Markus Zusak constantly reminds the reader of the importance of language through his writing style. The disjointed narration, postmodern style (the starred, bold-faced interjections), and poetic phrasing emphasize the words used to tell the story, to the point that the reader is never allowed to sink unconsciously into the plot. There are also many reminders of language within the novel's action – Liesel and Hans write on the back of sandpaper, the newspaper becomes imprinted against Hans's skin, and Liesel, Hans, and Max paint words in the basement. In the end Zusak gives language itself (like Death) as much physicality and agency as any character.
Like many novels about oppressive regimes, much of the story's evil comes in the form of propaganda and the suppression of free language, like the book burnings of the Nazis. Max Vandenburg's story The Word Shaker condenses Zusak's ideas about the power of words – in the story Hitler is someone who uses language for evil purposes, while Liesel, who loves language purely, is able to resist Hitler through reading and writing her own words. With them she creates a shelter for herself and Max to protect them from the cruel world. The last lines of Liesel's own book (The Book Thief) sum it up – "I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right." She must take the language of the Führer and turn it to good.
Words and Language ThemeTracker
Words and Language 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.
Papa would say a word and the girl would have to spell it aloud and then paint it on the wall, as long as she got it right. After a month, the wall was recoated. A fresh cement page.
The day of the announcement, Papa was lucky enough to have some work. On his way home, he picked up a discarded newspaper… and slipped it beneath his shirt. By the time he made it home and removed it, his sweat had drawn the ink onto his skin. The paper landed on the table, but the news was stapled to his chest. A tattoo…
"What does it say?" Liesel asked him…
"'Hitler takes Poland,'" he answered, and Hans Hubermann slumped into a chair.
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.
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.
Liesel, however, did not buckle. She sprayed her words directly into the woman's eyes.
"You and your husband. Sitting up here." Now she became spiteful. More spiteful and evil than she thought herself capable.
The injury of words.
Yes, the brutality of words.
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.
Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born. I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks. I listened to their last, gasping cries. Their vanishing words… I watched the sky as it turned from silver to gray to the color of rain. Even the clouds were trying to get away.
Sometimes I imagined how everything looked above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.
They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.
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.