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Book Report: The Book Thief

Your Humble Blogger’s first completed book of 2008 was The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I hadn’t realized that this oddly-named writer of misidentified Young-Adult fiction was the same oddly-named writer of misidentified Young-Adult fiction that wrote I Am the Messenger. I’m not sure why. Probably because I believed that I had heard mention of both of the books in an article of books published as Young Adult fiction that could well have been published as Real Adult fiction, if publishers had Real Adult imprints. Neither book (and there were a few others mentioned in the article, although not The House of the Scorpion, to my dismay). Actually, now that I go back and look at what I wrote about Messenger, it seems clear that it wasnot in the article I am thinking of, but that The Book Thief was, and that I somehow dimly conflated the two books, and then when finally confronted with the existence of two different books, utterly failed to conclude that the conflation in my mind was due to a single author. Or something.

Anyway, the thing about The Book Thief is—you know how at one point Benjamin Rosenbaum sketched out a chart in one of those comment threads with one axis being content-based between the fantastic and the naturalistic (his labels, but not commitments, don’t get too hung up on the labels) and the other axis “dealing with style, on a superficial level, and epistemological orientation on a more fundamental level” between irrealist and realist. And My Gracious Host was having trouble with one of the quadrants, the one labeled Naturalistic Irrealism or Irreal Naturalism. Mr. Rosenbaum describes “a story of some people who live in a house, as narrated by their couch”. The point being that the content of the story is neither implausible or fantastical—it’s not even unfamiliar—but the way the story is told makes it impossible to describe the story as either naturalistic or realistic.

Now, as a Taxonomy of All Narrative, it has its flaws, but then (a) it wasn’t meant to be a Taxonomy of All Narrative, and (2) for a comment on a blog, it’s pretty damned good. The thing that struck me, though, was that after I read that exchange, in which people had some difficulty coming up with books that would easily land in that quadrant, I fairly frequently read books that I think sit there pretty comfortably. Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile seems to deliberately inhabit that neighborhood, almost as if Verlyn Klinkenborg had read the note and thought a couch, no, that’s dumb, but… what about a turtle…

I think The Book Thief is right in there, too. The story it tells is would be called realism as I use the word. It describes in detail the daily lives of unimportant people; they influence nobody but each other, they interact with nobody of any particular importance. They do nothing implausible. Nothing violates the laws of physics, or the history of the period, or a generally current understanding of human characters, motivations and tendencies. It’s a kitchen-sink drama. Narrated by the Angel of Death.

That narration of course colors the entire book. There is nothing about the book that is ordinary or mundane, simply because of how it is told, both in terms of style and more fundamentally in terms of epistemological orientation. It felt like specfic, but wasn’t. I don’t know if some reader who disliked specfic (or thought he did, let’s say he has strongly negative associations with specfic) would find the conceit to skiffy and put the book down partway through. Or not. Angels, somehow, don’t smell like dragons and spaceships, or so it seems. I’m not sure why.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


this book report sucks

YHB was going to reply agreeing with this assessment, but then actually went and read the report, and it turns out to be interesting and insightful. So no, it doesn't suck.

Your turn, meat.


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