Sunday, July 12, 2015

La Sombra del Viento: A fun read for advanced readers.

I really enjoyed La Sombra del Viento (El cementerio de los libros olvidados nº 1, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 2009), but it's not a book for an intermediate reader. A B2 reader aspiring to become a C1 reader could attempt it (and probably should consider it seriously), but a weaker reader will be overwhelmed.

What the book is not

Right off the bat, let me say that nothing magical or supernatural happens in this book. Some of the reviews (even the professional ones) leave that impression, but there are no ghosts here except the ones in people's minds, and there are no angels or demons except the human kind. Those, however, are plentiful.

This is not a Young Adult novel. Yes, the protagonist is only 10 years old when we first meet him, and he's only 19 for the rest of it, but this is literature, and it's targeted at an adult reader. It's a thrilling story, but the book is not a thriller.

What it's about: A spoiler-free outline

In post-WWII Spain, during the time of Franco, Daniel Sempre, the young son of a bookstore owner, comes across a captivating novel titled "The Shadow of the Wind" (La sombra del viento) by a Julian Carax. He loves it so much, he wants to find more books by the same author, but despite the book being relatively-recently published, he has trouble finding out anything about it or its author. Both he and his works appear to have vanished with hardly a trace.

Initially just from curiosity, Daniel tries to investigate the mystery. He finds some clues, and he meets some resistance. He makes unexpected friends and enemies, he falls in love, he travels all over Barcelona, he crosses paths with the local police and even tangles with Franco's dreaded secret police. The more he learns, the more he realizes that something truly monstrous happened back before the war, and the more he wants to know exactly what that was. But, whatever it was, it hasn't finished happening, and he finds himself in the heart of it.

The book never gets dull, and the tension builds right up to the climax. 

Why it's difficult

The degree of difficulty is almost entirely due to the vocabulary, which is extremely large. There are a few words I couldn't find at all, and I suspect those were borrowed from Catalan, but the enormous vocabulary of ordinary Spanish words is the real challenge. With a Kindle and a dictionary, it's not impossible, but, as I said above, if you're not already a fairly strong reader, you're likely to be doing so much of it that it'll spoil the fun. 

If you do attempt it, I strongly recommend following a policy of trying to use the built-in monolingual dictionary and only resorting to a bilingual dictionary if that fails. If you're strong enough to read this book, you should be strong enough to use the monolingual, but, more important, a lot of this vocabulary just isn't going to be listed in any of the bilinguals currently available on Kindle. In a pinch, you can open the monolingual dictionary as a book and use the bilingual dictionary to help you read the definitions.

How I read the book

I tried something a little different this time. Beyond just reading it on the Kindle, I highlighted all the words I had to look up and, for the first 10% of the book, I created flash cards for each such word. I used Anki's basic template, not the fancy two-way template I usually use, because I wanted to minimize the effort. That is, I only studied how to translate Spanish words into English--not the other way around. I persisted with this for the first 10% of the book.

It was way too much work. Yes, it did help speed up my reading, since, like most authors, Zafon tends to have some favorite words and expressions that are otherwise uncommon. But the effort was so great that it detracted from the fun of reading, so I gave it up at about the 10% point.

Part of the problem was that the list of words grew too fast. Anki generally only wants you to learn 20 new words per day at most, but I needed over 100. That turned out to be agonizing. Another problem was that the chore of simply creating the words was unpleasant, owing to the fact that the Kindle app on Windows wouldn't let me copy/paste text, so I had to retype everything.

I still think this would be a great approach, but Amazon would have to help. First, for each word, it would be nice if Amazon could tell me how many more times I can expect to see it in the book. Words that don't occur again, I could skip. Second, it should help me generate the cards in the first place.

Kindle users are probably aware that Amazon does in fact have a "Vocabulary Builder" feature that purports to do just that, but, unfortunately, it doesn't really work. First, it doesn't create cards for root words--only for word forms. So instead of one card for colgar you'll end up with separate cards for colga, colgó, etc. Second, instead of a simple definition, it shows you the original sentence you read it in, which makes the review too easy. Third, it cannot handle phrases at all. There's no way to make dar con a single card. Fourth, there is some sort of memory leak in the software, and the more cards you create, the slower your Kindle becomes, until it reboots itself. Unfortunately, if you turn the feature on, it creates a card for every word you look up--including ones where you say "Oh yes, I knew that" as well as ones you only looked up to verify that you really understood them.

(I'll write a post sometime with a list of things I think Amazon could do to assist students of foreign languages in general.)


Despite the challenge of reading it, I really loved this book. I'm powerfully tempted to read the other books in the series.

Feel free to review the list of foreign novels I recommend reading as well as reference books I use for learning how to read foreign languages.

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