The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York, Vintage, 1998)

After a long, long time of reading, certainly, but reading snippets and slashes, feasting on morsels of information/arguments – so many arguments – chosen by others, unfolding in an endless scroll, I am reading books again.

Appropriately, the second book since this return is one I first read many years ago: Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, published in 1995. What struck me this time around was how strange, in the best possible way this novel is despite its massive commercial success, both in Europe and the United States and elsewhere. (The same success that makes me hesitate to even write on the book at all: it was selected as a favourite on Oprah’s Book Club).

Something about the depiction of the central character, Michael Berg, struck me as incredibly true, so honest; the way Schlink evokes his silence and apparent indifference, but decades-long devotion to this woman he had loved as a teenager. Reading the novel the dominant impression you get of this man is that he has no feeling, he seems callous to the point of indifference (when, for example, Hanna Schmitz is sentenced). But still, he makes cassettes for her – reading aloud – for her to listen to while she is in jail, for years with no messages included in the packages he sends.

I never made a personal remark on the tapes, never asked after Hanna, never told her anything about myself. I read out the title, the name of the author and the text. When the text was finished, I waited a moment, closed the book and pressed the stop button.

It is the combination of the repeated act and the way that it is presented that conveys the power of the unspoken commitment. In contrast, Hanna's responses have a wonderful spontaneity about them, as she responds to the authors as if they were still alive: 'There were always only a few lines, a thank you, a wish to hear more of a particular author or to hear no more, a comment on an author or a poem or a story or a character in a novel, an observation about prison.'

‘The forsythia is already in flower in the yard’ or ‘I like the fact that there have been so many storms this summer’ or ‘From my window I can see the birds flocking to fly south’ - often it was Hanna’s note that made me pay attention to the forsythia, the summer storms, or the flocks of birds. Her remarks about literature often landed astonishingly on the mark, ‘Schnitzler barks, Stefan Zweig is a dead dog’ or ‘Keller needs a woman’ or ‘Goethe’s poems are like tiny paintings in beautiful frames’ or ‘Lenz must write on a typewriter.’