ever had enough patience to hear them. The Question: Why read such things if they affect you in these ways?

Why indeed?

Because, my child, my wife, my neighbor, my friend... I am but a human, and being human, by definition, means being alone. We are all islands of Body cursed with the ability to see beyond ourselves, but never be beyond ourselves. This causes feelings of desire, want, hunger, jealously, ambition. We are plagued by our emotions, and they drive what we become. This happens to us all. But it happens to each of us alone.

If we were all as self-contained as our Bodies and Emotions would have us believe, we would never be able to share or express what we want, what we feel. We would instead go day to day doing what the powers that be make us think is the "right" thing to do. Enlist. Educate. Graduate. Employ. Marry. Procreate. Provide. Rinse. Repeat. Most of us are stuck in such a state, and I imagine most such folks are locked in some self-perpetuating cycle of confusion about why they might have landed in their particular life. More often than not, they bemoan it. Enter the existentialists.

It is for this reason that I believe there could never be such a thing as a true atheist. Who could imagine, let alone accept, that this is all there is to our lives? But I digress.

Maybe I'm alone in my answer to the Question, but I suspect not. The Answer: the reason I subject myself to such artisticly inspired depths and heights of emotion is because I refuse to be an island. I may not ever be able to be anything other than what sits in the chair as I write, but I can certainly reach and try to experience what else is here, what else has happened. Because I am certain to feel love, and desire, and loss, and when I do, I want to know what it looks like from the outside. I want to be able to recognize the smell of an experience when it comes my way. I want validation that those events that hurt and excite me are worth the trouble. I want to see someone else suffer, and love, and fail. I want to see how others deal with the tragedy and confusion of enduring the unendurable. I want to see it all because it will happen to me, and when it does, I want to be ready.

To refuse to acknowledge the experiences of others, shared through art, is to limit one's own human experience, and condemn oneself to being truly alone in an already lonesome existence.

So when I lay in bed sobbing over Liesel Meminger's loss, do not have pity for me; do not worry for me. Celebrate and recognize the bridge I've made, or rather, that I've found from my lonesome island to someone else's, in this case Zusak's. See that when I discover and cross such a bridge, I do so with every other person this novel has touched, and in this way, we all rise above the ocean that separates us. And know that for a moment, when the words on the page become more than dried ink on processed wood pulp, the story before me is transformed into real emotion handed directly from author to reader, and all I had to to was reach out and accept it.

Why, oh why, would anyone deny themselves such a gift?

The Review
The Book Thief is a beautiful novel, and true to its cover review, it will be life changing. It isn't an easy read, and though I know it's being assigned as middle school reading, it isn't for the unseasoned soul. Being narrated by Death, it becomes two stories, each intertwined with and dependent on the other. Though set in a familiar place for stories of love and tragedy, this is entirely new, and told in an entirely different way. It's not really possible to describe the novel beyond the characters and plot, because such a description doesn't even begin to say what the story is about.

If every other decent and common story you've ever read was a hamburger, you'd have a wide variety available. Most would equate themselves to McDonald's hamburgers, which are hardly hamburgers to begin with. The Book Thief, by comparison, is akin to the juiciest bar burger you've ever had the pleasure of biting into. It's thick and messy. It has lots of everything else you've ever had on all your other burgers, but something new too. There's a flavor you've never tasted, and it's almost too spicy to endure, but its addition to the whole makes this meal greater than any stack of meat and bread you've ever seen. This book demands to be read, and demands to be finished. In truth, you don't actually read this novel, you experience it. You let it in and offer it your chair. And though much of it is ugly and unpleasant, every page contributes to one of the most satisfying book experiences I can ever remember having.

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