5 Advanced French Books to Challenge and Sharpen Your Reading Skills
Looking for a French reading adventure?
Well, let’s pack up and get moving!
Basic familiarity with French? You got it!
As your French becomes more advanced, you’ll acquire the tools and provisions necessary to venture further out into the cultural and linguistic Francophone wilds.
You’ll journey through the fictional landscapes of French movies, exposed to new sights and sounds at every turn.
You’ll navigate the difficult seas of French radio, riding out the waves of various accents, intonations and personalities.
Some of your richest and most exciting experiences, however, will come from reading in French.
Still, it’s easy to forget about books when you’re working on polishing your French conversation skills.
You also might need help finding books that really challenge you as an advanced learner. Plus, they’ve got to compete with visual and audio formats as learning resources.
Finding the right books, though, will help you reach new heights in your journey through the French language.
Along the way, you’ll develop greater familiarity with the language and prepare yourself for further adventures filled with still more learning opportunities!
Here are some books specially selected for the advanced French reader. But first, some tips on how to become an advanced reader in the first place.
How to Get Yourself Reading French at an Advanced Level
Hey, beginners and intermediates! I see you there! Peeking in here, thinking, “Oh, I’ll just slip in quietly and take a look at these advanced French books. Maybe I’ll even be able to read one someday!”
Well, pay close attention, because that day may come sooner than you think. No matter your current level, it’s important to understand what makes a particular book more challenging to read than another. Having this knowledge will help you select the books that will be most enjoyable for you and move you along to the next level, whatever that may be.
What Makes a French Book Challenging
A large part of what enables you to read a given French text is simply the number of French words you know. Understanding grammar helps, but a lot of grammar can be deduced from usage. For example, you might not remember the exact conjugation for a verb in the passé simple, but you may well recognize it when you see it. Conversely, try to read a page on which you don’t know most of the words (in any form), and you’ll be truly lost!
So when picking your next book, keep in mind that you should still be able to recognize the majority of words on any given page. That way, you can still enjoy the literature while still dedicating some time to looking up unknown terms. Contextual information can be enough to provide the basic definition, but you might want to look up certain phrases on FluentU to fully understand what’s going on in the plot.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Complexity and Depth
Expressing complex emotions and concepts requires knowledge of the subtleties of the language. Even if this doesn’t result in more complicated or longer sentences, it can still be challenging to catch on to those differing shades of meaning if your level of French isn’t very advanced.
Idiosyncrasy in Style and Sentence Structure
Anything that would make a book more challenging for you to read in your native language, such as unusual dialects or creative word usage, will make it even harder in a language you’re still learning. This is a good thing, though! Not only is challenging yourself great for learning, but it keeps reading fun and interesting. You also develop a more nuanced understanding of the language when you see it being used in unexpected ways.
Pushing Through: Intermediate-to-Advanced Resources
Okay, so now that we know what makes a book more challenging, how do we actually get you to an advanced reading level?
Well, the best thing you can do is just read a lot of French books. Luckily, there are plenty out there.
It helps to push yourself, though, and even to take on more than you think you can handle. Here are a couple of resources that will help you do that.
Annotated Books: The “Linguality” Series
One great resource for improving your reading level, especially if you’re impatient, is annotated books. They’re helpful for expanding your vocabulary and also allowing you to read beyond your level, which gives you a glimpse of what’s to come!
There are plenty of annotated books out there, but if you’re not sure where to start, consider the “Linguality” series. It’s currently out-of-print but available all over the web for a fraction of the original price.
Pre-Advanced Recommendation: “Le jeune homme de sable” by Williams Sassine
If you’re looking for some gateway advanced reading, this novel by Guinean author Williams Sassine offers some characteristics of an advanced French book while still only requiring an intermediate vocabulary. The first twenty-five pages are in the form of a dream sequence in which strange and haunting imagery is blended with the introduction of several characters. These first pages might leave you reeling, but they’re over quickly and the ensuing “real world” plot clears up any questions you might have had. It’s a good way to dip your toes into the world of advanced French reading without biting off more than you can chew.
It’s also an opportunity to introduce yourself to African Francophone literature and to whet your appetite for the whole world of French-language books out there!
Any way in which you can push yourself out of your comfort zone, such as by seeking out books that may not be obvious or readily available choices, will help advance your French reading skill. You can take the opportunity to make your French learning more immersive through online browsing. You’ll also just be taking advantage of one of the truly cool benefits of learning French!
5 Advanced French Books to Challenge and Sharpen Your Reading Skills
1. “Entre les murs” by François Bégaudeau
Based on Bégaudeau’s own experience working in an inner-city Parisian school, this novel is full of language you may have never seen before. Dialogue occurs frequently but sometimes with no direct indication of who’s speaking, and is written to convey the way the kids actually talk, both in terms of slang and phonetic modification. You’ll often notice an absence of punctuation or consonants mashed closely together, such as v’nir in place of venir or P’t’êt rather than Peut-être. The narrative style is casual but smart, and Bégaudeau moves quickly between events and characters, never pausing too long for explanation.
2. “Le livre pour enfants” by Christophe Honoré
Christophe Honoré is best known for his films, but he’s also written a number of novels and children’s books. “Le livre pour enfants” is, however, deceptively titled. It’s not a book for children but an autobiographical work that touches on certain human and philosophical themes, as well as Honoré’s childhood and life as an author and director. His style is a highly informal, fast-paced stream of consciousness that wavers between humorous, reflective and poetic. “Le livre pour enfants” is a warm and generous book that treats the reader as a co-conspirator and friend, perfect for when you’re in more of a conversational than literary mood, and perfect for an advanced French reader craving a glimpse into hidden facets of French culture.
3. “Dans les bois éternels” by Fred Vargas
Fred Vargas is a big presence in the world of the French policier, and deservedly so. She writes compelling mysteries and takes full advantage of the French linguistic and cultural palette in the process. Different regions of France as well as social, political and historical issues figure into her books, providing a wealth of knowledge and vocab you can really sink your teeth into. If that weren’t enough, her work is further textured by uniquely crafted characters with quirks that affect the way they behave and talk. Just as an example, “Dans les bois éternels” features a police officer who frequently speaks in verse.
4. “Voyage au bout de la nuit” by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
True to its title, “Voyage au bout de la nuit” is a real journey. It’s not the sunniest of books, but it is a literary experience. It’s also the quintessential book for exactly the kind of advanced French reading we’ve been talking about. Céline’s style has been highly influential in literature both in France and all over the world, inspiring authors to play it fast and loose, or just to forego certain literary formalities. “Voyage au bout de la nuit” is based around the thoughts and experiences of Ferdinand Bardamu, a young man who gets involved in WWI almost by accident and goes on to travel through Africa and the United States. You’ll encounter argot and unfamiliar word usage, but this book provides enough context for you to keep up and develop your French comprehension muscles in the process.
5. “Poésies” by Stéphane Mallarmé
Mallarmé is considered to be one of the most difficult poets to translate, partially because the sound of the language itself was instrumental in the construction of his work. As an advanced French learner, you’ll definitely want to take advantage of being one of the lucky ones who can read his writing in the original! A French Symbolist poet inspired early on by Baudelaire, Mallarmé explored poetry as a form and forced the French language to its limits, sometimes using highly complex sentence structure to stretch a thought out over several lines.
That should keep you busy for at least a while, huh? Just remember, the more you push your own limits, the more experienced of a reader you’ll become and the more accessible French books will be to you. You already have all the resources and equipment you need to start, so pick a direction and get going!