When learning a language, exposure will help you acquire vocabulary and knowledge quicker. Reading German literature books is a great way of getting an understanding for the language, culture, and history of the country that you won’t find in textbooks and courses. We’ve compiled a list of recommendations that are suitable for beginners to intermediate learners of German.
Many publishers offer classic works of literature in a “zweisprachige Ausgabe”, a bilingual edition. Page by page, these will allow you to compare German and English page by page and often feature additional notes and explanations. Reclam is German publisher known for its low cost paperbacks popular with students. Their series of bilingual editions is easy to recognize bei their orange covers. German short stories are another great way to immerse yourself in the language. Penguin Parallel Texts offers a bilingual edition of contemporary literature shorts.
The top 10 books for learning German
The following ten titles might not be the hallmark of classic German books, but they’re part of pop culture and definitely easier (and possibly more entertaining) to read than let’s say good old Goethe, Heinrich, Böll, Günter Grass or Thomas Mann.
1. Der Fänger im Roggen
Love it or hate it, chances are you’re familiar with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Knowing the story of Holden Caulfield and his escapades already will allow you to focus more on the language in this German translation. Eike Schönfeld’s Der Fänger im Roggen has brought the classic novel into the present with his use of modern language in this edition.
Tschick by Wolfgang Herrndorf is a buddy comedy. Narrator and protagonist Maik Klingenberg is paired up against his will with Tschick, a Russian who seems out of place at the local highschool on the outskirts of Berlin. Neither of them is popular at school, but when the summer holidays begin, they set off on a grand adventure together… Tschick is also available as an audio book, and as a movie with the title Goodbye Berlin.
3. So was von da
So was von da is a colloquial expression in German for when you’re extremely focused on the present moment, in other words, right here, right now–which happens to be the title of the movie adaptation of this book by Tino Hanekamp. The story tells Oskar’s new year’s eve in Hamburg, where he’s trying to organize a party at his alternative club. But chaos sets in before Oskar makes it out of bed. He owes money to an ex-pimp, his best friend is doubting his career as a rock star, there’s a dead Elvis fleeing from the famous politician to whom he’s married, yet Oskar is only able to think of Mathilda, his ex-girlfriend.
4. Herr Lehmann
Herr Lehmann is the debut novel of Sven Regener, founder and singer of the band Element of Crime. The book is set in Berlin Kreuzberg, where lethargic Lehmann lives in West Berlin in 1989, works in a bar and goes out drinking. But just before his 30th birthday, his life is turned upside down… Herr Lehmann is available as an audio book, read by the author, and has been turned into a movie. Sven Regener has written several prequels and sequels: Neue Vahr Süd and Der kleine Bruder take place before, as does Wiener Straße. The sequel Magical Mystery features a different protagonist.
In the autobiographical Dorfpunks, Rocko Schamoni tells the story of growing up in a small town in the north of Germany where boredom rules–until the arrival of punk, and with it the age-old dream of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The short and enjoyable read may not be a masterpiece of German literature, but it’s punk through and through, in attitude and language.
6. Er ist wieder da
Er ist wieder da by Timur Vermes sees Adolf Hitler return after 66 years of ‘absence’ to rise again as a star on prime time TV. Crossing genres, the novel is beyond cynical, satire, and political comedy, but the tale of a demagogue using the reign of ratings, clicks and likes for his own purposes is all too real. Reading Er ist wieder da will produce mixed feelings as well as laughs, and you can also enjoy the movie adaption Look who’s back.
Let Wladimir Kaminer show you a side of Berlin you probably haven’t seen yet. Russendisko is the autobiographical tale of a Russian learning German after his arrival in Berlin post 1989. He also creates the Russian disco, an expatriate hangout, meets his future wife, and a whole entourage of incredible people. Welcome to the madness that was Berlin in the 90s. Thanks to the book’s bestseller status, a movie adaptation was inevitable.
Hailed both as a “Bildungsroman” and pop literature, Faserland by Christian Kracht is the tale of a hopeless roadtrip across Germany. The successful debut novel characterizes the generation of the 80s and describes its downfall. Critics have named Kracht a German Bret Easton Ellis, and reading about the narrator’s excesses might remind you of Less Than Zero.
Jörg Fauser is a German mixture between William S. Borroughs and Charles Bukowski. In Rohstoff, he writes about the exploits of his alter ego, Harry Gelb, and his pursuit of “raw material” in the form of drugs, alcohol, and dangerous experiences–always chronicling everything in writing. A classic underdog story, Rohstoff is fast, brutally honest and incredibly witty and funny.
10. Der Richter und sein Henker
Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt pens a classic detective story in Der Richter und sein Henker. The novella The Judge and His Hangman is a murder tale going back forty years, a philosophical examination of the “perfect crime”, and a moral exploration of good vs. evil with a twist. The work has been widely adapted for film, TV, and theatre.
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