A friend of mine who has embarked on the tedious yet adventurous journey of learning German, has asked me whether I could recommend any German books to read.
Dumbstruck as usual whenever someone asks me to recommend something, I immediately forgot about any book I had ever seen or read in my whole life and started staring aimlessly into space. What is a book and what am I supposed to do with it??
After a short while though I started remembering my reading habits from earlier years and since most people who read this blog might still be learning German, I came up with a list not just for my friend, but for anyone else who might read this post.
I learned German through immersion so unfortunately I can’t tell what it feels like to learn German from scratch or how easy or difficult it is to build up one’s vocabulary. Therefore, I cannot say exactly on which level of proficiency you need to be in order to read these. Some of the works were written specifically for children and are therefore easier to read while others are works of classic German literature but still shouldn’t be too hard to understand.
Look at the titles, find something that you like and see how well your reading goes. I hope you’ll enjoy! Viel Spaß!
Der kleine Prinz (The Little Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry : Certainly not a German piece but I have seen this one on pretty much every list of suggested literature for beginners that I have ever come across so I guess this book should be on here as well.
Der Struwwelpeter Heinrich Hoffmann: A children’s book made of ten rhymed stories with illustrations. The stories are about children who suffer (quite brutal) punishments after they misbehave. Maybe the fact that the author is a doctor and psychiatrist helps explain the weird nature of this book but nevertheless it is one of Germany’s classics that even made it into the school curriculum. I remember reading one of the stories in elementary school. It must have been for the good rhymes so that we would improve our reading skills…
Märchen (Fairytales), Various authors: Be it by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Wilhelm Hauff, fairytales may always be a good insight into the language you are studying. I find them a good source since they (their most recent versions at least) are meant for children and should therefore not be so linguistically challenging.
Die unendliche Geschichte (The Never -ending Story), Michael Ende: I have to admit that in all these years I have never come around to read this book but from all I know it is very popular and can be found in pretty much every child’s room in Germany. The setting varies from the real world and a fantastic parallel world. The story begins with the main character Bastian Balthasar Bux, who is reading a stolen book in the school’s attic instead of going to class. Eventually, the boy gets so drawn into what he is reading that the real world and the one in Bastian’s book merge into one.
Die Rechenaufgabe (The Math Problem), Otto Waalkes: Not a book but a short sketch by the German comedian Otto Waalkes about a little boy who can’t figure out how to divide 28/7 and asks his father for help. I personally included this on here because I remember liking it very much when we used it as reading and acting practice in elementary school. It is a short read and relatively simple. Maybe something to read in between to check your reading comprehension skills? Also might give you an idea of German humor (YES! We CAN be funny, too!!). You can find the text here.
Russendisko (Russian Disco), Wladimir Kaminer: Wladimir Kaminer is an author from Russia who writes about what it is like to live in Germany, the topics ranging from politics over food to just “weird habits”, making a lot of references to Russian culture along the way. His books (I encourage you to also have a look at his other works!) are mainly in German but have by now been also translated to English in case you want to read parallel. Kaminer writes in vignettes so you don’t have to go through the trouble of following one plot but can read short pieces of text instead. His stories are also incredibly funny and especially good for people who are thinking about visiting Germany.
Kurzgeschichten (Short Stories), Heinrich Böll: The Nobel Prize for literature winner Heinrich Böll belongs to the generation of authors who were the first ones to start writing again after the horrors of WWII, hence the content of his stories revolves around that topic in particular. In German this literature era is called Trümmerliteratur or rubble literature. I would mainly suggest his work because I think he is a great writer and when I first read “Wanderer Kommst du nach Spa…” (see page 34) while in college prep, I was thrilled by the pictures that his words would draw in front of my inner eye. He is definitely worth a try, just like his fellow writer Wolfgang Borchert and his story “Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch” (The Rats Sleep at Night).
Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), Franz Kafka: I assume that everyone has at least at some point heard of Kafka so all I will add is that while the substance of his stories (in Metamorphosis the protagonist turns into a cockroach) might be a bit mystic and deep, his language is less complicated and can be good practice for more advanced German speakers. Another famous work of his is “Der Prozess” (The Trial) which is also available as a graphic novel. That way it might be easier to understand the plot.
Die Physiker (The Physicists), Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Originally a Swiss piece, The Physicists is a play for those of you who like drama and history. It addresses the ethical dilemma that arises when politicians gain scientific knowledge that can eventually destroy the world. The play relates to the issue of nuclear warfare during the Cold War. It is a short piece of two acts with concise sentences. We read it in college prep class last year and my fellow classmates were on German levels between B2 and C1. The reading went fairly well for everyone.
The German version of Project Gutenberg has lots of freely available classical texts from books over poetry to drama, letters etc. If you are still looking for German authors in particular and already have a few names in mind, have a look at the authors register.
If you have access to the media libraries of German TV channels (most of the time your IP address must be located in Germany for that to work but sometimes it doesn’t) and you think your German listening skills are somewhat advanced, check out the show Das literarische Quartett. This is where four authors/book critics come together once a month and discuss four books that all of them had to read. I get my reading inspiration from there sometimes. Last time they presented the young adult novel Auerhaus by Bov Bjerg about a group of friends who moved together as a flat share community in a small town in Germany. The story was simple and the language brilliant. There were passages where I couldn’t help but put the book down for a moment and think: Wow, that was deep. I still remember how one of the characters says “I didn’t want to kill myself. I just didn’t want to live anymore.”