In the novel The Book Thief, how do words have the power to destroy and save lives?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The ability to read and to express yourself, and likewise the wisdom of knowing when to be silent are two important aspects of this novel. The central character, Liesel, is a girl who learns how to read and through learning how to read becomes equipped to survive the strange world of war, destruction and bigotry that she finds herself in. Note the way that the narrator of this quirky tale, Death, comments upon the importance of words at the very end of Part One after Liesel's fight with Ludwig after he makes fun of her because she can't read:

She was the book thief without the words.

Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out, like the rain.

Note the two similes that are uses to describe Liesel's use of words in her life. The clouds and rain are things that both bring destruction and also life, through the ability of rain to sustain and nourish. In the same way, the words that Liesel learns to use have the potential to both destroy and sustain. Literally it is words that sustain Liesel's life at the end of the story as she retreats to the basement to write her book in secret. Yet at the same time, the book is full of incidences where books are burnt and destroyed, which gives ample evidence of the way that words can also be very dangerous and can end up destroying rather than saving. 


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