Entertaining and easy to read, compared to some of the other things I'm struggling with right now. What a breath of fresh air. Read it for: the comedy...moreEntertaining and easy to read, compared to some of the other things I'm struggling with right now. What a breath of fresh air. Read it for: the comedy, the horror, the time travel, the Trafalmadorians, "so it goes," and various repeated images that make waves and wakes throughout the entire book.(less)
**spoiler alert** Although the most obvious main character in Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, is Liesel Meminger, the book thief herself, the pr...more**spoiler alert** Although the most obvious main character in Markus Zusak’s novel, The Book Thief, is Liesel Meminger, the book thief herself, the primary conflict resides with Death, the narrator. He wades through the most triumphant and most harrowing moments of human experience, but despite his exposure to them, he cannot reconcile the polarities inherent in humanity. Human existence plagues Death, but however he tries, however many souls he collects or stories he carries, he cannot understand it. He writes The Book Thief in an attempt to interpret humanity itself. Writing is a way of articulating his thoughts and having them appear to him in the text. He writes this book in an attempt to apprehend the human existence, to organize it, and to rationalize it, and always to prevent himself from being overwhelmed by it.
Death’s final, face-to-face meeting with Liesel Meminger parallels his own explicit confrontation with his own inability to comprehend humanity. When he hands Liesel her own book, she asks, “Could you understand it?” (550). She doesn’t ask if he did, but rather if he can. Her question casts doubt on Death’s very capacity to comprehend her experiences, and, notably, Death doesn’t give her a straight answer. Instead he says,
I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. (550)
Having played an essential role in human drama for so long, Death believes he should know more about the polarities of human experience than little Liesel Meminger. His first impulse is to bestow upon Liesel a response that encompasses such complexity, but such an action would be empty—a reflection of giving Liesel a fragment of a life she has already known intimately and completely—because Death could never tell her more about her own experience than she already knows. As he recognizes his own limited perspective, Death flounders. He wants to justify his own misunderstanding, because however he tries, he cannot judge humanity simply as it is. When it comes to the human race, Death is at complete loss. He craves answers. How humanity can simultaneously be so depraved and yet so noble is beyond him.
These concerns, however, die before they are voiced. Death cannot answer Liesel’s question. Instead of giving her a maxim about the human condition, Death gives her the only response he can. A surprising last line: “I am haunted by humans” (550). Death speaks his last words in the passive voice, revealing his true relationship to humanity: he is prey to its ghosts. The alliteration of the H-sound—like an exhalation—enhances the eerieness invoked by the mere mention of haunting. Having spent his entire career in the collection of souls, Death cannot escape them. They trouble him. They preoccupy him, not only the physical act of carrying them—for throughout the novel he performs this duty with care and even love—but long after he is through with them, humans continue to disturb his peace.
The summer of 1942, for example, consumes Death entirely. World War II claims more lives than Death can handle. He says, “They keep triggering inside me” (309). Human souls shred the core of Death’s being the same way that battle and bullets are doing violence to their own bodies. There is no escape, not for them, from death. Not for Death, from them. Even his regular distraction is corrupted: “There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking” (309). The sky, usually his only solace when he can no longer stand his job, is fabricated, created by the same people he is trying to flee. It, too, is bleeding. Dying. And Death writes himself into the rubble:
And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone. (309)
Death gives each phrase its own line, splitting the sentences, bullet-like, down the page. As evidence of his fracturing resolve, his last two statements aren’t even complete sentences. They are fragments. The colons set the prepositions, which imply obvious dichotomies between the external and internal, apart from the adjectives, which are all nullifications, each beginning with “un-” in a negation of the very thing they describe: Death himself. This last couplet indicates how much humanity upsets Death’s world. The first line is his externality, and Death appears resolute: Separated into three four-syllable chunks by the colon and comma, it reads faster and more fluidly than the one following it. To all inquiring eyes, Death does not falter in his duties. The last line, however, belies his unswerving exterior. The caesura in the second line immediately follows the first iamb—“below”—giving weight to the dark underside of Death, and is followed by a series of iambs staggered by commas, creating the impression of slow, halting footsteps. Even the last word—“undone”—underlines Death’s internal state. Though this word is the last in the passage, Death is far from finished with his work, and this realization leaves him in ruins.
Death’s very language reveals his inability to comprehend the human condition. His descriptions combine images in unusual ways, as if in order to interpret the world, Death must take disparate images and fuse them together in ways that he can begin to understand. Of the surviving humans, which he intentionally attempts to avoid, he says, “now and then, I witness the ones who are left behind, crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise. They have punctured hearts. They have beaten lungs” (5). Though abstractions such as realization, despair, and surprise evoke no specific image, Death casts them like a net, trying to capture a precise emotion. He anchors them, however, with concrete imagery: specters of broken people falling to dust. The metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle—a whole cut into pieces—cements the abstract to the concrete in a complete, tactile picture. Then, to refocus the scene, Death revives a set of dead clichés. He mixes “beating heart” and “punctured lung,” transforming them into “punctured hearts” and “beaten lungs.” He makes these images new, forcing the reader to look closer and reexamine. The unique, almost haphazard combinations of language create new images out of preexisting forms as a way for Death to translate the human world into figures he can comprehend.
Written language in particular is Death’s only way even to begin to understand humanity. His use of the written word is particularly relevant for a number of reasons. First, he is using human language, human grammar, and a human alphabet. Death must use humanity’s own terms to define (that is, understand) it. Second, Death writes because the act of writing corresponds to the act of ordering and of rationalizing (that is, understanding). According to Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Massage, with the birth of the phonetic—written—alphabet, “The line, the continuum … became the organizing principle of life” (44-45). The Book Thief proceeds from beginning to end in a relatively linear fashion. Death segregates it into parts that correspond to the chronological events of the main character’s life and the milestones (that is, books) that define her character. This text orders life, which does not fit neatly onto the page, but the page presents information in such a way that the logical progression (linear, of course) from one thing to another is easily apprehended. McLuhan writes, “For many people rationality has the connotation of uniformity and connectiveness” (45). The written word is uniform and falls into sequence according to set regulations, making it the perfect vehicle for rational thought, for the logical investigation of Death’s confusions. In the same way that Death juxtaposes—a spatial relation—his images so that they inform and form relations between each other, he also spreads four-dimensional events onto two-dimensional space, hoping to see the connections, hoping to understand the world he inhabits.
Like all complex problems, however, Death’s concerns do not fit easily onto two-dimensional space. Even more than the humans that trouble him, Death has trouble with the linear construction of the text because he is fundamentally nonlinear. He says, “A human doesn’t have a heart like mine. The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle” (Zusak 491). Humans, who invented both writing and the book, live only in one direction—forward. Death, however, struggles to contain his thoughts and confusions, which do not move forward but cycle, between the covers of The Book Thief. He keeps giving away the ending, and can’t seem to keep the story in chronological order, because the order is of no importance to a being who can exist in all places at all times at once. He says, “I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me” (243). Here, Death contrasts the act of building, a form of construction that proceeds only in one direction—up—with the cyclical motions of a wheel, which, though always advancing, is at every moment returning back to itself. Death also uses the term “machinations,” implying an intention or an order, an underlying cause-and-effect.
But is there a rationality to the unmerciful chaos?
Despite his attempts, Death cannot discover the reasons, just as he cannot give Liesel an answer when she asks him if he understands. Death gets no answers and can give none. In the summer of ’42, Death looks to God for answers. His explanations and definitions of God are notably absent. Either Death does not know God, and “God” is simply an idea or a word that he borrowed from humanity, or God really does have the power to answer, and doesn’t. The following passage demonstrate how devoid of answers Death is.
God. I always say that name when I think of it. God. Twice, I speak it. (350)
Death only provides the word. He offers no description as to how he says it; he just says it. “God” is powerful enough to hold a line on its own, and it stands stark against the empty, white space surrounding it. In the second line, “it” reveals no answers either. Whether Death is thinking of the shivering souls (not quoted here), the summer of ‘42, or God himself is unclear. Then he says it again, and notes his own articulation, making the utterance more purposeful, more intentional, and perhaps more meaningful, although the meaning remains undisclosed. Death goes on to say, “I say His name in a futile attempt to understand. ‘But it’s not your job to understand.’ That’s me who answers. God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers?” (350). From the first line, Death recognizes that he does not understand. His attempts are unsuccessful. Without an authority to bestow meaning upon him, all he gets are his own fumbling answers. His middle two sentences are simple and blunt, only four words each. They lead into a statement in which Death doesn’t capitalize “he”—previously, when he was addressing God, he spoke the pronoun with a capital H—and a bitter accusation addressed toward the reader—you—that ends with a question.
Death says that every story he carries is an attempt to justify human existence. He calls Liesel’s story “an attempt—an immense leap of an attempt—to prove to [him:] that you, and your human existence, are worth it” (14-15). Death does not mention whether or not the attempt is successful, but given that he uses the same word—“attempt”—to describe his own futile pursuits in understanding, or even apprehending, meaning, it’s not a huge leap to say that Liesel’s story is also a failure. Even as Death writes The Book Thief, stealing Liesel’s preexisting title, to flatten and organize the pandemonium he inhabits, he realizes that rather than receiving answers from an authority (like God), he is providing his own conflicted answers to questions he doesn’t even really understand. It’s all he can do to keep writing—because the attempt is a counterstrike against the threatening disorder—and to keep himself distracted from the terrible truth of his existence. He is condemned to continue staggering through a foreign world he will never understand and to which he will never belong.(less)
These are probably my favorite books. They grapple with philosophy and religion, but make the conflicts accessible and concrete through real, flawed c...moreThese are probably my favorite books. They grapple with philosophy and religion, but make the conflicts accessible and concrete through real, flawed characters and enveloping worlds. These books made me think and feel; they're the kind of books that stick with you and to which you will return many, many times.(less)
This was helpful for figuring out the broad range of references that Eliot makes in his poetry, but only if you're willing to read them both side-by-s...moreThis was helpful for figuring out the broad range of references that Eliot makes in his poetry, but only if you're willing to read them both side-by-side (or to read one, then mark references in the other), which definitely detracts from the experience of reading his poetry.(less)
A quick, entertaining read, but without much intellectual content. These books are catchy... but you can't say much more than that about them. Some of...moreA quick, entertaining read, but without much intellectual content. These books are catchy... but you can't say much more than that about them. Some of the later books are weighed down by fluff and filler, but they're worth borrowing from someone and taking a cursory glance at. A short breakdown:
Book 1. A cute story with a nice balance between the high stakes of good and evil and 6th grade drama. Book 2. My least favorite of the series. Book 3. My favorite of the series. If you have doubts, start with this one; it's nicely paced and hints at darker tones without being overpowered by them. Book 4. The tournament is interesting enough if you like puzzles, but this is a turning point for the books growing longer and more tiresome. The ending made me cry. Book 5. A disappointment filled with too many characters and too much teenage angst. Book 6. The rest of Book 5, with increasingly dark undercurrents, setting the reader up for a fantastically grim finale... Book 7. If Book 2 wasn't so bad, this would be my least favorite. What a disappointment. Full of character inconsistency and not much development or even time spent with them. Rowling protects her characters from the harsh realities of their situation, making Book 7 a terrible let-down, mostly action but with little gratification and a tacked-on epilogue.(less)
Worth perusing just to see if any page jumps out at you. I couldn't tell you what the poem is about, but there are lines that will floor you, lines th...moreWorth perusing just to see if any page jumps out at you. I couldn't tell you what the poem is about, but there are lines that will floor you, lines that you will want to remember and repeat to yourself over and over again.(less)
First, what a great title. Second, this book is full of short stories that make small, perfect lines, and it's worth reading for moments like that. Ta...moreFirst, what a great title. Second, this book is full of short stories that make small, perfect lines, and it's worth reading for moments like that. Take a good look at "After I Was Thrown in a River and Before I Drowned."(less)
An interesting perspective from the very, very small but not inconsequential. However, some of it was a little too abstract for my thirteen-year-old s...moreAn interesting perspective from the very, very small but not inconsequential. However, some of it was a little too abstract for my thirteen-year-old self.(less)
Because A Wrinkle in Time was so good, this one is worth a first-read, but Charles Wallace's jumps in time aren't nearly as compelling as Meg's straig...moreBecause A Wrinkle in Time was so good, this one is worth a first-read, but Charles Wallace's jumps in time aren't nearly as compelling as Meg's straightforward story.(less)
Interesting, but the politics of Oz begin to weigh down the character development. It's worth a look just to see the origins of the Wicked Witch of th...moreInteresting, but the politics of Oz begin to weigh down the character development. It's worth a look just to see the origins of the Wicked Witch of the West, but given the choice between the book and the musical, I'd choose the musical.(less)