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 Falcon├ęs).

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.


Anonymous 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.