Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Not literature. Not even close.

When I was packing for my trip to Italy, I knew I'd want some books for my spare time. I picked a novel by Philip K. Dick, because I like me some speculative fiction and he was one of the masters. I also got a copy of Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli: It's a memoir of his year in exile to the Basilicata region during the Mussolini years, and since that was right next door to where I would be spending my first week or so, I figured that it might be atmospheric, and a good opportunity to read one of the classics of Italian literature.

But whenever I start to make a certain amount of progress with a new language, I find it's useful to start reading light fiction -- usually historical fiction -- in the target language. [1] Even if I can't understand every word, or even every sentence, I start to catch the rhythms of the languages, and a handful of idiomatic phrases. And because it's hard to get it at the beginning, I always go for a book I've already read a couple of times in English, so I have the context. That way, if I get into a linguistically difficult passage, I can tell myself, "Oh, this is the part where they go to the market and meet the priest guy for the first time" or something similar. And so, a few days ago, I sought out an Italian version of the same book that I had previously read to help me through the late-beginner/early-intermediate stage of German and Spanish.

What is this compelling work of literature, you might ask, that you return to again, and again?

Uhmmm... it's... ummm... ::cough:: Pillars of the Earth.

I'm sorry: I didn't catch that?

Pillars of the Earth.

 What was that?

Pillars of the Earth! By Ken Follett! Okay?

I know: it's not great literature. Or any literature at all. But here are some of its advantages:

(1) It's super-absorbing narrative, if not a particularly subtle one.

(2) The vocabulary is not too difficult, and as a medievalist, some of the weirder stuff may actually be useful to me someday.

(3) Historically... I've encountered worse. Same goes for the prose. (I'm looking at you, Idalfonso Falconés).

The fact is, I have a long history with this book: I read it for the first time the summer before I graduated from college... and I realized that there was a whole set of questions about medieval history that I had yet to answer. In other words, this melodramatic doorstop of a book bears 50% of the responsibility for my decision to apply to grad school. [2]

So, I do keep returning to it. Which is why this week finds me on page 26 of the 950-page I pilastri della terra. Ed ancora mi piace.

[1] Something interesting that I've observed: Europeans are wild for historical fiction. If you go into a European bookstore (open until past midnight! awesome!), you'll find that most have an entire section for historical fiction. I can't speak to the quality, but I can tell you that people here simply devour it.

[2] The other 50% is down to a bad breakup. But I've told that story elsewhere before.


nicoleandmaggie said...

The hygienist was amused that I had Nice Girls Don't Date Dead Men with me this morning. I don't have any good reasons for that other than it's light and easy to read.

My captcha is "Reading Kexedia" I don't know what/who Kexedia is.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I am very impressed by people who can read in other languages.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

That's a great idea. At one point I was reading German nurse novels to improve my German. The problem is, I can read the nurse novels or narrowly focused scholarly articles, and not much else. Historical novels would undoubtedly be better than science fiction, another genre I tried and bogged down in; they'd have much more useful vocabulary!

Anonymous said...

I read it to recover from prelims, and just yesterday loaned it to a neighbor who couldn't find it at the libe. Must be the zeitgeist of late June.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Reading a familiar book in another language is a fantastic idea. Who cares what it is? Hey, it wasn't Twilight. (Full disclosure - I've read all the Twilight books and Pillars. It's fun to read crap.)

Susan said...

This would be a lot more fun than my reading in French. It turned out that reading LeRoy Ladurie in French was *not* great preparation for conversation, even with my ex-brother-in-law's farming relatives... I wish someone had suggested this to me!

Dr. Virago said...

I remember enjoying Pillars of the Earth, but I read it before I was a medievalist, so take that with a grain of salt. At least it's not Dan Brown.