Book Luck and Beyond

It is hard to be a bookworm, when you can’t find many books. That is, I can find as many Tagalog and English books as I like — but German books require a lot more luck.

And I have been lucky several times. My copy of Der Kleine Prinz came from the boyfriend of one of my best friends, who had studied German in high school and still had his old copy. I was able to get Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen and Bis(s) zum Morgengrauen thanks to friends whose siblings were taking business trips to Germany. I found Im Garten der Götter and Die Rätsel des Hercules at two very different used bookstores that normally carry only English-language books. Yes, these are all “just” translations — and most of them translations of books I have already read. But they also helped me a lot, and inspired a post about the experience. (Link to Reading Translations: Old Books in New Languages.)

For the last few months, however, my luck ran thin. I didn’t have a German book to carry around.

“German” Book: Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten

To be perfectly accurate, I did have a German book. I just didn’t want to read it.

Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten, the German translation of an obscure American “Chick Lit” novel, was not a book I would have chosen to read. Nor is it a book my current German teacher would have bought for herself. A friend of hers found it in a used bookstore in Manila, recognized the text as German, and bought it for her as a gift. And I found it behind a stack of textbooks and dictionaries in my teacher’s classroom. Although it was not my type of book at all, I told myself: it was still better than nothing.

A few weeks later, I had to admit that I was wrong. On the one hand, Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten made a good exercise, with sentences like the following:

Ich halte mich an dem schmalen Sims fest, auf dem Stapel von Angeboten des Heimlieferdienstes eines benachbarten chinesischen Schnellrestaurnts liegen.

(My very literal translation: “I hold on to a small ledge on which lies a stack of home delivery flyers from a Chinese fast food restaurant in the neighborhood.” [It’s so much better in German that I’m sure the original English is totally different.])

On the other hand, the novel was simply the most boring book I have ever started. It was also written in the present tense — a style choice I don’t mind in Engish, but seem to loathe in German. (A friend found the American books The Hunger Games unreadable for this very reason, and I did not understand him until now.) Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten spent weeks lost on my cluttered desk, after one morning I forgot to put it back in my purse, and I didn’t really care. In language learning, boredom equals bad luck.

Meanwhile, English books were putting up very strong competition.

English Book: The Bed of Procrustes

One author whose Twitter account I follow is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A few days after I forgot about Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten, I was browsing in a local bookstore. There I found his book The Bed of Procrustes. In the introduction, I read:

Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts — we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit — but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum rather than the reverse.

It was the richest paragraph I had read in a long time. It showed me how starved of deep reading I had been, without knowing it. So although The Bed of Procrustes broke my “German immersion” rule, I bought it immediately. Happily for me, it’s a collection of aphorisms rather than a regular non-fiction book. This means I can read one sentence a day and still get a lot out of it. This is the least-damaging compromise I could have found for my reading!

But it doesn’t make up for not having a good German book.

(Real) German Books: Geschichte von Herr Keuner and Grimms Märchen

When I finally gave up and brought Briefe und andere Zärtlichkeiten back to my school, I got lucky again. Doubly lucky. Someone had just given my teacher a new book for the pile in the classroom: Bertolt Brecht’s Geschichten von Herr Keuner (Stories of Herr Keuner). And the newest tutor practically pushed his copy of Grimms Märchen (Grimms’ Fairytales) into my hands.

I may know very little about German literature, but even I know that Bertolt Brecht is an important writer. And of course the Märchen of the Brothers Grimm are great German cultural treasures. This is the best “book luck” I have had since I started learning German! I can’t believe I almost said no just because they were all short stories.

For my German reading, I really prefer long texts, like novels. I like staying with the same story as long as possible instead of starting a new one immediately after. (This is also why I prefer German TV series to German movies.) So Geschichten von Herr Keuner and Grimms’ Märchen were also not books I would have chosen for myself. But in this case, my “book luck” knew me better than I knew myself. The Märchen, in particular, are fitting beautifully into a new system I have discovered for remembering vocabulary. I plan to blog about it soon . . . and about the Märchen!

Beyond Luck

It is a little lazy to rely only on good fortune. I should be taking more control of my reading — the way I have taken control of my listening and television viewing. If I listened only to German CDs or watched only German DVDs that I found by chance, I wouldn’t be able to quote as many lyrics or understand as much conversation as I can now. The key was finding series and artists that I really liked. When I started looking for German books, I had no idea what I should have been reading — so in a way, any book would have been okay. Today I have a better idea of what is good and what I enjoy in German. The rules of my hunt should change.

German books do not require luck. They require determination and some spending. In my case, they also require planning and help from friends. For instance, since I can’t trust the local post office and international shipping to the Philippines is very expensive,  a friend in the US is helping me out. She says I can use her address when I buy books, and she will bring them in her luggage during her annual visit home. I have made a few other arrangements with friends who travel more than I do. If all goes well, I’ll soon be able to write a follow-up post entitled “Books beyond Luck”!

How have you been lucky (or unlucky) in language learning?

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