We have a summer reading program at my school, Seton Hill University, and I’m head of the committee. This year we read The Book Thief (amazing read) and we all discussed it an then we had a Gallery at which I gave a speech. A few people have asked for the speech, so here it is!
Hello and welcome to all of you: our incoming class as well as our faculty and staff. My name is Dr. Nicole Peeler and I would like to thank you on behalf of the Summer Reading Committee. We very much appreciate your taking part in this event.
Today we are here because all of you read the same book, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. It’s very long, as I’m some of you were painfully aware. And it’s not exactly a happy read, what with virtually all the characters dead at the end. The subject matter is also grim: concentration camps, genocide, the bombing of civilian targets, all narrated by death itself. Such a book may seem a strange welcome at a time that is full of promise, excitement, and hope.
And yet I would argue that this book is one of hope. As much as it is an exploration of the evil committed in the name of grandiose ideologies, it is also a story of love. It is a story of everyday people caught up in something much larger than themselves, who still manage to act with kindness and even, at times, with heroism. It is also a book in which these good people die.
We are more familiar with happier narratives. Those in which people who act with kindness not only survive, but are recognized and rewarded for their brave acts. Stories like the one told in The Book Thief are, quite frankly, depressing. And, we may ask ourselves, what is the point of such a sad tale? What can we take from a book that makes us doubt the fairness of the universe?
What I take from this book, and what we, as a committee, hope to share with you, are just these sorts of questions, rather than answers. The book asks, what could ordinary Germans have done when confronted with the barbaric, unstoppable machine that was Hitler’s Third Reich? And by asking that question, we must ask, what can any of us do when confronted with issues that are bigger than we are and that we know we can’t fix singlehandledly?
One answer, of course, is to remain silent. To shut our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. Another answer, a far more uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous answer, is to engage with the issue and do something, anything, to create even a thimbleful of change.
We do not live in Liesel’s Germany, but many of you have undoubtedly felt powerless in the face of the history unfolding around us. You have watched footage from Gaza, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. You have seen tanks on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. You have opened Facebook to pictures of beaten children or animals, or read headlines about Ebola outbreaks, suicide, or rape culture in your Twitter feed.
And you’ve probably felt, as I have so many times in my lifetime but especially in this past year, completely helpless. How can any one of us fix these huge issues plaguing our world? The answer is we can’t. And yet we can do something, and this is where The Book Thief comes in.
The Book Thief is about doing something to make a difference. Notice I said, something—not everything. It’s about effecting changes, not fixing a problem. And for as many problems as we see around us, we can also find opportunities to help all over the place.
The Summer Reading Committee has provided a banner that you will find at the table to the right of the stage. This morning, we challenge you to think of one issue that has bothered you in the past, but that you’ve been silent about. Something like poverty, or marriage equality, or voting rights. We ask you to write that issue on the banner and make a commitment to yourself to take even the smallest action.
Dr. Tim Crain is going to speak to you next. He’s going to talk to you about the National Center for Holocaust Education, and about Seton Hill’s commitment to Catholic social teaching and our commitment, as an institution, to social justice. When Dr. Crain finishes his talk, you’ll be turned loose to investigate the tables along the walls, all of which offer opportunities for involvement either here at Seton Hill or in Westmoreland County. This Saturday is also Seton Hill’s Labor of Love, run by Campus Ministry who has a table here today. This event is a great way to take the first step into engagement with your community.
And while you’re visiting the tables, please take a few moments to watch the Dance Club, led by Professor TaMara Swank, as well as the PowerPoint of holocaust related art created by Prof. Maureen Vissat. For that’s another lesson The Book Thief teaches: that art is absolutely a form of engagement with the world. And this is our ultimate mission here at Seton Hill, as faculty, as students, and as staff: to engage with the world we live in. Thank you, and please welcome Dr. Tim Crain.