The Book Thief

The Book Thief

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Themes and Colors
Death Theme Icon
Words and Language Theme Icon
Books Theme Icon
Stealing and Giving Theme Icon
Color, Beauty, and Ugliness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Book Thief, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Books Theme Icon

Related to words and language is the theme of books, which begins even in the novel's title. Books as objects play major roles in the plot, and the story itself is divided among the different books Liesel steals or is given. The Nazi book-burning is a central plot point, and represents the suppression of free speech but also an acknowledgement of the power of books themselves – Hitler fears books that contradict his propaganda. Liesel is able to fight Hitler in a small way by stealing a book from the flames. Ilsa Hermann's library later becomes a haven for Liesel because of the many books it holds.

Books are almost quasi-characters in the novel as well. The Grave Digger's Handbook starts Liesel's journey, The Shoulder Shrug burns against her chest, and Liesel rips up some of Frau Hermann's books in her despair. Mein Kampf (The book written by Hitler) is a destructive book because of its Nazi propaganda, but Max Vandenburg's copy contains the identification card that saves his life. Later Max is able to paint over the pages of Mein Kampf and write a story for Liesel, and in this way he is able to get some revenge on Hitler by writing over the evil words with his own creative, compassionate language. Liesel's own book, The Book Thief, saves her life both literally and figuratively. It keeps her in the basement during the final bombing, and writing it gives her a way to process all the suffering she has seen and experienced. By trying to make her language "right" she is able to gain a little bit of control over her terrifying world.

Books ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Books appears in each chapter of The Book Thief. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Books Quotes in The Book Thief

Below you will find the important quotes in The Book Thief related to the theme of Books.
Prologue: The Flag Quotes

Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

In this unusual prologue, we're introduced to Death, ostensibly the storyteller behind the book we're about to read. Death isn't the fearsome, chilling figure we might expect--instead, he's thoughtful and oddly human. Death isn't so much an executioner as a historian; his job is to remember and try to relate to the people he's witnessed dying. The book we're about to read, we're told, is about a young woman whose story somehow proves that human existence is "worth it."

What does it mean for existence to be "worth it," especially if it must end in death? The protagonist of this novel will try to find meaning in her life, even as the threat of death--not just death, but annihilation by the Nazis--becomes stronger and stronger. Death seems to admire the people who try hardest to fight him, or whose stories prove that life is valuable even in the face of its inevitable end.


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Part 1: Growing Up a Saumensch Quotes

All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.
When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger, Max Vandenburg
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Death continues to narrate the story, foreshadowing many of the key events in the novel. The protagonist, Liesel, is a lover of books and words in general, and has come to find language a matter of life and death-iwords mean "everything" to her.

The story we're about to hear, Death suggests, isn't just about the life of Liesel. It's also about how Liesel comes to recognize that books and words are central to her existence. Furthermore, the passage complicates the question of who, exactly, is telling this story. Death seems to be the narrator, but here it's suggested that Liesel ends up writing her own story--has she assumed the guise of death in order to tell the story of her own life?

Part 1: The Other Side of Sandpaper Quotes

As for the girl, there was a sudden desire to read it that she didn't even attempt to understand. On some level, perhaps she wanted to make sure her brother was buried right. Whatever the reason, her hunger to read that book was as intense as any ten-year-old human could experience.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, we meet Liesel as she first embarks on a long career of reading. Liesel has just witnessed the death of her brother; soon afterwards, she finds a book called The Grave Digger's Handbook, which she shows to her adopted father, Hans. Hans will go on to teach Liesel how to read books of all kinds, but here Liesel feels her first powerful desire to learn how to read.

Why the urgency of learning to read? The fact that Liesel feels such a desire after her brother's death (and after she's sent to live with new parents) suggests that Liesel sees reading as a way of understanding the mysteries of life: even if she can't control her own destiny, she can at least understood books. Furthermore, the proximity of death (grave-digging) and literature suggests that literature might represent a way to cheat or transcend death--one of the key ideas of the novel.

Part 2: A Girl Made of Darkness Quotes

You see, people may tell you that Nazi Germany was built on anti-Semitism, a somewhat overzealous leader, and a nation of hate-fed bigots, but it would all have come to nothing had the Germans not loved one particular activity:
To burn.
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books.

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

As Death narrates the story of Liesel's life, his narration becomes more sober and adult. Liesel is growing up in the time of Hitler and the Nazis, and Death often comments on the horrors of the Holocaust. For now, though, Death makes a series of comments about why, exactly, the Nazis were so successful in Germany. Death's explanation is that the Nazis appealed to an innate desire in the German population--the desire to burn things.

What's so innate about the desire to burn? Perhaps burning is meant to represent the destructive impulse in all human beings: all humans have the potential to destroy, and to enjoy their own acts of destruction. It's not just the Germans who love to burn things, then--it's all humanity.

Part 2: 100 Percent Pure German Sweat Quotes

Although something inside told her that this was a crime – after all, her three books were the most precious items she owned – she was compelled to see the thing lit. She couldn't help it. I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that's where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Liesel and the other people in her community participate in a book-burning. Book burnings were a fixture of early Fascist politics in Germany: Hitler commended the German people for destroying so-called "subversive" literature by Jews and communists. Disturbingly, everybody in the chapter--including Liesel--seems to be enjoying the book-burning.

The passage ties in with Death's earlier comments about humanity's natural propensity for destruction. Ironically, Death is the calm, peaceful character in this novel, and humans are the volatile, often brutal ones. Liesel loves to read, and she has a lot of respect for language--and yet even Liesel has the destructive "spark" inside her: she's a human being.

Part 3: The Mayor's Library Quotes

Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, the mayor's wife introduces Liesel to her library--a place where hundreds of books are displayed on the wall in all their glory. Liesel has seen plenty of books before, but she's never seen so many in one place, other than at book burnings. Here, books are celebrated for their beauty and wisdom--the library is like a church, comforting Liesel in a time of need.

The fact that Liesel is so appreciative of the mayor's wife's library suggests that, in spite of her potential for destructive impulses (as noted by Death previously), she's a gentle, wise person. Liesel knows how to respect beauty, and she understands the importance of protecting words and stories of all kinds.

Part 3: The Struggler, Continued Quotes

For most of the journey, he made his way through the book, trying never to look up.
The words lolled about in his mouth as he read them.
Strangely, as he turned the pages and progressed through the chapters, it was only two words he ever tasted.
Mein Kampf. My struggle –
The title, over and over again, as the train prattled on, from one German town to the next.
Mein Kampf.
Of all the things to save him.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Max Vandenburg
Related Symbols: Mein Kampf
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the most darkly humorous passages in the novel, Max Vandenburg, a young Jewish man, escapes from the Nazis by carrying around a copy of Mein Kampf. Mein Kampf was Hitler's most famous book--a long, rambling story about his economic and political theories, which was practically required reading for Nazis during the 1930s. Max's friend Walter has arranged for Max to receive train tickets and keys, hidden inside a copy of Hitler's book. Death stops to note the beautiful irony here: Hitler's writings, in which he condemns the Jews in the most withering terms, are being used to save a Jew's life.

The passage is a great, literal example of the power of language and books. Even if Mein Kampf itself is an evil, racist book, Death suggests that the fact that it is a book, in and of itself, has helped rescue Max from Nazi persecution. In the novel, books--even Mein Kampf--are powerful things, to be used for either good or evil.

Part 4: Pages from the Basement Quotes

During that week, Max had cut out a collection of pages from Mein Kampf and painted over them in white… When they were all dry, the hard part began… he formulated the words in his head till he could recount them without error. Only then, on the paper that had bubbled and humped under the stress of drying paint, did he begin to write the story.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Max Vandenburg
Related Symbols: Mein Kampf
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Max takes his copy of Mein Kampf and paints over the pages, rewriting it with a new, gentler set of words. He paints over the pages of the book--much like Liesel and Hans painting over the walls they'd covered in words--and then he proceeds to write his own story.

The message here is clear: Max is dealing with a horrible, hateful book by Adolf Hitler, and yet he uses the power of language to cancel out Hitler's words and replace them with something better. Language gives Max incredible power: he "defeats" hateful speech, albeit within the confines of one copy of Mein Kampf. Max's victory, then, is small but important: he proves that Hitler isn't a God; he's just a man, whose hateful words can be replaced with beauty and art.

Part 5: The Whistler and the Shoes Quotes

He laughed. "Good night, book thief."
It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn't hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we're both aware, she'd stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Rudy Steiner (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Rudy is by now well aware that Liesel steals books form Ilsa's library. He seems to understand that Liesel steals these books because of her love for literature, and because she wants to prove to herself that she's adult enough to take matters into her own hands, whether or not Ilsa Hermann allows her in the library.

The passage is interesting because it suggests that words become most "real" when two people share them. Ilsa had already stolen several books, but strangely, it's not until Rudy gives her the title "Book Thief" that she begins to think of herself as one.

Part 7: The Sky Stealer Quotes

She didn't dare look up, but she could feel their frightened eyes hanging on to her as she hauled the words in and breathed them out. A voice played the notes inside her. This, it said, is your accordion.
The sound of the turning page carved them in half.
Liesel read on.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Related Symbols: The Accordion
Page Number: 381
Explanation and Analysis:

During an air raid, the people of Himmel Street are gathered underground in the air raid shelter. In the frightened silence, Liesel reads a book aloud to comfort the people around her--just like Hans would play his accordion to comfort Liesel herself. Liesel has grown a great deal over the course of the novel: when we first met her, she was frightened and just beginning to learn how to read--now, though, she's mastered the art of reading, and by the same token, she's learned how to take care of herself and others.

The passage confirms the relationship between literature and wisdom. Learning to read isn't just a useful skill--it's a way for human beings to take control over their own lives and maintain a sense of peace and calm. Literature has a function similar to that of music: it calms people in their times of need--here, for instance, it calms others during the threat of a bombing.

Part 8: The Hidden Sketchbook Quotes

Yes, the Führer decided that he would rule the world with words. "I will never fire a gun," he devised. "I will not have to."

Related Characters: Death (speaker)
Page Number: 445
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to Adolf Hitler, or rather a fictionalized version of him, as presented by Death (who is retelling a story Max has written for Liesel). In the story, Max emphasizes that Adolf Hitler's great power was the power of language: long before he became the Fuhrer, he decided that he'd never fire a gun, preferring to use words like bullets. Sure enough, Hitler used his oratorical might to inspire Nazis and others to fight for him.

There's nothing inherently good or evil about language--it's just a "neutral multiplier" of the speaker's intentions. A good person like Liesel can use words to extend her goodness to other people--but by the same token, an evil man like Hitler can, and did, use language to extend his evil ideas and cause real harm.

The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest. One such word shaker was a small, skinny girl. She was renowned as the best word shaker of her region because she knew how powerless a person could be WITHOUT words.
That's why she could climb higher than anyone else. She had desire. She was hungry for them.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 446
Explanation and Analysis:

This section comes from Max's sketchbook, which he has left behind for Liesel, and which Death now summarizes for us. A word shaker, in Max's story, is a person who uses the power of language, either for good or for evil (Hitler is the first one mentioned in the story). The girl in this passage--clearly Liesel herself--is adept at using language to help other people, precisely because she remembers a time when she didn't know how to use language at all (at the beginning of the novel, she couldn't read).

Liesel's power to do good is directly tied to her linguistic abilities. She feels a sincere desire to extend her aid to others--even if they're Jews or other so-called "undesirables." As we've already seen, Liesel knows how to use books and words to provide comfort and support to other people.

Part 9: The Snows of Stalingrad Quotes

The brother shivers.
The woman weeps.
And the girl goes on reading, for that's why she's there, and it feels good to be good for something in the aftermath of the snows of Stalingrad.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Frau Holtzapfel, Michael Holtzapfel
Page Number: 471
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving chapter, Liesel goes to read for Frau Holtzapfel and her son Michael, who's recently retuned from Stalingrad. Stalingrad was the site of one of the longest and most wretched battles of World War II, during which hundreds of thousands of Russian and German soldiers died in the fighting and the cold. Michael has returned from Stalingrad alive but severely injured, and his brother had his legs blown off and died. In the face of this tragedy, Liesel goes on reading to Michael and his mother. Death explains that Liesel continues to read because it feels good to be doing something, particularly something positive for others, when surrounded by so much horror. By reading, even during the saddest hours of World War II, Liesel asserts the power of language--but also the power of optimism and cooperation. In doing so, she brings happiness, or at least a measure of comfort, to the Holtzapfels; a powerful reminder of the good that language can do when placed in the right hands.

Part 10: Ilsa Hermann's Little Black Book Quotes

The sun stirs the earth. Around and around, it stirs us, like stew
On Munich Street, she remembered the events of the previous week there. She saw the Jews coming down the road, their streams and numbers and pain. She decided there was a word missing from her quote.
The world is an ugly stew, she thought.
It's so ugly I can't stand it.

Related Characters: Liesel Meminger (speaker), Death (speaker)
Page Number: 519
Explanation and Analysis:

As World War II and the Holocaust go on, Liesel becomes increasingly disillusioned with the human race. She sees everything that humans are capable of: the murders that they commit, the innocent people they torture, etc. Liesel isn't sure how to comprehend so much brutality. In the end, she thinks of a book she read, in which the author described the world as a stew. Liesel amends the text and describes the world as an "ugly" stew--a horrible mishmash of ugliness and evil.

Liesel has a way with words, and in her time of emotional crisis, words again allow her to make sense of the world--even if this just means describing it in all its horror. Liesel seems to be losing her faith in humanity, and therefore her faith in life--a faith that's previously led to her to provide comfort to the lonely and suffering.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.
Then a chapter.
Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn't be any of this. Without words, the Führer was nothing…
What good were the words?

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 521
Explanation and Analysis:

There's no reason why words have to be good--and in this passage, Liesel realizes the truth about words in the most disillusioning way imaginable. At the height of World War II, Liesel sees the evil that words have wrought everywhere around her. Even Hitler, she knows, used words to manipulate people into enacting his evil ideas. Words, she concludes, are too dangerous to be worth it--they end up hurting people more than they help people.

It's a mark of how depressed and resentful Liesel has become that she's about to turn her back on books--the very things that have given her so much pleasure and joy in life. In her misery, Liesel (perhaps understandably) forgets about all the good that books are capable of achieving--the people they're capable of inspiring and the lives they're capable of improving, including Liesel's own.

Epilogue: The Handover Man Quotes

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn't already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.

Related Characters: Death (speaker), Liesel Meminger
Page Number: 550
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel ends, Death confronts the same paradoxes that he and the other characters have been confronting throughout the novel. How is it possible, he wonders, that human beings are capable of incredible evil, but also incredible acts of selflessness and kindness? While Death doesn't provide an answer to his question, he decides to simply accept this reality for what it is (to just "estimate" it): it's possible in the same sense that it's possible for words to be used for moral and immoral purposes. A word is nothing by itself--just a sound, or a few scratches on a piece of paper. But when words are moved around and manipulated for a cause, they can achieve anything, right or wrong. The same is true of human beings. Human nature is a complex thing, neither entirely good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Death, despite his immortality, is still fascinated and perplexed by these contradictions. It's because Death fails to understand humanity that he continues to study humans closely--especially humans like Liesel who embrace the power of life and language in all its ambiguity.