Michael Berg is 15 and suffering from hepatitis. When he gets sick in the street one day on his way home from school, a woman brings him into her apartment and helps him to wash up. Later, he visits the woman to thank her and is drawn into a love affair that is as intoxicating as it is unusual—their meetings become a ritual of reading aloud (Michael reads to Hanna, at her request), taking showers and making love. When Hanna disappears after a misunderstanding, Michael is overcome with guilt and loss.
Years later, when Michael is studying law at the university, he is part of a seminar group attending one of the many belated Nazi war crime trials. He is shocked when he recognizes Hanna in the courtroom, on trial with a group of former concentration camp guards. During the proceedings, it becomes clear that Hanna is hiding something that is—to her—more shameful than murder, something that could possibly save her from going to prison. She chooses not to reveal her secret and, as a result, is sentenced to life.
Married and divorced, Michael has become a scholar of legal history and suffers from a haunting emotional numbness. To help himself through nights of insomnia, he begins to read his favorite books aloud into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. The bond between the two is continued in this unique way until Hanna's release from prison, when, in the face of Michael's ambivalence and Hanna's shame, their story reaches its anguished conclusion.
A parable of German guilt and atonement and a love story of stunning power, The Reader is also a work of literature that is unforgettable in its psychological complexity, its moral nuances and its stylistic restraint.