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Books I recommend for learning German (classics)

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Since I only really like classics, here are the books I recommend for diving into Central European and German culture.
I mostly chose fairly short books because I know from experience that it’s very hard to motivate yourself to start studying a language and to read longer books in a foreign language. There are some longer books on this list as well if you scroll down a bit.


1. Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink

Difficulty level: 4/10

Number of pages: ~200
I hated this book when I first read it, mainly because the first half consists of a lot of illegal sex (15-year old guy, 36-year old woman) and some very confusing events, but by the second half it starts to make a lot more sense why these scenes were included in the first place.
There’s a movie with Kate Winslet that I didn’t watch in full length (because I don’t watch erotic/romantic movies), but I watched the second half and liked it a lot.


I feel like the book is a good start for getting to know the implications and aftermath of the NS regime in Germany. It also addresses how a lot of people who grew up in Nazi-Deutschland (Austria was a part of it but they called it Deutsches Reich) still had the exact same way of thinking and ideology years later.

Here's the trailer of the movie in English:

And in German:

2. Die Ermittlung by Peter Weiss


Difficulty level: 8/10

Number of pages: ~240
Not a lot of people know this book in Austria, but it is most certainly one of the most interesting ones ever written. It is a popular play (because it’s very modern and well-written for being presented on a stage) based on the „Ausschwitzprozesse“: the trials after the end of the war in the 50s where nazi criminals were sentenced and killed.

Peter Weiss was very interested in the trials (just like Hannah Arendt was, pretty sure some Americans know about her and her unpopular opinion(s) about the Holocaust and Eichmanns role in particular). It may be disturbing to read, but from a linguistic point of view, it is art, and when you look at the content, it works with the witnesses‘ accounts and makes the play worth reading/seeing.
I think that this is one of the more advanced books on this list but I love it a lot because it’s serious without pointing fingers. Everything the author wants to say is said without there ever being a line that tells you precisely what the message of the book is. I like that.

Full length play:

3. Die Physiker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Difficulty level: 5/10 because of old vocabulary - other than that, 3/10 due to simple sentence structure

Number of pages: not even 100
A true classic (written according to the tradition of Aristotle (3 Aristotelische Einheiten, unfortunately I couldn't find a translation), „die Physiker“ is one of the only original works written and produced after WWII. Dürrenmatt was a very popular Swiss author who was very successful in the German speaking world.


This is by far the most popular play of the 60s. This play makes absolutely no sense when you read it in translation. It’s also a lot of fun to imagine everyone speaking Swiss German while reading this book.

4. Der Besuch der alten Dame by Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Difficulty level: 4/10

Number of pages: ~160
Yet another brilliant play by the same author, this book tells the story of a billionaire who returns to her home town to seek revenge. Her home town is almost bankrupt and she offers the town money if the citizens kill the man who impregnated her when she was young. She had to move away over night and is still very bitter about it.
It’s an absolutely bizarre comedy and makes a lot of sense when you read it as a non-American in my opinion.

The dude behind all of this creative and brilliant stuff (we'd call someone like that CHEF in Austrian slang lol look at him smoking a cigar (or is that a joint?) and basically not caring about what's going on around him):

5. Andorra by Max Frisch


Difficulty level: 4/10

Number of pages: not even 100
This is perhaps a more serious and political book, and is arguably one of Frisch's most famous works (next to Homo Faber). He was also very popular and praised when he was still alive and even lived in Rome with Ingeborg Bachmann (a very controversial Austrian Lady) for some time, until he moved on to another woman.

Andorra is about a guy who thinks that he's a Jew because his father always told him that he is one, but then he finds out that he isn't and it's all pretty interesting to see the storyline unravel this plot twist. There's more to it but I don't want to take everything away!


I do not recommend reading Ingeborg Bachmann‘s poetry or other works to people with a level of German that is below C1 because it will most likely make absolutely no sense and her work is too meaningful (she also lived with Jean Paul Sartre for example) to not be understood. She most likely killed herself and also most likely had some mental illness but I like how interesting her work is.

Another CHEF
Another CHEF

Max Frisch interviewing himself:

6. Corpus Delicti or Unterleuten by Juli Zeh


Difficulty level: 9/10 because of long sentences, the books are thick and they take a long time to get going

Number of pages: ~260 or ~600
This author uses very specific vocabulary and long sentence structures which I personally find very appealing. Her work is complex but also a lot louder than her male colleagues‘ which I already presented - at the end, it’s usually clear what she wants to say.
Corpus delicti (the title is latin but the book is German) is a dystopian and utopian novel about a woman that lost her brother because of a new system that failed her brother. In this new system, HEALTH is the most important objective of society and politics and it is extremely important that you obey all rules. It is somewhat similar to the current political situation.
Unterleuten takes approximately 300 pages to get going but it’s worth a read if you are really serious about working on your German. It’s a story about a small town with old thinking patterns.

Juli Zeh
Juli Zeh

7. Schachnovelle by Stefan Zweig


Difficulty level: 4/10

Number of pages: ~110
This is another very meaningful book because Zweig wrote it while he was in South America (he had to flee due to the political situation) and killed himself (with his wife) the same day that he handed in the transcript for this book.
He couldn’t handle being away from the Austria that he loved. He was torn away from a community that already loved his work and felt awful in his „new home“ which was an exile to him, even though he still made quite a lot of money in South America and the USA in comparison to other exiled authors.


This book discusses chess briefly (the board game) and the main topic is political imprisonment. It’s a great book if you get it, and I think that both the Spanish and the English translation are probably also very good because they're quite popular as well. My mother first came into touch with this book in South America for example, when she was learning to speak Spanish.

There's a movie called "Farewell to Europe" about Stefan Zweig's life that I personally liked very much. I think that through the movie you understand his life more and the struggles that he had in South America and the USA; he missed Austria, Switzerland and Germany a lot. He didn't get why people believed Hitler and followed his ideology. He stood up for a unified Europe without war.

The film is multilingual; though mostly German, it contains Portuguese, Spanish, French and English scenes (as you can see in the trailer below). We watched it at school after I recommended it and since most of us speak German, English, French and some Spanish, we were able to follow everything without subtitles.

8. Franz Kafka: Die Verwandlung or Prozeß


Difficulty level: 7-8/10 due to old German and rather long sentences at times, also old grammar and ortography that is now considered wrong (for example, "Prozeß" is no longer correct; under the new spelling rules, it's "Prozess")

Number of pages: ~50-60 or ~250
Kafka is another Austrian classic that is an absolute must-read for German learners. Spotting an annoying person when they speak German is easy: listen for their use of „kafkaesk“ or anything else that ends with „-esk“ and you’ll know that they’re pretentious if they use these words too much.
Kafkaesk is an adjective that originates from French/Italian and means that something is related to Kafka‘s work.


Both books are extremely typical for Kafka. Die Verwandlung is about a Banker who turns into a huge bug over night and then has to deal with that while not being accepted by his family. Kafka felt very lonely and not accepted by many people in his immediate surroundings and this book shows that.
Prozeß is about a guy (also a Banker because Kafka was a Banker as well) who is invited to his own trial but he doesn’t know what he’s done. He tries to find out whether he’s guilty and what the maximum charge is but it is very difficult.
Both books sound boring but they’re very well-written and essentially master pieces. Everyone should have read a Kafka in their lives. Also in translation but if possible in German ;)

Authors I recommend

Switzerland


My absolute favourite authors are Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch because they’re Swiss CHEFS meaning they were funny guys with a lot of personality. They lived at the same time and helped each other out.
Martin Suter is another Swiss author I like a lot. He wrote "Die dunkle Seite des Mondes", which is a book about a guy who takes magic mushrooms and then changes a lot.

Germany


I’d say that some very important and famous German authors are: Bertolt Brecht (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, Dreigroschenoper), Thomas Mann (basically the German Hemingway) and Peter Weiss (Abschied von den Eltern, Die Ermittlung).

Austria


Important Austrian authors are: Elfriede Jelinek (Die Klavierspielerin), Peter Handke (Wunschloses Unglück), both of which won a Nobel prize for literature and Thomas Bernhard (Frost).

Comments on diversity


I just want to add that I have no idea who was a Jew out of the people on this list; I realise that my suggestions are mostly leftist works written by men, but this represents the majority of works I read and those that I grew up with in general.

Which books do you like and recommend for learning foreign languages?

Books I recommend for learning German (classics)
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Most Helpful Guys

  • DamnSam
    I didn't learn it from books, just because there is no pronouncing lession in it... thats why everyone notices if someone learned the language later in life...

    You probably have seen people who say "se" instead of "the"... thats right, they learned it from paper in a country where "se" is called "good enough" because ther person who teached it, also didn't speak English, he just reads it
    Is this still revelant?
    • I disagree with you. Having a wide range of vocabulary is always an awesome feature.
      German pronunciation makes no sense. Also, there's a very wide range of accepted possibilities - many foreigners pronounce „bisschen“ like you’d say „bishen“ in English wenn you should say „biss“ first and then „Chen“ (but the ch sound is difficult for many people already). i understand people who mispronounce that word and frankly, I don’t care. I also understand people who say Diwan instead of Couch or Sofa, and I get why some would prefer to say Trottoir instead of Bürgersteig (Germany) or Gehsteig (Austria). I say Stiege, Germans say Stufen or Treppen. Does it make sense why only knowing one word will be difficult? With most of the words, it’ll make sense how they’re pronounced after some time in a country where German is spoken. Having an accent is normal. i will never speak perfect clean German, simply because I grew up in Austria and always speak in dialect whenever I can. Even when I tutor my German student (who‘s Dutch) I’ll say „Awa da san Ma uns sicha dass des a so bleiben wird, zumindest dadat I des so sagen“ instead of „aber da sind wir uns sicher, dass das auch so bleiben wird, zumindest würde ich das so sagen“, because I know that the understands me and that he has to speak and understand both Standard German and dialect if he wants to get around in Austria, Switzerland and Bavaria.

      If I learn Spanish, I can choose between Spanish spoken in Spain and Spanish spoken elsewhere. The same applies to french and many other languages for sure.

    • DamnSam

      Pretty interesting to see the difference in the dialect...
      "Owa do sa ma uns sicha dos des a so bleibm wird, zumindest darad I des so sogn"
      Im sure you can see it...

      German is a pretty hard language to learn because its so old... most newer languages have a lot of similarities with german but like you said, knowing the language and speaking it perfectly to a native german are 2 different things, and even if, there are so much dialects...

    • Carinthian I assume? :D

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  • Avicenna
    Kafka was Jewish. Not sure about any of the others. The word "Kafkaesque" exists in English too.
    Is this still revelant?
    • Interesting. I believe that Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht were jews too because they fled from the Nazis but maybe they also feld because their work was considered "entartet"... Would have to look into that.

    • Avicenna

      Out of those three, only Zweig was Jewish.

      Great Take (one of the most interesting I've seen) and thanks for the MHO.

      Perhaps German learners should be warned about "Thomas Mann Saetze"

    • Hahaha yeah true. Thanks for the compliment! I appreciate it.

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What Girls & Guys Said

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  • LMNOP123
    Thank you! I've been studying German for 14 years. I was able to speak it to the people when I went to German speaking countries, read it, have a conversation and understand what locals said. Though, I do have to stop and think about my words sometimes. Word order and der, die, das and RESE NESE MRMN (reese niese mr. Man is how it's said to help learners remember) are my weak points. I can always improve my fluency.
    • I‘m so glad this helped you! These are my personal recommendations, I should mention that they’re on the difficult side but I’m a strong advocate for continuously challenging yourself :)!
      Word order is difficult in German because it changes the meaning of a sentence, the same goes for punctuation; in English, you usually get away with leaving out a comma, in German, this can get you into serious trouble because especially in writing, it can change what you’re saying.
      Der die das is a Classic, I had several native English speakers as teachers and they didn’t even try anymore at some point xD
      What is RESE NESE MRMN? never heard of that before, very curious to learn what it means.

    • LMNOP123

      I think I can handle it. If I don’t understand it all, I tend to get enough to understand the gist of it.

      Hahaha! Oh my gosh xD I don’t feel too bad about der, die, das because my host sister born, and raised in Germany, said she had a hard time with it too when she was a kid. We had an Irish man as a tour guide. He’s lived in Berlin for 15 years and is married to a German woman. I told him about my problems remembering it and he says he still messes them up too. No one really cares.

      Ah! I forgot to add the SRSR part. So, RESE NESE, MRMN, SRSR. It’s adjective endings! Really confusing for me.
      Nominativ- RESE. Akkusativ- NESE. Dativ- MRMN. Genitiv- SRSR
      I’m sure I won’t be able to explain it clearly (my brain is already feeling overloaded!) so here’s reddit to do it for me! Hahaha!

  • CarlosAL
    I like your post a lot, these days I am looking forward to learn more German, during university i took two courses but they werent so good. What would you recommend to keep learning?
    • How many hours did you learn German already then? Reading books is a good way to deepen existing understanding. I’d recommend watching movies or watching documentaries by the „Bayerischer Rundfunk“, they speak very nice German on YouTube. The ones where they interview people are a little too difficult.
      Shutter island includes good German scenes, they did an excellent job there actually. That’s a start.

  • Jjpayne
    This is very detailed! Thank you for putting it together! I'm sure anymore that is looking to learn German will find this very useful
  • 7771999
    Wish I had the focus and patience to read a book. Lol
  • jessicarosen
    Love this take! Thank you for the recommendations.
  • loginfailed
    Thank you. Would be very usefull
  • Anonymous
    So all you did was google the curriculum for books in German lessons? If someone starts with these books I can assure you they will not learn one thing. The books are Classics, sure, but that mean advanced readers should read these, not beginners. When I read these in school I did not enjoy it at all because it was hard to understand and they generally did not have great storylines. I don't want to know how hard it would be for a beginner - it would just discourage them. I'm sorry for being this harsh, I'm sure we just have a different taste in books, but again I personally would never recommend these to a beginner.
    • Sorry I don’t get your first line at all, I didn’t do that, I went to a very difficult school and think that these are adequate for people who are serious about learning German.
      I get why they’d be too difficult for some, but in my experience, it’s more fun to be overwhelmed than underwhelmed. Also, kids and teens thrive when you give them a challenge. Adults tend to give up.

    • I didn’t google anything, this is my personal list. I only read about a quarter of these in school. I don’t mind you being harsh, I just don’t see that you’re being reasonable here - this is a personal list, a recommendation, not something set in stone.

  • Anonymous
    I can teach you German lol
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