The Book Thief And The Power Of Words
As words turn to ash, so does our ability to be human.
Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, The Book Thief, is a beautiful novel that starts with a somber image. As 9-year-old Liesel Meminger walks with her mother through the graveyard, her 6-year-old brother now resting in his grave, her eyes land on a little black book, “The Grave Digger’s Handbook”, and her life changes forever. While she doesn’t know how to read yet, the book becomes the catalyst that drives her burning desire to learn how to read. Over the next few years in her poverty-stricken childhood in 1940s Germany, she goes on to steal many books. While stealing books may seem tame and inconsequential to you and me, living in this age of high-speed information access, it was certainly a crime for little Liesel Meminger who lived in a time when book burnings were a show of patriotism in Nazi Germany.
This is all fictional, of course. The 9-year-old Liesel Meminger, her mother, her 6-year-old dead brother, the Grave Digger’s handbook, and all the book-stealing. Unfortunately, what isn’t fictional is Nazi Germany during (and before) the second World War, the unthinkable suffering and death of 6 million Jews, the destruction of the world for one man’s thirst for power, all the ‘Heil Hitlering’ and of course, the book burnings. The essayist and poet, Heinrich Heine, born into a family of German Jews, wrote “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.) And burn they did. First the books, then the people.
Hitler’s weapon of choice? Words. It is a well-accepted fact that Hitler was a great orator. He knew how to rile up the passions of an entire nation to achieve his vision of future. He molded an entire nation using his words, every speech firing at the crowd like a machine gun, each word hitting people like a burning bullet. When they burn books, they are not merely taking away books from people. They are taking away words. And in times of crises, words are weapons. Words are the bullets people can use to attack the totalitarians and protect themselves. Mass book burnings, hence, were designed to render a population weaponless that can be gunned down till their wills break.
Considering all this, it is apt that Markus Zusak chose Liesel to be a Book Thief, and not a Gun Thief or a Bomb Thief or a Flamethrower Thief. While Liesel did steal other things, like apples and cookies, it was a stolen book that was always the crown jewel of her heists. I do wonder what Liesel Meminger’s story would be if she never learned to read, if her eyes never landed on the little black book in the graveyard, if her brother never died. For one, she would most certainly be dead. More importantly, though, she would never have the weapon to rebel against the Man With The Short Funny Mustache. She would never be able to read to petrified people stuck in a cold basement to distract them as bombs rained down the unforgiving sky. She would never be able to bond with or console the skinny 24-year-old German Jewish man hiding in her basement. She would never be able to tell her own story. She would never jump into a burning pile of books to steal another one as her hands burned. On the contrary, she would probably be the one joyously burning the books, instead of reading them.
It is Max Vandenburg, the man hiding in Liesel’s basement waiting to be caught and meet his reckoning at any moment, that discovers the power of words. The man who could once punch his way through an argument was now reduced to mere skin and bones. Bones that could break under their own weight. There is one striking scene involving Max Vandenburg in the book that would truly dishearten even the most strong-willed. As Max spends his days in the cold basement, he dreams of fighting Hitler in a boxing ring and almost defeating him, only to watch Hitler use his bullet-like words to rile up the spectating crowd against Max. The passionate crowd climbs into the ring and Max finds himself facing an entire crowd instead of just one man. A perfect allegory of Hitler’s words on Germany. No matter how powerful you are, there is no beating a hypnotized crowd. You can beat one man, but you can’t beat a belligerent wave of faceless people. Perhaps Hitler understood that. He successfully used this to his own advantage. How could people like Max Vandenburg even think of winning? There was no way. No chance. The cards were stacked against them. Max Vandenburg, and countless others, were doomed to a life of hellish suffering. All because of one man’s words. Such is the power of words.
The Book Thief teaches us many things, not the least of which is the power of words and how they can be used to annihilate as well as to heal. Tyrants try to take them away by burning them and rebels fight to protect them with burning hands. As words turn to ash, so does our ability to be human. And only words have the power to bring our humanity back into being. Such is the dichotomy of words. The Book Thief ends with Death telling us, “I am haunted by humans.” And rightfully so. We invented words that we then used to both destroy ourselves and protect ourselves. It is ironic how I would not be able to express my thoughts about the power of words, without words. It seems humanity and the words we invented are forever doomed to be together. Losing one would, in the end, lead to losing the other. I only hope we can understand that before we start burning the books again. Before we start losing what makes us human. As Liesel Meminger writes while concluding her story, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
I hope I have made them right.