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If you are looking for a book that is a fast read and a real page-turner that leaves you craving others to discuss its moral ambiguity with, "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink is a great choice. It was an acclaimed book published in Germany in 1995 and its popularity spiked when it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. The 2008 film adaptation that was nominated for several Academy Awards, with Kate Winslet winning Best Actress for her role as Hanna.
The book is well written and fast-paced, although it is packed with introspection and moral questions. It deserves all the attention it received. If you have a book club looking for a title they haven't yet explored, it is a good choice.
"The Reader" is the story of 15-year-old Michael Berg who has an affair with Hanna, a woman more than twice his age. This part of the story is set in West Germany in 1958. One day she disappears, and he expects to never see her again.
Years later, Michael is attending law school and he runs into her at a trial where she is accused of a Nazi war crime. Michael must then wrestle with the implications of their relationship and whether he owes her anything.
When you first start reading "The Reader," it is easy to think "reading" is a euphemism for sex. Indeed, the beginning of the novel is highly sexual. "Reading," however, is more significant than a euphemism. In fact, Schlink may be making a case for the moral value of literature in society not just because reading is important to the characters, but also because Schlink uses the novel as a vehicle for philosophical and moral exploration.
If you hear "philosophical and moral exploration" and think, "boring," you are underestimating Schlink. He was able to write a page-turner that is also full of introspection. He will make you think, and also keep you reading.
Book Club Discussion
You can see why this book is a great choice for a book club. You should read it with a friend, or at least have a friend handy who is willing to watch the movie so you can discuss the book and film. Some book club discussion questions you may want to mull over as you read the book include:
- When did you understand the significance of the title?
- Is this a love story? Why or why not?
- Do you identify with Hanna and in what way?
- Do you think there is a connection between literacy and morality?
- Michael feels guilt over a variety of things. In what ways, if any, is Michael guilty?