On one level, Michael is "the reader" to Hanna. The title refers to a major part of the relationship that Hanna and Michael share. Michael gains much from their relationship. Sexual fulfillment and a sense of mystique are elements that he gains from their relationship. Hanna's primary gain from the relationship is the futile hope of tending to the wound she feels of illiteracy. Hanna does not wish to be illiterate, but rather than admit to it, the pain of her condition is slightly alleviated by hearing Michael read to her. As an adult, Michael continues to be "the reader" for Hanna. Yet, like before, his role as "the reader" lacks emotional depth and a sense of emotional connection. His distance from Hanna is what defines his role as Michael serves as "the reader" to Hanna.
The significance of the title can be expanded when Hanna becomes "the reader" in prison. As she learns how to read, she begins to interact with literature from the Holocaust. While Michael's reading was to alleviate her condition of pain, Hanna's reading about what people like her did during the Holocaust enables her to fully come to terms with what she had done. In this condition, her role as "the reader" is what causes her to kill herself. Hanna cannot simply reenter society as if nothing was wrong and as if she had paid her debt for what she did. When Michael was "the reader," there was a lack of emotional connection. When Hanna becomes "the reader," she is emotionally engrossed in what she reads. It is for this reason that she becomes "the reader" that she had been waiting for throughout her life. She kills herself because she has become "the reader," fully aware of how to read her life and being. In this, the title contains layers of meaning and significance.