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 Quotes in The Book Thief
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Germans loved to burn things. Shops, synagogues, Reichstags, houses, personal items, slain people, and of course, books.
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.
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.
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.
Of all the things to save him.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.