Why The Book Thief Is A Horrible Book

And a sign that we are doomed.

Reason #1: Because it has lines like this:

In years to come he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer, proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

and this:

“When I recollect her, I see a long list of colors, but it’s the three in which I saw her in the flesh that resonate the most.  Sometimes I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended, until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.”

Blech.  The author uses a unique narrative style that is supposed to be all innovative and such.  It’s really just dumb.  (Hilarious parody here).

Reason #2: Here’s where I get really heated (so please excuse me while I get melodramatic)–

Adding yet another fictitious book or movie about the Nazi Holocaust to the hundreds that already exist is not a good idea, at least not while there is a dearth of works about the other genocides of our time.

Here’s why:

In Constitutional Law class, on of my law school classmates made the following analogy (I forget what it was about):

“Maybe it wouldn’t be like Nazi Germany where, you know, they kill you.  Maybe it would be more like Stalinist Russia, where they just take your property.”

It took me a few moments to retrieve my jaw from off the floor.

In Stalinist Russia they just take your property.

This is what my generation thinks.

This classmate of mine is and was intelligent, educated in fine Catholic schools and a prestigious private university. But our generation, and those that followed, have been fed a steady diet of books and movies like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Diary of Anne Frank, NightSchindler’s List, and (now) The Book Thief.

We have read nothing about the 30+ million people killed in the Bolshevik Revolution.

Nothing about the 40 million killed under Mao Zedong.

Nothing about the horrors under Pol Pot, about the Armenian genocide, and precious little about the horrors occurring in North Korea to this very day.

And here I can’t help but become a bit of a conspiracy theorist and think that we know less about those other atrocities because they were committed by the political left.  Hitler, being on the political right, is a more comfortable target for journalists, moviemakers and writers, a majority of whom (I think) hover left of center.  It’s so dumb to think in those terms, really, because as far as I can see, political ideologies don’t form a straight line so much as a sphere.  The extreme right and extreme left meet in the middle as far as their effect on the unfortunate populations ruled by them.

In our ignorance, we dress our kids in tee-shirts with Chairman Mao’s image on it, and let them frolic around in public, without a care in the world about public condemnation.  (Seriously, I saw this with my own eyes.)

Can you imagine anyone in mainstream America putting their kid in a tee-shirt with Hitler’s image?  No.  Of course not.  God forbid.

A recent survey showed that only 48% of people worldwide under age 35 know about the Nazi Holocaust.  That ignorance is shocking and disturbing and unacceptable.  But if any significant part of that 48% includes moderately to well-educated young people from mainstream America, I’ll make like Mr. Grimwig and eat my head.  Like my Con Law classmate, we know all about the Holocaust and precious little about the rest of history.

I don’t want people reading and writing any less about the Holocaust except insofar as it gives us a myopic sense of the Nazi Holocaust being the one, unique event of its kind.

It’s not not not that I think we should be any less aware of the incomprehensibly horrific Nazi Holocaust.  And certainly, by the numbers, it was the worst or one of the worst ever.  By focusing on it to the exclusion of other genocides, however, we have become over confident.

We (and I’m speaking for my peers here) think we know what evil looks like.  It’s Hitler.  We understand him (or at least we think we do), and we would never make the same mistake Germany did in electing such a monster to power.  We would never turn a blind eye when a certain minority group is targeted.  We would never fall sway to a megalomaniacal demagogue.  We. Know. Better.

But we have no idea about the other “Hitlers” of recent history.  About Mao and Pol Pot and Stalin and the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda and the Congo.

They say those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

We are doomed to repeat it.

(But first I’m linking up with Housewifespice for What We’re Reading Wednesday.  😉

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32 thoughts on “Why The Book Thief Is A Horrible Book

  1. I thought I was going to have to come here and netbattle you about The Book Thief being a sweet little book, but after reading your post, I’ll put aside my battle garb.

    As someone who grew up in Korea, wrote a thesis on the 6 Party Talks and has a book shelf dedicated to “Great Dictators of Asia and Eastern Europe,” I completely agree. Americans aren’t teaching their kids enough about “evils” that aren’t Hitler.

  2. I would recommend the book, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (not to be confused with 50 Shades of Gray, of course!). It’s about a Lithuanian family uprooted by the Soviets in WWII, and marched across Serbia. A young adult novel that gives a different perspective on the atrocities during the Holocaust. I will admit, however, that I enjoyed The Book Thief, which I read about four years ago. I do understand your concern, though, about people being ignorant about all the other tragedy during that time period. And even current events, really! It’s as if mainstream education teaches us that was the only horrible time period that ever happened.

  3. (Hit enter too soon.) The Mao Memorabilia thing bothers me a little bit, too. I mean, I own a Mao watch and a Mao messenger bag but I got them on a trip to China — for thesis research. I don’t wear them in public because I’m cognizant of the fact that a lot of people will think “Ooo communism! Fun!”

  4. Amen.Amen.Amen. It is so sad that people have no knowledge of the many genocides that have occurred in the last hundred years. It’s amazing how Russia gets a pass after murdering millions because her name is Russia again and not “the Soviet Union”.

    • Yeah, I mean, supposedly it’s different once the wall came down and Gorbechev resigned or whatever happened. (I’m woefully woefully ignorant.) But with Russia being so aggressive again it’s like, okay, how much has really changed? I don’t know.

  5. Very interesting article. The book is just not a good book, period.
    I think the strong Jewish artistic community in this country is part of the reason the holocaust is so often a subject of books, movies, etc. It is so relevant to their history.
    I agree that other genocides don’t have the audience they should if we are to understand history fully.

    • Yes, I understand why that holocaust is so relevant to the Jewish community, and it should be. Like you said, it’s sad that so many other people’s histories have been basically wiped out from public consciousness.

  6. I haven’t read that book (and don’t intend to), and while I’m a bit of a WW2 history buff, I agree that there is a bit of a glut of information out there, while other historical atrocities (and even plain ol’ periods) go undocumented/popularized, whathaveyou. I’m primarily a Soviet historian, with some emphasis on the Stalin years, and it galls me that the West knows so little about his reign of Terror, or even how to put it into any kind of perspective. Pulled Russia into the 20th century from the medieval period in the space of 20 years. Did so by wiping out a large percentage of the population through terror, starvation, and sheer idiocy. Helped save the West by holding the Eastern Front against Hitler’s army. Worth it? Hard to say.

    I think the fundamental problem of modern Western thinking is that it is so present-minded. The past does not matter because it does not have anything to do with us (so the thinking goes). I beg to differ, as I think you cannot possibly understand the landscape in which you live without understanding how it got to be that way in the first place. History must rest in our bones, in our stories, in our communities. We must remember what has gone before, not only to prevent its repeat, but to understand the present. The rest of the world understands this very well, and until Americans decide to pull their heads out of the sand and start learning (in a deep “knowing” way) about the events that made the world around them, foreign policy will continue to be a bumbling mash-up of idiocy and posturing, and we will continue to fumble about blindly.

    • I hear you with the ” bumbling mash-up of idiocy and posturing.” . . . . _Does_ the rest of the world have a better understanding of history? I honestly have no idea, although the results of that survey showing so many have no knowledge of the Nazi Holocaust give me some doubts. But perhaps other cultures at least have a better sense of at least their own history?? . . . . I don’t know nearly enough about history, myself, but I know that I don’t know. And I hope that’s good for something. 😉

  7. I haven’t read the book, but I appreciate your comments. I’ve been having some (vague) thoughts lately about the incomplete and blinkered way we learn about and experience history in America, and your post really says it well.

  8. Great points, Laura. I read a book in high school about an Armenian girl’s story during the persecution of the Armenians. There was a quote in the beginning from Hilter, that ended “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”. That made me shudder, as I had not ever heard anything about that genocide before reading the book.

    • Wow, that quote is chilling! But it’s great that you _did_ read the book and learn about the Armenian persecution, even if you didn’t know about it before. I only heard about it last month, myself. :-/

  9. Yes! Between Shades of Grey is an excellent book. Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins in a YA book about the civil war in Burma, not one of the genocides you mention but still a genocide. I never thought about Hitler being from the right as he took away German civilians’ guns. I never thought of the dictators you named as being right or left. Very interesting!

  10. Also, Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a Newbery Honor book for children, if you’re interested. But it’s the only book on that topic that I have ever read.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. . . . I know nothing, nothing about the civil war in Burma. That’s the thing . . . there have been so many atrocities in history, even recent history. It’s not realistic that we should all be knowledgeable about all of them. But we should at least be _aware_ that the Nazi holocaust was not the only one! . . . Cheery thoughts all around.

  11. What an interesting discussion! Haven’t read this book, but my husband grew up with a mom who LOVES WWII-themed stuff, especially the feel-good movies of an older era. She’s not remotely leftist, either–quite the opposite! But she says herself that the reason she loves WWII movies etc. is because as a child during the war she felt like America was this one, united whole, and that after the war all of that fell apart.

    So I wonder if another reason for the glut of WWII stuff is that it’s relatively easy from a fictional sense: the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys, with lines that clearly delineate who was who. As Juliana’s comment above illustrates, it’s harder to do that with some of the other murderous dictators of the 20th century (and into the 21st) because we can’t create the same simple illusion of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys–we worked with and enabled some of the Bad Guys, and ignored the plight of some of the Good Guys, and while there can be lots of finger-pointing about which factions in our society were responsible for these things you can’t just sweep them under the rug.

    • I agree about Good Guys v. Bad Guys being more clear with WWII. Well, except that we were allied with Stalin. We tend to gloss over that part. . . . Maybe that’s why we don’t hear as much about all that he did. . . . Anyway, I enjoy WWII movies and books and such (growing up, I had a “Molly” American Girl doll and read all those books). Also, World War II had a huge effect on the US, as your MIL mentioned. So that’s probably a big reason we hear so much about the Nazi Holocaust. Which makes me wonder–did the Holocaust factor in at all to our decision to enter WWII in Europe? I kind of think it didn’t, but I’m not sure.

  12. Laura,
    Excellent post (gives me less guilt over missing that particular book club meeting)! I’d like to ditto Cindy by saying it is interesting to note that Hitler’s particular holocaust was perpetrated on the Jewish people. It is not unknown that there is a lot of Jewish money involved in Hollywood, and it would behoove those who are bankrolling films to emphasize the (supposedly) unparalleled nature of the Nazi genocide. And what greater injustice can one find than that of being singled out for your race AND your religion?
    I think a better understanding of all the atrocities you mentioned would also give every American both a better understanding of what our Government’s social policies really do mean, and what they lead to. But also, it would give more reactionary groups a better sense of proportion. (i.e. “Oh, my gosh, this kind of obliteration of individual freedoms hasn’t been seen since the Nazis!” would turn into, “Gee, this is starting to look like Russia 8 years ago. We’d better do something.”)
    And yes, history does repeat itself–to often for my taste.

  13. Enjoyed your post! I’ve always thought the same thing (about people not knowing anything about other atrocities in history that were just as horrible as the Holocaust). I read a book called Modern Times by Paul Johnson in a poli sci class at Grove City College, and it was really the first time I had ever heard much about Pol Pot or Mao, or the extent of what Stalin did. And the public schools are even worse nowadays than they were when my (getting very old self) went to them . . . . not a pleasant thought to think of what the future generation will be like. I’m such an optimist, aren’t I? 🙂

  14. Good thoughts. I wonder of the movie is not v. much like the book? It was sorrowful but good. You’re right about the lack of books/movies/knowledge on other wars/dictators/genocides. I can only think of the YA book ‘The Clay Marble’ about Pol Pot (which was well done). Thanks for the reviews!

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