Afterthoughts on The Reader

I finished reading The Reader. I didn’t like it.

Der Vorleser

In case you have troubles reading it, let me spell it out for you: M – E – H

As I mentioned previously, I was well aware that the book had more to it than a provocative relationship. I was actually looking forward to those more in-depth parts. However, once I arrived there I found myself yearning for the shallow, provocative parts. The book quickly turns into a discussion on how to deal with the guilt of Nazi crimes in Germany. The trick the author used is adding another element to the mix – Analphabetism. In case you didn’t knew (spoiler I guess), the woman from the initial relationship turns out to have been a guard in a concentration camp. On top of it, she is also an Analphabet. But she keeps this fact secret. She is being accused of having committed crimes during her work in the concentration camp and she is put on trial. While generally guilty, during the trial she is being accused of additional crimes she didn’t quite commit. She has the opportunity to lessen her punishment by admitting she is an Analphabet. She chooses not to. The protagonist is in the audience of the trial and is struggling with the dilemma of whether to intervene or not.

I found that scenario quite problematic. Many people already criticized that it trivializes the crimes of Nazi Germany by presenting Analphabetism as something of equal weight. While I wouldn’t go that far I do agree that it’s a valid point. More fundamentally I find the problem of Analphabetism horribly obscure and irrelevant. Only a minuscule percentage of people really struggle with it and there are ways to cope with it so it’s REALLY not that big of a deal. The author should have understood that especially people, who read books would have a difficult time to relate.

Which leads me to the core problem of the book: the whole story is awfully contrived and artificial. I know there is shame associated with Analphabetism but no sane person would willfully go to prison just to keep their dignity. How is being accused of being a mass murderer dignified anyway? The book doesn’t even do any serious attempts at making that decision plausible. The shame is never discussed or addressed. To add insult to injury, the secret does come out in the prison in the end and the woman manages to learn to read after all. So what was the big deal about in the first place?

The only acceptable way to read this is as a metaphor. The Analphabetism could be understood as the woman’s inability to comprehend the morality of her actions. That’s why she learns to read in prison and that’s why she (spolier) commits suicide after she learns to read.

But that’s a dishonest way to treat the characters in a novel. Instead of describing them as real people they are being objectified to act as symbols in a high-level ethic argument. While the argument might succeed, the characters lose all humanity in the process. This in turn undermines the fundament of the argument. How can the book be about guilt if there are no true people in it?

There is one aspect that did strike a chord with me but I want to discuss that in another post. Until then, The Reader left a stale aftertaste. The story is artificial and contrived. The topics are tedious to relate to. It’s like one of those books I remember being tortured with when I was back in High School. I’m like the woman in the book only chronologically reversed. Back then I though it was my fault I couldn’t relate. I was a young and dumb after all. Now that I’m older and only slightly less dumb I have a different perspective. It wasn’t my fault after all. It was the damn books.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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