By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
When I can’t read books, I enjoy listening to them. I am teaching this quarter at three different campuses, and hence, I am forced to be in the car quite a bit, driving the wonderful expressways of Chicago-land, and/or sitting in the seemingly endless, ubiquitous metro road work. Books on CD are my savior; they are my sanity. Instead of just sitting there swearing at other drivers, I can listen to a good book.
During the last seven weeks of the second summer quarter, I have gone through a number of books on CD. I started the quarter listening to Dan Ariely’s Upside of Irrationality. I must admit, I only got about half-way through when I just couldn’t take the recounting of behavioral experiments any longer. I then moved on to Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Roach’s popular science book is filled with fascinating, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hilarious anecdotes about saliva, mastication, the stomach, digestion and much more. I didn’t finish this one either, since there is only so much heavy description I could take. I then moved on to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt is one of the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholars, and this book illustrated why. It is a biographical and social historical literary critique of the bard and his times. Strangely, I attempted to read this book a couple years ago, but just couldn’t get into it. Listening to it was much more enjoyable.
The quarter is now winding down. For my last 4 weeks of travel, I decided to go for something a bit different. Browsing RMU library’s selection of audiobooks, I came upon Markus Zusak’s 2006 best-selling novel The Book Thief, a fictional account of a young German girl struggling to survive during the Nazi dictatorship. I picked it up, and checked it out.
I was not ignorant of this novel. In fact, I actually own a paperback copy of the work, and I have thought many times about reading it. But, I have never gotten around to picking the book up. Honestly, I figured listening to the book may be the best thing to do, since there is no guarantee I would ever actually read the book. You see, novels are usually not at the top of my reading list. I’m a non-fiction reader first and foremost. I would say for every 20 books I read, 1 is a work of fiction. I read a hand-full of novels a year. Would Zusak’s work ever make the list? There were a couple reasons to be dubious.
First, Zusak’s novel is not located with my other books. Most of my books are around me at all times. They are in my living room, in my dining room and at my desk at work. I am constantly looking them over. Often I will base my reading decision upon what book catches my eye. The Book Thief has never caught my eye. It is not in my living room; or my kitchen; or at my desk. It is in my 7 year old daughter’s room.
If you did not know already, The Book Thief is considered, and labelled, as a ‘Children’s book.’ It is ‘adolescent literature.’ And this is the second reason I probably would not be reading the book any time soon. I am not a kid (surprise!). I honestly don’t really want to read a ‘children’s book’ on my free-time, as I read kid’s books all the time with my daughters. I need something more serious; more grown up; more….adult.
However, I had always heard that The Book Thief was wonderful. I had read reviews that it was a powerful, serious novel. The back cover of the book described a plot that did not sound very childish. So, I figured, if I am not ever going to read it, I might as well give it a listen.
A reminder: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover….or it’s genre.
The verdict? 4 CDs through, 9 more to go (please no spoilers) and I am hooked. It is a wonderful novel. Extremely well-written and psychologically complex. The book rings true, both historically and emotionally. I highly recommend it.
But, I am left with one question: Why is this considered a ‘children’s book’?
The book is not light or pleasant. Zusak doesn’t whitewash disturbing facts; he does a wonderful job portraying human behavior during the darkest of times. It is readable, but the prose is by no means childish or simplistic. Why is this ‘for kids’?
Is it simply because the main character is a 9 year old girl, and that we, as readers, are expected to enter her mental world? Do publishers believe that adults don’t remember what it is like to be a child, with all the fun and terror that goes along with it? Do publishers assume that children will only want to read about children, and adults only want to read about adults?
Since I am not a publisher of books, I can’t say. But, as a reader of books, I can say that The Book Thief should be on your, or your children’s, bookshelf.