Learning Italian is important – we keep yelling it despite your requests for silence after midnight. But did you know that a good old-fashioned book is quite the aid in your language-learning journey?
Books of all shapes and sizes are key tools in improving your linguistic and cultural knowledge. Reading said books is a fantastic way to improve your vocabulary, reading skills and paint a fuller picture of how a language should flow.
Italy’s literary legacy is expansive – from poetry to philosophy, fiction to thrillers, you’ll have no trouble whatsoever finding Italian books (or books translated into Italian) that suit your taste and level.
Gymglish has selected 5 page-turners we deem essential to learning Italian for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners.
Il deserto dei Tartari, Dino Buzzati (1940)
In the 1900s, young officer Drogo is posted to an isolated, macabre fort overlooking an empty desert called the Tartar Steppe. But at Fort Bastiani, nothing ever happens, and soldiers seem to be waiting for a foreign invasion that never comes.
Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartare Steppe) by Italian novelist Dino Buzzati is sometimes compared to Kafka’s literary masterpiece Das Schloss (The Castle). It has received lowing reviews and has touched many generations.
Il deserto dei Tartari is more than a novel; it presents complex dilemmas concerning human nature and war and even existence. So some excellent light reading. It serves as a warning for those who focus too heavily on the future, and not enough on the present and reminds the reader that life is too short to waste.
Language level: We would recommend this novel for advanced learners of Italian, as it features complex sentence structure and vocabulary. You ought to read this 300-page novel at your own pace and use a dictionary if some of the terms used are tough nuts to crack.
Le avventure di Pinocchio, storia di un burattino, Carlo Lorenzini (1881)
Le aventure di Pinocchio, storia di un burattino (The adventures of Pinocchio) by Tuscan author Carlo Lorenzini was the second most sold book in Italy in the 20th century (after Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri). It has been adapted on the big screen multiple times, with the 1970s Disney animated version being one of the most well-known.
Perhaps you’re already acquainted with the tale of the wooden puppet whose lies are revealed when his nose grows. His mischievous adventures introduce you to characters that may have shaped someone’s childhood: Geppetto, Jiminy Cricket, the Blue Fairy and others.
Like many Tuscan folk tales, Pinocchio reflects moral lessons for children: disobedience does not pay, telling lies is seldom prudent, and children who love and care for their parents will be rewarded.
Language level: This fairy tale deals with complex topics including death and violence. But sentence structure will make it an accessible book to learn Italian, and it will prove to be a great vocabulary builder.
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La solitudine dei numeri primi, Paolo Giordano (2008)
Jump into the 21st century with Turin-born physicist Paolo Giordano’s debut novel La solitudine dei numeri primi (The Solitude of Prime Numbers). The novel took the world by storm and has sold over a million copies worldwide. It won the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, and was also adapted as a 2010 film by Italian director Saverio Costanzo.
The novel chronicles the childhood and early adulthood of two teenagers, Mafia and Alice, who have endured misfortune that follows them into adulthood. The two form a friendship that appears to be their only salvation. Over the course of 24 years, Giordano paints a contemporary picture of youth and loneliness through these two characters struggling to find their place in life.
The title of the book comes from the fact that prime numbers can only be divided by themselves or by one – meaning they never truly fit with others.
Language level: La solitudine dei numeri primi is a melancholic read that can be enjoyed by beginner to advanced learners of Italian, given that part of the success of the book comes from its minimalism in descriptions and dialogues.
Se questo è un uomo, Primo Levi (1947)
Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man) is a Holocaust memoir by Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi. The novel has sold over a million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 60 languages. Alongside The Diary of Anne Frank, Se questo è un uomo is one of the most memorable testimonies of the Shoah.
Se questo è un uomo is the account of Levi’s experience in Auschwitz, as an Italian Jew deported to the concentration camps under Mussolini’s regime. Levi describes the daily life of the prisoners and shares his moments of hope, like his friendship with Alberto, the arrival of spring, and reflects upon the dehumanizing nature of the camps.
Did you know? The book was rejected on four occasions before it was published.
Language level: Levi employs a simplistic style seeking to describe the concentration camps with brutal and direct honesty. The language is accessible to intermediate learners, with a bit of an initial push. It’s well worth the effort.
Il Gattopardo, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
Published in 1958, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) is Sicilian Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s first and only book. Initially rejected by publishers for its “weak structure”, it became a bestseller abroad as well in Italy. After the book won the prestigious Strega Prize in 1959, director Luchino Visconti adapted the novel for the screen, where it won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival that same year.
The story is set in 19th-century Sicily in the wake of the Risorgimento (Italy’s unification) and chronicles the life of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio, who foresees the upcoming downfall of his family.
Language level: Il Gattopardo is best suited for advanced learners of Italian, due to its complex vocabulary and sentences brimming with allegories.
Bonus: L’amica geniale, Elena Ferrante (2011)
Written by one of Italy’s most beloved writers, L’amica geniale (My brilliant friend) follows two friends, Elena and Lila, in the heart of a working-class neighborhood in post-war Naples. L’amica geniale is the first of Ferrante’s quadrilogy Neapolitan series.
Did you know? An eponymous TV series was created in 2018 by Saverio Costanzo and features mainly Neapolitan dialect.
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