Friday, December 05, 2014

Finding Foreign Novels to Read

One of the challenges of reading in a foreign language is finding novels to read in the first place. You want something hard enough to challenge you but not so difficult that you give up in despair. If you already have recommendations from friends or teachers, that may be all you need, but recommendations can go badly wrong too. (See the last section of this post for a story about that.)

Even if you follow my advice on reading a foreign novel with a Kindle, you are likely to spend a hundred hours or more on this book, especially if it is your first in the language. It's worth your while to take a couple of hours to pick one out.


Because my strategy calls for using a Kindle, it does limit you to books you can buy on a Kindle. This turns out to be a limitation, but not a fatal one.

Amazon has a large selection of foreign-language novels in the Kindle store, but you'll be disappointed to learn that it's only a fraction of what's sold in those markets. For example, I checked just now and there are 113,182 Spanish Kindle books in the US Kindle store, but on, there are 3,198,321 available. That calls for an explanation.

Unless you have a mailing address in the EU, Amazon cannot legally sell those books to you. This is because standard contracts with publishers set out different rules for different countries and those contracts usually only give Amazon the right to sell a book in a few markets. It's okay (in theory) to order copies of the physical, printed books, if you're willing to pay the shipping costs from Europe, but you cannot buy the e-books. The fault for this lies entirely with the publishers, who generally won't sign international contracts even for e-books. People complain about this a lot.

As a practical matter, there are plenty of interesting books in the US store; you really aren't going to run out. But sometimes I'll see a book review that praises the English translation of a foreign novel, and I'll want to see if I can read it in the original language. So far, I have never been able to.

The most you can do is write a letter to the publisher. Short of that, you can find the US Amazon page for the printed book and click the link that says "I want this book on the Kindle." 

The upshot is that you have to start your search with the set of books that are actually for sale on Amazon in the US.

Selection Criteria

As mentioned above, you want to pick a novel that'll be fun and challenging but not too difficult for you. Toward that end, I've come up with a set of rules. They aren't hard-and-fast rules, but they're a reasonable guide to start with. As you read more and more books, you can relax some of these rules.

The most important thing--above all else--is that you pick a book that interests you enough to stick with it. This is a principle that supersedes any rules.
  1. The book must be an "authentic novel." This means written by and for adult native speakers. That rules out translations, children's books, and materials for students. The reason is that these things all dumb-down the vocabulary and sometimes use unnatural grammar.
  2. The book must be new to you. If you already read an English translation of the book, don't try reading it again. It's not just that this makes it too easy--it also makes it too boring. Worse, because you already know what you're reading, it can lull you into a false sense of accomplishment--of thinking that you understand what you're reading when you really don't.
  3. The book should be exciting. I like crime novels, action-adventure, etc. Find something that sounds fun. If this is your first novel in the language, you'll need something interesting enough to get you through the first chapter. Young-adult novels may be a good compromise. They're only a little simpler than mainstream novels, and they're action-packed.
  4. The book should be contemporary. Books over 100 years old often use different grammar and/or spelling. Sadly, most of the free books on Amazon are old ones.
  5. The book should not be too hard. Literary writing uses a bigger vocabulary and often uses unusual grammar. Science Fiction often makes words up (some claim that this is offset by the fact that SF is otherwise simpler).
  6. The book shouldn't be too long. Under 200 pages is good. Over 500 is probably too much.
  7. The author should be one you haven't read before. Authors have favorite words and phrases that they reuse a lot. That's part of why the first chapter or two of a new novel is always the hardest to get through. But if you keep reading books by the same author, you're not growing. That said, if you really like an author, that can add a lot to your motivation to read.
  8. The book should be a professional publication. You do not want to be reading something with spelling or grammar errors in it! Almost all self-published books are really bad, and it doesn't matter what language they're written in.


Start by going to the foreign-language section of Amazon's US Kindle eBooks store. If you're in the UK, then visit the UK store.  Amazon Canada is more complex because French Books are listed separately from Foreign Books. In any case, look at the left-hand column and select the language you're interested in. That will then let you select the genre (e.g. crime stories, science fiction, romance, etc.) and finally you can look at the top twenty or so best sellers.

With that restriction, start at the top of the list and ctrl-click on every novel that seems like it might meet your criteria. This opens up a separate tab for each one. When you get to 10 or 15, go through them and discard any that don't meet the criteria above.

Now take some time and read the book descriptions on Amazon. Discard anything you're sure you wouldn't be interested in. (For example, I won't read anything that depends on some conspiracy theory being true.) Then have a look at the comments from readers--especially the three-star ones. To get more comments, go to Amazon's foreign-language site (e.g. for Spanish) and read the reviews posted there. You can't buy anything from the foreign language site, but it's perfectly okay to read the reviews. Be suspicious of anything that doesn't have very many reviews. Goodreads is another place to look.

Of the books that remain, do Google searches for the titles and/or authors. See if they have Wikipedia articles that say anything positive about them. Look to see if they won prizes.

For any book that passed your screen, add it to a Wish List. Amazon lets you create private, named wish-lists to keep track of books you're thinking about but haven't decided to buy. Sleep on it. Review the list in the morning, and buy one!


Conventional Wisdom

Many people will tell you not to attempt a book if you need to look up more than five words per page. You'll get discouraged and give up. There is a lot of truth to this recommendation--it certainly describes my own pre-Kindle experiences. But I claim that advice is now out-of-date for the following reasons:
  1. A Kindle with electronic dictionary eliminates 99% of the work involved with dictionary lookups. That completely changes the equation.
  2. The notion of "a page" was always shaky (would that be a page from a hard-back book or from a paper-back book) but on a Kindle it makes no sense at all. Scholars studying reading usually talk in terms of words. To read a novel without a dictionary, you can only be confused about 1 or 2 words in 100. I would adapt this rule, then, and say that there should only be 1 or 2 hard words in every 100. That means words that take more than a few seconds to figure out even with the dictionary.
  3. If you use the old standard, there are almost no books that an intermediate student can read. The ones that are available are called graded readers, and they use a carefully restricted vocabulary. They're very expensive, they're rather boring (in my opinion), and there are very, very few to choose from. (Most of them are for people who are trying to learn English.)
  4. It makes more sense to estimate the difficulty after the first chapter. Unless it's really easy or the author is familiar to you, the first chapter will be by far the hardest. It's not good to give people reasons to give up so soon.

A Cautionary Tale

A friend or a teacher may recommend a book to you. You should welcome that, but check it out a bit before you read it. I'll illustrate just how bad it can be.

When I was a senior in high school, the teacher of my fourth-year Spanish class assigned each of us a novel to try to read over the Christmas holidays. She gave me La Gaviota by Fern├ín Caballero. For all the reasons I've described earlier, I failed to finish even the first chapter. Thirty-eight years later, I am still ashamed to admit that I lied to her about it, claiming I'd read it but that it was just really, really dull.

In the summer of 2014, after I'd mastered the technique of reading a foreign novel using a Kindle, I decided that after all these years I would finally make this right, so I bought a copy of La Gaviota and read it all the way through. Even with all the resources of modern technology, it took me weeks to finish it.  Part of the problem was that it was written in 1848 and the grammar and vocabulary were different enough to make quite a few sentences difficult to decipher. I eventually broke down and bought an English translation, which I consulted when all else failed. (The translation turned out to only cover the first half of the book, but fortunately I didn't need it after that.)

And it was awful. It's about a peasant girl whose talent for singing briefly lifts her to the top of Spanish society but whose selfishness and ingratitude destroys her life and the lives of those around her. There isn't a single likable character in the story. The book has an unfinished feel to it, at least by modern standards, because it has numerous plot elements that go nowhere and lots of characters who are introduced but never developed. Worst of all, the novel's message seemed to be that God was punishing her for rising above her place and punishing those her helped her do it. Yuk! (For a different opinion, read Eva's glowing review of La Gaviota.)

To add insult to injury, the book was actually a translation from French into Spanish, so it wasn't even an authentic Spanish novel in the first place.

On the bright side, I no longer feel quite so ashamed of myself. Mrs. Parker never should have assigned such a book to an 18-year-old boy. Not without strong guidance on how to read it, anyway.

So pick your novels carefully. If you like, you can review my own list of novels. These are books I've read, am reading, or thinking about reading.


Tom Parys said...

I wrote a critique of your post in a Reddit comment if you'd like to retort.

Greg Hullender said...

Thanks I did reply. But you didn't need to delete your original comment, as long as it's civil. People reading the blog can benefit from discussion. In particular, when it comes to picking books, the single most important thing is to pick a book that will motivate you to get through the first chapter or two and will keep your interest long enough to finish it. Because different people are different, it stands to reason that my guidelines will work better for some than others.

eleanorl said...

anything besides amazon and kindle for finding novels? I thought that's what this would be about. I use aldiko and could not find foreign language books there though supposedly there is a section for spanish

Greg Hullender said...

Well, just because you found a novel on Amazon doesn't mean you have to buy it from Amazon. :-) You could also use the same strategy with any online vendor.

Bear in mind, though, that reading foreign novels is very hard without an electronic dictionary. A device like a Kindle greatly expands the set of books that you're capable of reading.

If you stick to printed books, you're probably limited to graded readers until you build up at least 4,000 to 5,000 word families of vocabulary. Since most intermediates have between 1,000 and 2,000 and since people generally can only add at most 1,000 per year, that means using graded readers and newspaper articles for three or four years before you can tackle even a popular novel.

A Kindle (or equivalent) let's you start reading normal books now.

Stella B. said...

I live in California and I can borrow current Spanish books from my library for free. I use the Overdrive app. If you live in a state with a smaller Spanish speaking population or a, um, less enlightened attitude toward Spanish, you can actually buy a year's subscription to a California public library for $35 or so. If you live in California, most public library cards are not limited by location.

I'm thinking about using a second device, my back up credit card, a fake Canadian address and a throw away email address to set up an Amazon account to buy French language modern novels. Talk about stupid. I do not understand why publishers don't want to sell books to as many people as possible or why Amazon can't use it's power to bang them over their 19th century heads until they knuckle under and start selling across borders.

Greg Hullender said...

Amazon tried forcing the publishers to set reasonable prices for e-books, but that didn't go very well. Hachette was able to make it look like Amazon was the bad guy, not them.

I think a part of the problem is that the same laws that govern e-books also govern movies. Companies rarely (I think) sell the worldwide rights to their movies and would likely resist any attempt to change the treaties that govern this today.

I have thought about writing to groups like the Francophonie to ask them to lobby publishers to find some way to help foreign students. I'd be willing to register with the French government as a US student of French if it would let me have unrestricted access to French e-books.

Emily Liedel said...

Hi Greg,

Overall, I like what you wrote about finding stuff to read, although I personally prefer to read on dead trees. I'm curious, though, why you rule out children's books in your selection process. I actually think that young adult novels (I'm thinking like Harry Potter-equivalents) are the best place for learners to start. The grammar is the same as any other novel, but vocabulary tends to be simpler (that is a good thing for a language learner) and the plot is also usually simpler. At the same time, they are generally well-written and engaging. I recently read a children's / young adult book in Chinese, and it was doable; I'm now reading a real, adult novel in Chinese, and it's exceedingly difficult.

Stella B. said...

I'll second the Harry Potter recommendation. They are engaging, readable and, best of all, available. Fo whatever reason, the publisher has been able to sell the foreign language electronic editions world-wide.

Greg Hullender said...

Actually, I did say "Young-adult novels may be a good compromise." :-) For more or less the same reasons Emily gives.

I still advise staying away from translations, though.

montmorency said...

Don't forget you can get free public domain books from Project Gutenberg, in a variety of formats, including Kindle-compatible formats. Quite a few languages are represented.

Because they are public domain, this of course means that they tend to be older, "classic" books, so the style of language may be a little old fashioned. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but people should be aware of this limitation.

(Some of these books are of course also available on Amazon as well, and for free).

Greg Hullender said...

Yes, it's fairly easy to import any of the Project Gutenberg books into Kindle. However, Amazon has already done the work for most of them, and you can "buy" them for zero dollars. Not only is that easier, it also means the books and your notes will be shared between all your Kindle devices.

suraj said...

Hi Greg,

Could you please suggest a few German novels that I could start off with once I finish my duolingo tree?

I'm usually a choosy reader, but I'm guessing serious novels may not be my greatest allies when it comes to tackling a new language. Or maybe I could be wrong.

Greg Hullender said...

I'm going to attempt "Death in Venice" Der Tod in Vendig, but I'm probably still five or six months away from that. Fairy tales in simplified language are more my speed at the moment. Here's a very extensive list. See if these are too easy for you.

Leslie Lim said...

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Jim said...

Amazon’s offerings of out-of-copyright foreign books can of course be augmented from many soures, in particular (German), (Italian) and (Spanish). No doubt everyone reading this blog already knows that non-DRM epub books can easily be converted to mobi for use on the Kindle using the free Calibre software.

Many Continental European publishers are paranoid about eBooks and when they do make copyrighted titles available often do so under a geographical licence. For German books the best available answer to the latter problem is the Goethe Institute, which has an excellent range of in-copyright books you can borrow. Sadly, they’re in ePub format so you can’t read them on a Kindle.

Greg Hullender said...

Are you sure you can't convert an ePub book to mobi format? This recent article on PC Magazine suggests you just need to buy an application to do it.,2817,2484180,00.asp

Jim said...

Interesting: in the US you can read DRM’d library books on the Kindle. In the UK you can’t.