Ah the good old-fashioned book – a relic of a not-so-distant past.
Sometimes overlooked as a means to learn a language, books in all shapes and sizes come in handy once your brain has melted from overexposure to the internet. The German language’s literary legacy is expansive – from poetry to philosophy, fiction to thrillers. Perusing your local library or bookshop, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever finding German books (or books translated into German), classic or contemporary.
Don’t forget that audiobooks are also a great way to learn the language and work on your listening skills, and don’t require all that pesky reading!
For your pleasure, the Gymglish team has selected five books in German germaine to improve your German. See what we did there?
1) Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812 – 1815)
Whether you’re beginning to learn German or have a more advanced level, you’re bound to be enchanted by Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Reading the tales in their original tongue will help you add new vocabulary to your lexicon and learn typical German expressions. What’s more, re-discovering the German versions of books you may know from childhood is an efficient way to passively absorb German grammar and tenses without having to work too hard on comprehension. Hänsel und Gretel (Hansel and Gretel) Schneewittchen (Snow White), Rapunzel… all the classics are in this unique collection of folk tales Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) published in 1812.
Initially, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were intended for an adult audience. The tales brim with symbolism, reflecting German societal issues during the 17th century. The Brothers Grimm sparked a movement to preserve oral storytelling in the form of books
Did you know? The Brothers Grimm also wrote the famous German Dictionary which describes the vocabulary used in written German from the middle of the 15th century until today. The project was so complex that by the time Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm died, they had only completed up through the letter E. Entschuldigung, everyone.
2) Das Parfum – Die Geschichte eines Mörders, Patrick Süskind (1985)
One of the most popular books in contemporary German literature, Das Parfum – Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) was written by German novelist and screenwriter Patrick Süskind (1949-). The novel tells the story of a highly intelligent but obsessive perfume-maker, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, in 18th-century France. With over 20 million copies sold and translated into 48 languages, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has become one of the greatest German mainstream literary successes in the 20th century.
First serialized in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper in 1984, the novel became an international bestseller and was adapted for the silver screen by Bernd Eichinger (1949-2011) and Tom Tykwer (1965-) in 2006. The book is an allegory of Hitler and the Third Reich.
Did you know? Despite the novel’s success, Süskind lives a secluded life away from the public eye.
3) Die Leiden des jungen Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
“Sometimes I don’t understand how another can love her, is allowed to love her, since I love her so completely myself, so intensely, so fully, grasp nothing, know nothing, have nothing but her.”
No list of great German books would be complete without mentioning one of the preeminent figures in German literature. The tragic epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) was written by German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe is one of the key figures of German literature, and his works include dramas, lyric and epic poetry, as well as writings on literary theory and science.
During a ball, Werther falls desperately in love with Charlotte. Little does he know she is to be married to her best friend Albert. Tormented by his deep love for Charlotte, the young man begins to see only one way to escape from his anguish – by killing himself. Suicide is a subject often broached by the author, but highly controversial at the time. The novel was described as “immoral” – and criticized due to the spike of suicides which would later be called Copycat suicide (or the “Werther effect”). In 1787, Goethe published a revised edition of the novel.
Did you know? The novel became so popular that thousands of young men throughout Europe imitated Werther’s form of dress, and went as far as attempting to copy the suicidal act from the book. Option one is probably more festive.
4) The works of Bertolt Brecht
Born in Bavaria, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was an influential German playwright, librettist and poet. Brecht created the genre of “epic theatre” (or “dialectical theatre”, as he preferred to call it), which emphasized the audience’s reaction to a play. Brecht encouraged the audience to relate to his work on a rational level rather than an emotional one.
Brecht’s career began during the Weimar Republic. He lived in exile during the Nazis’ rise to power, returning to East Berlin after the Second World War.
His best-known works include: Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), which he wrote in collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill, Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan) which provides a critique of capitalist society.
Did you know? Brecht was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. An ironic honor at best.
5) Die Verwandlung, Franz Kafka (1912)
We end this selection with the timeless short story Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). Written in 1912 and published in 1915, the novella is regarded as one of the most influential literature of the 19th century by Franz Kafka. In his work, Kafka typically blends magical realism and fantasy, creating isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments.
The story takes place in the protagonist’s home, Gregor, who wakes up one day to find he has been transformed into a grotesque insect. The novella focuses on how Gregor adjusts to his new life as an insect and how his transformation affects his family.
Kafka used a unique style of writing, often void of emotions. Instead, the reader is faced with a descriptive and concise novel. Despite the absence of dialogue, the text is gripping and plays with metaphors.
Did you know? Only a few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime, notably the short stories Die Verwandlung and Das Urteil (The Judgment).
Bonus: Ein paar Leute suchen das Glück und lachen sich tot, Sibylle Berg (1997)
Ein paar Leute suchen das Glück und lachen sich tot (A Few People Search For Happiness And Laugh Themselves To Death) was written before the turn of the millennium by Sibylle Berg. The book tells a story of three generations of lost and unhappy souls who can’t find their place in society.
Berg has become an icon of German alternative circles and is a hero of the LGBTQ community.
Did you know? Before becoming a writer, Sibylle Berg was a puppeteer. Perhaps that’s why she tugs on our heartstrings.
- Fünf documentaries that will earn you high Deutsch marks (aka help you learn German)
- 5 films that make learning German even more wunderbar
- 5 catchy songs to learn German (Caution: May knock your lederhosen off)
- 5 television shows to learn German
- 5 German dishes that aren’t the wurst (except one of them actually is)