The German language may sometimes appear more impenetrable than the Berlin Wall.
But hey, even that’s history!
If you think you need to master every complicated grammar rule before you can enjoy the language, think again.
If you think you need to have the dative, the accusative and all those neverending compound words down before you can start reading real German books, I’m here to tell you differently.
And I’m not just talking about children’s books, though those can be a big help, too.
Even some of the greatest German language writers, like Kafka and Max Frisch, have produced accessible works that’ll keep you hooked and boost your Deutsch skills in record time!
The Benefits of Reading German Books Sooner Rather Than Later
If you’re a beginner or intermediate learner who’s been putting off reading books in German, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good. Here are some excellent reasons to get started ASAP:
- Books allow you to experience real-life language, as opposed to classroom language. Sometimes, the language taught in the classroom may sound awkward in a real-life conversation. Experiencing real-life language can help you sound more like a native by familiarizing you with contractions and common slang.
- Works of literature are more exciting than language learning textbooks. Duh, right? But what you might not realize is that research backs up this point by showing that students who read works of literature in the target language usually achieve better results and develop a more positive attitude towards language learning. Take note that this is research that was done on beginning learners. Textbooks often present storylines that carry on from one chapter to another, but they hardly ever include powerful fiction pieces that you’ll remember for many years.
- Reading can boost reading comprehension, grammar and writing. Learning grammar constructions, new words and idioms in context makes it easier to remember them. Reading provides the elements that contribute to how people naturally learn their native languages: exposure, repetition, context and experience, and these are the most effective ways to learn any language!
Speaking of real-life language, excitement and in-context learning, you can also get all of that on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
How to Choose Books as a German Language Learner
The question is, how can you find the right books to harness the incredible power of learning through literature? You may start by looking into works by established German authors.
However, it can sometimes be a challenge to find powerful works of literature that will not leave you feeling like you are trying to interpret an ancient hieroglyph. To avoid this discouraging experience, a balance between ease of reading and literary quality is key.
Beginners may do well to stick to children’s books, fables and abridged versions of the classics. Intermediate learners have more of a choice.
If you are in the initial stages of your studies, one good strategy is to find good German translations of books you enjoy and know very well. This can both enhance your reading experience and boost the language learning takeaway.
But there’s no reason you can’t also start reading native German material right away.
Here are some of both to get you started today!
German Reading Material, Girls and Boys: 10 Graspable Books for Emerging German Readers
If you want to stay motivated and keep your German learning alive, having a good selection of beginner and intermediate books to choose from is essential.
Some people enjoy a challenge and prefer to dive into complex texts, even as beginners, while others need more approachable books to stay motivated. Choose the books that seem most appealing to you to make the best of your German reading and learning, regardless of your exact level.
1. “Lesen Leicht Gemacht – Fabelhafte Fabeln” (Beginner)
This is actually a series of simplified fables, adapted from Phaedrus, Aesop and La Fontaine, and is ideal for beginners who have never read a German book.
Fables include classics like “Der Hund und sein Schatten” (“The Dog and His Shadow”), “Die Ameise und die Grille” (“The Ant and the Cricket”) and “Knaben und Frosche” (“The Boys and the Frogs”). Whether they talk about ants, frogs or crickets, these profound yet minimal tales are sure to leave you thinking about some of the most common human follies.
Each title in this series comes complete with an audio CD, vocabulary, illustrations and exercises.
2. “Deutsche Märchen und Sagen” (Beginner)
This short book of children’s stories, legends and sayings is simple enough that beginners can approach it without fear. Vocabulary is included in the back of the book, rather than as footnotes, a format you may find less intrusive.
“Deutsche Märchen und Sagen” (“German Fairytales and Stories”) allows readers to learn and practice basic German as they follow the familiar plotlines of stories like “Hänsel und Gretel,” “Aschenputtel” (“Cinderella”) and “Schneewittchen” (“Snow White”), ponder over the fate of Doctor Faust or experience the mysterious tale of Barbarossa’s ghost.
3. “Café in Berlin” (Beginner)
“Café in Berlin” is specially designed for language learners. The premise is simple: a hapless Italian arrives in Berlin and has to manage to communicate, survive and have a good time.
The idea is to present the common struggles of the language learner through a simple and realistic plotline. The result is both entertaining and educational. This book is ideal for those looking for a more learning-oriented experience.
4. “First German Reader: A Beginner’s Dual-language Book” (Beginner)
This book offers German originals and English translations of amazing short texts by some famous German language writers side-by-side. Featuring the likes of Goethe, Hesse, Hölderlin, Schiller and Heine, the authors’ index is a veritable “who’s who” of German literature. The texts, which include poems, short stories and essays, are carefully selected based on quality and accessibility.
The “First German Reader” is the type of book you may enjoy if you rank among the more adventurous of beginners.
Have you ever wondered what Hamlet might sound like in German? Aside from German classics, this book also includes Shakespeare’s most famous monologue. In addition, you get a beautiful poem by Goethe, a lovely little slice of spirituality by the popular Herman Hesse and many other exciting works.
5. “Learning German Through Storytelling” (Intermediate)
This is actually a series of books specially designed for English speakers. Each one of them features a vocabulary list and some grammar and comprehension exercises at the end of every chapter.
The most popular book in the series is “Mord am Morgen” (“Murder in the Morning”), a detective novel (what Germans call a Krimi). It has a simple, yet attractive storyline involving a mysterious dead body and two sly detectives trying to find a killer (Kommissar Harald Baumgartner and his colleague Katharina Momsen).
If you are a fan of the genre, you may be thrilled to meet Kommissar Baumgarten and Frau Momsen once more in the popular “Die Dritte Hand” (“The Third Hand”), in which the pair are faced with body parts turning up in different locations and must put the pieces of the puzzle together, though not literally speaking, of course.
Other detective stories in the collection featuring the same characters include “Zum Bärenhaus,” a murder mystery involving a panda bear, and “Heidis Frühstuck” (“Heidi’s Breakfast”), which starts with a loyal dog entering his home with a human ear between his teeth!
This series promises a combination of learning and entertainment that the included titles generously provide. If mystery and crime aren’t your thing, try one of the series’ interactive adventure stories: “Shanima” or “Genowrin.”
6. “Momo” by Michael Ende (Intermediate)
This book, by the author of “The Neverending Story,” was originally written for children and young adults. Thus, the language is simple enough for intermediate and lower intermediate learners.
Momo, the protagonist, is a homeless princess who has a magical power to listen to others, in spite of her many misfortunes. The book is ultimately an exploration of what makes life worth living.
In spite of its linguistic simplicity, Momo has a profound spiritual message that adults can truly appreciate.
7. “Homo Faber” by Max Frisch (Intermediate)
Swiss author Max Frisch is one of the greatest German language writers of all time. While some of his fiction may appear too complex for language learners, “Homo Faber” is pretty accessible.
A re-interpretation of the myth of Oedipus (though substituting daughter-father for son-mother), the story is narrated in the first person by a very rational character with a scientific mind, who sees his beliefs challenged by a series of unlikely coincidences.
There is an excellent movie based on this book, starring Sam Shepard. Whether you watch the movie first to simplify the reading or read the book first because you enjoy the challenge, the works can certainly complement each other.
8. “Der Kontrabass” by Patrick Süskind (Intermediate)
Patrick Süskind has become world famous thanks to his novel “Das Parfüm.” Very few people who read that bestseller and watched the movie based on it have ever heard of “Der Kontrabass,” and that is a shame.
Personally, I came in contact with this little monologue (in which the central character is, you guessed it, a musical instrument), long before reading “Perfume.” My German level was lower-intermediate at the time, and I stumbled upon an audiobook tape at the Goethe Institut library. With my limited knowledge of German, I was able to understand and enjoy the audiobook; it is extremely accessible for intermediate learners.
“Der Kontrabass” is a fabulous book. The double bass—which nobody ever notices in the orchestra, because its sound is usually buried under layers and layers of higher-pitch instruments—complains about its miserable life in a monologue that covers much more than the hierarchy of musical instruments.
Few authors have mastered the art of the one-act play like Süskind does in this marvelous work.
9. “Der Vorleser” by Bernard Schlink (Intermediate)
Who hasn’t seen the Hollywood film “The Reader”? Fortunately for you, the film shall in no way ruin your experience of the evocative narrative it was based on by Bernard Schlink.
“Der Vorleser” is a masterpiece, but its value owes very little to linguistic innovation, and a lot to the power of a simple yet unique story.
In the book, a teenager has an affair with an older woman. Years later, while studying law, he comes across the same woman as she is being accused of a terrible crime committed during the Nazi regime. A secret the man learns can prove the woman’s innocence and save her from prison, but revealing the secret turns out to be more complicated than he had anticipated.
Prose like Schlink’s is always a pleasure. For language learners, it has the added pleasure of accessibility.
10. “Der Besuch der alten Dame” by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Intermediate)
This book, by one of Germany’s classic authors, tells a simple story in simple language. When a billionaire returns to her hometown, the whole town—which has fallen into deep economic troubles—believes the woman’s arrival may solve all their problems. The plot gets complicated when the rich woman asks for someone’s life in exchange for her generosity.
Still haven’t started reading yet?
With so many exciting options to choose from, you really have no excuse to put off picking up German books any longer.
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