The Book Thief (abandoned)

My usual rule, when reading a book that’s just not doing it for me, is to give a book 50 pages or 10% of its length, whichever is longer. I allowed Markus Zusak and his narrator, Death, twice that long this time, willing myself  to get into The Book Thief. But 120 pages in, I gave up.

I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that it might have been my fault. I have just come off of a perfectly incredible run of books (Travels With Charley, Pale Fire, Endless Things, Staying Put) and it would have been difficult for anything to measure up. Maybe I would have abandoned even a book that was better than this one. And this book wasn’t terrible: I kind of wanted to find out what happened, and some of the characters had fun and engaging characteristics. (I loved Rudy, smearing coal-dust on himself to imitate Jesse Owens’s success at the Olympics.)

But oh, geez, the writing. It was so repetitive — if I had to read the word Saumensch one more time, I thought I’d puke — and so heavy-handed. Each event was carefully foreshadowed four or five times, then depicted, then pointed out: See? I told you so. Well, yes, yes you did, Death, but actually you didn’t have to tell us quite so often. When it comes to the difficulties of the 1930s in Nazi Germany, you can probably assume some knowledge on the part of the reader. Even young adult readers have likely heard of the Nazis. Anne Frank, anyone? And the little asides starred in bold (HERE IS A SMALL FACT; A SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT; A SPECTACULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT) had no rhyme or reason and were not structured into the book in any way that made sense to me. Not to mention that if we were going to get Death’s personal commentary, would he (or she) really shout in headlines? She strikes me as an understated person. Grey tailored suit.

Um. Perhaps you can see that by this point, this book was getting on my nerves. 

Do you abandon books you’re not getting on with, or do you stick it out, especially when they’re so well-loved and highly-recommended? (Out of 1200 reviews of this book at Amazon, 1000 are positive.)

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63 Responses to The Book Thief (abandoned)

  1. Bellezza says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I am one of the few who didn’t like this, and have often felt myself in a minority after all the rave reviews it received the first year or so it was out. Blech. Heard it. Read it. Not impressed. At least you saved yourself some of the tedium.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Bellezza — tedious was a good word. I didn’t feel any of the characters were engaging except Rudy — they were all pretty platitudinous — and I thought the author was leaning WAY too hard on the circumstances to draw us in.

    • Anton Dockel says:

      I cannot for the life of me understand why people like this book: Unless they 1) have not read many books before 2) are incredibly naive and child-like .
      If you ever read anything on creative writing, you will know to avoid the all-knowing narrator and another basic: Showing not telling. In this aspect Mr Zusak fails miserably. The characters are cliched and as for the so-called research……. The book-burnings took place on May 10 1933 and not on any of Hitler’s birthdays and not in 1939.

      I have to read this book for the book club. Such a waste of time! It is on my all-time list of dismissible reads. (But then so is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

  2. Audrey says:

    I’m getting better at giving up! Though it can be especially hard when it’s a book that everyone is reading and everyone loves – so good for you for sticking with the giving up.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’ve gotten much better at filtering my choices as I’ve gotten older. I used to read many more bad books, but now that I choose better, I abandon way fewer!

  3. MJ says:

    So funny! I thought the very things you found tedious were rather charming, in their own way. At least you got up to the Jesse Owens scene – that was my favorite part of the whole book.
    I think how you feel about a book really can come down to what type of mood you’re in, or what you’ve read lately. I typically don’t abandon books, but I admire people who do. Sometimes I think I like to read the whole thing just so I can tell people how much I hated it, and YES I READ THE WHOLE THING SO THERE. Ahem. I’ve only done that once. Or twice. Maybe.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, dear, if that Jesse Owens scene was the best part, it’s as well I gave up! It was nice, but not enough to sustain 550 pages.

      I laughed at your reasons for reading a whole book you don’t like! Though I admit I considered it so I could give this book a real review. But life is too short!

    • Anton Dockel says:

      To me the Jesse Owens thing was such a flop. Ridiculous that a child should do that. 1) where would he have seen Jesse Owens ? (don’t think they had TV)
      2) It has always only been the thumb in you Nazi-bastards eye! sentiment of the 1936 Olympics. (Just for you Americans who specialize in attaching importance to silly little parables). Elsewhere it was Jesse Owens wins the 100 m. Ralph Metcalfe came 2nd. Event over. It did not upset Hitler’s opinion of Aryan supremacy. It in fact proved his point in that the black peoples are physically strong, mentally not so.

      I fail to see that a child who imagines the entire race, crowds and all, should go to the trouble of blackening himself. (and with charcoal that does not even stick to your skin); he could have imagined that he was black as well.

      • Jenny says:

        1) Um. Newspapers?
        2) Parables are parables because they have strength, like any other form of narrative; the story has remained strong 80 years later.
        3) I’m afraid children do things like that when they’re pretending (I mean, why have a child’s tea set and put water in it? You can pretend you are drinking tea!) And charcoal does make you dirty, at the very least.

        However, if that bit didn’t appeal to you (either the original win by Owens or the version in The Book Thief) then that’s that, isn’t it?

      • Michael says:

        Goeie aand, Anton,

        Ek weet nie wat jy bedoel met “you Americans”, maar ek in Rondebosch sit; smart and well-read people, to whom dismissive generalities do not apply, come here from all over.

        Anyway, about the book: Jenny’s review nailed it, as usual.

        I, too, wished to abandon the book, but struggled through dutifully because I was reading it for Book Club and feared getting kicked-puppy eyes from those who’d raved it.

        The book made me feel bad about myself because I felt stupid for not getting why it was so popular and fêted, but the up-side of that is that I, too, can confirm that persisting to the end brings no reward.

  4. Melissa says:

    Oh, I definitely abandon books that aren’t working for me. Just the other week, I had three books that were DNFs. Three! Sorry that The Book Thief didn’t work for you. I liked it, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as everyone else, it seems.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I think my filter is working pretty well these days, because I rarely have a dud. Our Abandoned list is short!

  5. Emily says:

    Oh man, percentage of positive/negative reviews on Amazon or GoodReads is a lousy predictor of whether I’ll like something or not, so I feel you. And any narrator who has to announce A SPECTACULARLY TRAGIC MOMENT is falling short of the mark in my opinion; if it’s actually that spectacular the reader will be sure to notice, and if it’s tongue-in-cheek that’s just annoying.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right, Emily, I don’t depend on Amazon to tell me what to read. I depend on YOU. Seriously. :) I was just looking to Amazon to tell me how weird I am! And the announcements of TRAGIC MOMENTS killed it for me. Shut up, Death. No, really. Have a cookie and cheer up.

  6. Melody says:

    Yes, exactly–thank you! I’m also in the minority on The Book Thief for just the reasons you mentioned. I’ve never met a narrator that played such a big part in the story to be so difficult to get to know–I think my idea of death is, like you, much more grey tailored suit. And the writing to me just felt a bit clunky and off-kilter. Just FYI, Death’s interruptions do get fewer and more manageable as the book progresses…but the beginning was very frustrating for me. I think the story could have been great if it was told differently. Both of my book clubs loved it though.

    I do stop reading books after 100 pages if I’m hating it…unless it’s for book club then I try to stick it out.

    • Jenny says:

      Clunky! That’s the word I was groping for. Exactly right. And the fact that Death’s interruptions become fewer as time goes on only tells me that the *author* got as annoyed with them as I did.

      I have read some terrible books for book club! The sacrifices we make…

    • Anton Dockel says:

      On Death, the being, heaven forbid anyone who dies on the other side of the planet exactly when there is a battle over in France! You soul will be lost forever

  7. Although I liked the novel (in the end – I found it very bumpy going in the first half, and only warmed to it very late), I had the same reaction as you did to Death as a narrator. Here’s what a said a few years ago, when it was more immediate in my memory: http://sycoraxpine.blogspot.com/2007/02/book-thief.html

  8. joyofbooking says:

    I abandoned this book for exactly the same reasons when it first came out and was surrounded by all the hype. I don’t remember how far I got into it, but I remember wishing Death would come for me before making me read another bloody page.

    I like your 50 pages/10% rule. I might have to adopt that for myself! I rarely give up on books, and I don’t feel guilty about doing so, but I can handle 50 pages of (almost) anything.

    • Jenny says:

      “Wishing Death would come for me” — you made me laugh right out loud! The 50 pages/ 10% rule is good for most books, but I give a little more to 19th-century doorstops. They sometimes take a little longer to get into, but are worth the wait.

  9. Teresa says:

    As you know, I listened to the audiobook of this a few years ago and thought it was merely OK. I can tolerate heavy-handedness much more in an audiobook because I’m not able to be quite as attentive as I would be to a print book. Still, I didn’t quite see what the fuss was about. The cynic in me says it’s a book about books and involves the Holocaust; therefore, all right-thinking bookworms are required to like it, but I know that’s hardly fair.

    • Jenny says:

      [laughing] I know, right? The Holocaust! Books! I should have loved it! Yet… no. Oh well. There is somehow so much left out there. I actually think an audiobook might have made the starred, bolded interruptions slightly less precious.

  10. Megan says:

    I haven’t tried this one yet, though it’s on my shelf to try. I love and hate when I get on those runs where every book I read is excellent because even while you’re enjoying the ride, it seems like that book that’s not going to be quite up par is always lurking around the next bend waiting to end the streak. I dunno, maybe it’s just me…. ;-)

    • Jenny says:

      No! I totally know what you mean! I was just waiting for this to end. I was kind of trying to let myself down easy with this book, thinking it would be a quick read (because YA) and good (because popular.) I should know better than to plan ahead!

  11. Lisa says:

    I rarely make myself finish a book, and I usually decide pretty quickly if it’s working for me or not. But I do sometimes set them aside to try again later, in case it was me having a bad book day. I have a little shelf of them now.

    • Jenny says:

      Aha! An Odd Shelf of books to try again. Nice idea.

      By the way, are you by any chance the same Lisa that writes on the Marzipan forum? If so, you and I have very much the same taste in books…

      • Lisa says:

        Yes, I’m on Marzipan! so you’re a Dunnett fan as well? I should have known from your excellent taste in books :)

      • Jenny says:

        Oh, yes, I’m a huge Dunnett fan. She’s one of my favorite authors. I’ve been reading Marzipan for years, but I almost never contribute, because I’ve “only” read the series twice through!

  12. bibliolathas says:

    I can’t give up; I’m a compulsive finisher. It can be a curse! I have The Book Thief on my TBR. Maybe I’ll shift it lower down ;-)

    • Jenny says:

      My motto for some years has been “LIfe’s too short to read bad books.” (Bad meaning, you know, books I don’t like.) Lots of people do like this one, you know, but given your taste, I’m not sure you’re going to love it. Maybe do shift it lower down…

  13. Kristen M. says:

    I still haven’t tried this one but I think I would be more in line with you on this so I’m going to keep avoiding it. Whenever you see too many raves for a book, you start wondering where the people are that didn’t like it, right? It appears they are coming out here in the comments! :)

    • Jenny says:

      Yes! I am providing a Safe Space. :) Really, though, I did pick this up because it seemed so universally liked, and it was about books. Maybe I should have asked first!

  14. gaskella says:

    It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for ages as it had such rave reviews … until now! I might still give it a try as my Mum did enjoy it and we usually enjoyed the same books.
    I still find it hard to give up on a book, but once I get say 50 pages in, I’ll usually keep going. If I’ve failed to get beyond the first couple of chapters, then I’m good at stopping.

    • Jenny says:

      Teresa does that, too, like a kind of audition. 50 pages is usually my max, unless it’s a big chunkster. My last two abandoned books, I got more than 100 pages in before giving up, though. I’m obviously too committed.

  15. Steph says:

    I wouldn’t feel too bad about this one… I know lots of people love it, but I borrowed it from the library many years ago, read about the same amount you did, and then had to return it still unfinished. I never really thought about it after that and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t a bad book, as you say, but it certainly wasn’t stunning!

  16. I loved The Book Thief and gave it five stars, but I also loved your review, knowing that often I feel the same way about other books that have been raved about.

    The very things about this book you disliked, I found charming but I appreciated your perspective!

    As I get older, I am getting better about abandoning books (too many books, really really too little time).

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for your nice reply, Debbie! When someone is unpleasant about a book I adore, I usually feel like we can’t be friends. :) I’m sure it was my fault that I was uncharmed.

      And we are definitely on the same page about too little time. I’d rather save mine for something that blows me away.

  17. Kara says:

    I think it depends on the individual book if I abandon it or not. For example I HATED with a passion “Eat, Pray, Love” yet I read the whole thing. I just hoped it would get better and less whiny, like Liz Gilbert would actually learn something and become a better person, but that did not happen. But I absolutely gave up on “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” well before the middle of the book. I just didn’t care enough about it, good or bad, to finish it.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha ha! I felt the same about Eat Pray Love (and also finished it) and have also plowed through other books I didn’t enjoy much. I’m not sure what has to be missing for me to give up completely. I think it’s really the writing (which means I have to try Tess of the d’Urbervilles again sometime soon!)

  18. Amy says:

    I usually give a book about 50 + pages and if I’m still having trouble, I give up. I don’t give up often but it happens. Sorry this one didn’t work out for you. I enjoyed it but I can see how it might be tedious.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, not every book is for every reader, of course, and I’m sure my recent run of superlative books affected it. Glad you liked it!

  19. I stuck with this one because it is so highly revered. And I did end up loving it and felt that it was really powerful, so I am glad I stuck with it. Under other circumstances though, I may have abandoned it.

    • Jenny says:

      I do think circumstances affect what we read. If I’d read Endless Things with a miserable cold in the head, I might have put it aside for later!

  20. Cori says:

    Like many people, I really loved this one, but I am always so fascinated to find other readers who felt completely differently than me. It makes me realize how wonderful the book world is, that there are so many different options for all of our different tastes.

    PS: I really love your blog in the fact that most of your books aren’t new releases. Sometimes I feel like my own blog is full of old books that no one wants to read reviews about because they aren’t the latest and greatest, but you consistently prove that reviews of older books are just as valid as new ones. Great job! :)

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with you completely about how wonderfully multifaceted the book world is. You’re never alone!

      And what a lovely thing to say about our blog. Sometimes I wonder, too, about posting reviews about obscure old things — thanks for the nice compliment!

  21. rebeccareid says:

    I listened to the audiobook three or more years ago and I liked it. But when I saw it in print, I was really surprised by the bullet lists and stuff. It was odd to look at. And I think I’m more forgiving of audiobooks than I am of books I’m reading in hard copy.

    • Jenny says:

      Aha — that confirms my impression that an audio version would be easier to get along with. The gimmicky nature of it got on my nerves, and I’m guessing it would have been easier to listen to.

      • Teresa says:

        Yes, as Rebecca said, there’s little that’s gimmicky about the audio, other than the gimmick of death as narrator.

        Funny that we both read books this week that might go over better on audio.

  22. BethAnn says:

    There are very few books I give up on. But many that I wished I did, when I finish them. I just keep hoping that they’ll turn out better. Most of the time these are books that I rush through, try to find the good part.

    Book Thief was one of them that I finished and thought that it was a waste of my time. I wondered where all the good reviews had come from

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! There have been a number of books I finished and then felt, “What a waste of my time.” But as I said earlier, my filter is getting better as I get older, so those are getting fewer and fewer. It helps to have a reliable source of recommendations like Teresa!

  23. Jenny says:

    Oh, Proper Jenny! I’m sad this didn’t do it for you! I love Markus Zusak because my emotions are never not engaged by his books. Very occasionally I feel like his writing falls victim to tic-y, but the ways it’s peculiar are mostly things I like. I am, as you know, in favor of being told the end, so I vote yay to that. And I love, love, love The Book Thief.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t at all mind being told the end. It’s being told the end five times that I mind. I’m smart! You can just tell me once!

      I’m sorry I didn’t like a book you loved, Other Jenny. Our taste doesn’t overlap 100%, I know. I bring you a peace offering: tripods and woven robes and… um… well, if this were the Iliad and the Aeneid I would definitely also bring you women, but that doesn’t seem appropriate, so um livestock? I pinky promise to read Persian Fire, if that helps.

  24. Emily says:

    I’m am trying to break myself of the habit of sticking with books that just aren’t doing it for me. I don’t know whether I’m just ridiculously obedient or what, but I have the hardest time deliberately putting a book down. Getting distracted by other books, yes, I will do that, but I’ll leave the bookmark in the other book, completely unwilling to admit that I’m not going to finish it! (I’m getting a little better about that.)

    I haven’t read The Book Thief, but from the sounds of it, I don’t blame you for not finishing it. Repetition drives me crazy, as does assuming your reader is completely ignorant.

    • Jenny says:

      I have never had much trouble abandoning books, even shortly before the ending. No guilt! Life is too short! Whose feelings am I hurting, anyway? But I do have trouble saying no to other people’s recommendations. That’s another story…

  25. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I’m one of those people who loved this book.

    But yes there are some books that I just cannot get into no matter how much people rave about them. My rule for how much to read can change, but I usually like to go for 50 pages but sometimes the first chapter has the power to do me in…

  26. Sarah says:

    Sorry to hear you weren’t enjoying this Jenny, you clearly made the right choice to give up on it. I did enjoy The Book Thief, but can see the distinctive narrative voice won’t work for everyone.

    Coincedentally, today I read an interesting interview with Morris Gleitzman, another Australian children’s author who has written a novel set during the Holocaust. Discussing what his young audience do actually know, Gleitzman said:

    “I’m trying to re-create some of the darker moments of our species’ behaviour in a way that will have meaning for younger readers. I knew when I decided to write a book for my age group of readers—which is pretty much eight and up—set against the Holocaust, many or most of my readers wouldn’t be familiar with the circumstances of World War Two or the Holocaust.

    They’re taught at some schools but there’s a lot of freedom at primary schools for teachers to devise their own areas of curriculum. So there are some primary schools where they’re doing the Holocaust, perhaps as a part of related studies or maybe as part of World War Two. But there are many students who don’t touch on all this until two or three years into high school. So I couldn’t count on all of my readers understanding the historical context and the social context. I didn’t want to make these books a history lesson in terms of the full sweep of the information of the time, but I needed to have enough of the historical context so it would make sense to readers fresh to the whole thing. That is why I decided to structure the first book as a journey of discovery for Felix. I wanted to do it that way for some other reasons as well but I realised it would allow my younger readers to go on that journey of discovery with him and gradually encounter some of the realities of that time and that place.”

    I think Zusak may have felt similarly, if so it would explain his use of foreshadowing and repetition. Evidently if you buy the conceit of Death as narrator and enjoy the voice you enjoy the book, if not you find it an annoying gimmick.

  27. Jeane says:

    I thought myself that if I could find an edition that had Death’s announcements edited out, how much better I’d enjoy the book! I did finish; but the voice in all-caps was really annoying throughout.

  28. Ha! I totally agree. However, I am glad I finished it b/c I don’t think it was beyond redemption. But….I also didn’t care for Travels with Charley.

  29. Lu says:

    I am reading this for book club and I went searching for negative reviews of this one because I pretty much hate it. There’s a moment about half way through when I thought, “Oh. This is why people love this book.” But then it went away and now I’m back to hating it. Sigh. Will report back with more opinions when I finish. This is a book I’ve abandoned before, but since it’s for book club now, I’m powering through. I’m glad I’m not the only one who was frustrated with this.

  30. Kimmie says:

    I’ve been surfing sites to see if this book gets any better…I am on page 200 & I don’t feel I’ve gotten to the “plot” yet…or if I did I missed it.
    I hate walking away from a book, but I don’t know if I can waste anymore of my time. I enjoy reading, I enjoy getting sucked into the book & it’s just not happening with this one.

  31. Anton Dockel says:

    Sad to say this book is probably so popular because it is so simplistic and low-brow. After all the % not so bright humans are 80-20

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