土曜日, 4月 09, 2005

6 Ways to Tell if a Book is Readable

    In a second language, that is.
    Friends who are learning English as a second language sometimes ask me to recommend/pick out for them/lend them English books. My own literary tastes can cause me to misstep and give them something much too difficult. Likewise, when I pick books for myself to read in Japanese, I often choose something too ambitious, then give up as soon as I feel discouraged. The problem is I really love science fiction and fantasy, long books, obscure books, and literary classics. However, I've come to realize that buying books I never read in Japanese is a real waste of money and time for me. Even worse, it's discouraging. In the interest of making more reasonable choices, I offer for your comment this list of guidelines for choosing a novel to read in a second language.

1) Pick a short book.
    The most important, but oft-neglected first rule. It can be very motivating to read a short novel and realize you can finish it in just a couple of days.

2) Don't choose a book that is more than 20 years old.
Languages change with each generation.

3) Read a bestseller.
Bestsellers have something to appeal to the popular taste, and that something can help you to finish it.

4) Novelizations are easier to read than novels.
Sometimes after a successful movie, someone will write a novelization of it. Because it's based on a movie, it will probably be driven by a strong plot and be easy to follow. Also, reading a book that was made into a movie can be nice because you can see the movie afterwards. However, bear in mind that books that were made into movies are generally more difficult to read than books that were written after the movie.

5) Pick mystery, horror or romance over fantasy and science fiction.
Mystery, horror and romance feature everyday situations in the real world. Some science fiction and fantasy books CAN be easy to read (Examples in Japanese are anything by Hoshi Shinichi, and Ono Fuyumi's 月の陰陰の海, which was the first book I finished reading in Japanese after coming on JET) but more often they're not, and you have the added burden of wondering whether the words you don't know really exist or if they were just made up by the author. Plus, it can be hard to figure out what's going on if literally ANYTHING can happen. Once you figure out the rules of the alternative world you're reading about, you will probably be able to read it as well as any other genre, but getting into a new series without knowing the rules can be confusing.

6) Choose a book that was written in your target language, and is famous among native speakers.
Don't read a translation. It should also not be a book you've read before in translation, since you won't have the motivation of wanting to know what happened. If in doubt about whether or not it's well-known, ask a couple of native speakers if they've heard of the book before reading it. A good book will create a splash when it comes out that should be remembered.

By the way, why isn't there a way to search Amazon, or any other book database, for "easy-to-read", either as a key word in the reviews or as some kind of independent search criteria? I am seriously going to write Amazon about that one of these days. Sometimes I don't care about anything else, I'm just looking for something "読みやすい".

Books that are easy to read in English:

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Janet Evanovich, One for the Money
Marilyn Sachs, Hello, Wrong Number or Class Pictures
Torey Hayden, One Child

Books that are easy to read in Japanese:

Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen 吉本ばなな  キッチン
The novelizations of movies like Ju-on, 呪怨 Ju-on 2, and Old Boy オールド・ボーイ by 大石圭; in the same series(角川ホラー文庫), there's one of Saw (ソウ) by 行川渉。    
Nishi no Majo ga Shinda, by Nashiki Kaho
梨木香歩  西の魔女が死んだ
Natsu no Niwa - The Friends, by Yumoto Kazumi
湯本 香樹実 夏の庭―The Friends (translated as The Friends in English)

Others...? Please comment.


  • At 7:24 午前, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    The 'teen' novels sold in the manga section tend to be compulsively readable and extremely easy. I used to go through them like candy.

    In that category, I find Akizuki Koo to be a pretty good writer (a lot of this stuff has the awful-but-compulsive quality of Harlequin romances), but she also writes a lot of gay sex and melodrama. She's good if you're into that sort of thing.

    Teen novels also lack the wrist-slitting depressiveness of real literature. Kitchen was the lightest real literature I've read, and I nearly put it down for good when SPOILER died.


  • At 10:43 午前, Blogger Matt said…

    Nice post! I'd add that manga are also pretty readable for beginners, especially the ones set in the real world.

    Murakami Haruki is not so hard to read, and as an extra bonus people in other countries know who he is, so you can have conversations about his books with them. But like you mentioned I would not recommend doing the old "reread my favorite book, except this time in Japanese!" thing. It just gets boring.

    Non-fiction can be good -- a slim 100-page book on a topic that interests you. Especially if you're interested in traditional Japanese culture, there are all kinds of books like "introduction to kimonos" or "beginner's guide to bonsai" or whatever that are lavishly illustrated with photos and will teach you ten times as much as you'd learn if you had to suck all the information through the straw of translation.

    other authors that have a style I think is not too difficult to follow: Yamada Eimi/Amy; Uchida Shungiku (often X-rated, though); Akagawa Jirou (lots of dialogue!).

    Re your "Yomiyasui" comment, have you noticed that English books in bookstores here often have a TOEIC score on their obi? It's like "If you scored this much or higher, you can probably handle this book". (_Trainspotting_'s was pretty high.) I guess that wouldn't work in Japanese though since the JLPT only has 4 gradations, probably only the top two of which are book-reading level..

  • At 11:50 午前, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    I second Murakami Haruki. His style is pretty easy to read and he has lots of short stories. Kangaruu-biyori is full of really short ones, but he also wrote some "cho-tanpen" stories that were collected in Yoru no kumozaru. These are about two pages each and are a lot of fun to read.

    daniel-san - got JET!

  • At 3:31 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Matt - funny you mentioned Uchida Shungiku. I just finished reading her "Father F*ker" book this morning. I changed the cover with another paperback of the same size so people wouldn't give me funny looks when I read it on the train. I read it in just 4 days, and now I'm hungry for more yomiyasui stuff.

    There is the occasional manga or romance that I like, but most of them just bore me. Short, comupulsively readable novels that are well-written but not too literary is the middle ground I'm looking for. I have read Yamada Amy and Murakami Haruki before, and I read an Akagawa Jiro novel too a long time ago but wasn't that impressed with it, maybe because mysteries aren't really my thing, but if there's one of his in particular you think I'd like I'm willing to give it a try.

    Yes, I've noticed the TOEIC score thing. It's not practical to expect them to do the same thing for us, with so few of us and so many Japanese books! ... but we can make a list of books we found to be yomiyasui and worth reading.

    OK, I created an account on http://booklog.jp/
    Log in as "yomiyasui"
    Password 1485

    - and you should be able to add to the list. Please add any short Japanese novels you recommend as being omoshiroi and yomiyasui. I'm looking mainly for novels rather than manga, picture books, or nonfiction.

  • At 8:16 午後, Blogger Matt said…

    Oh, man, FF was one of the most gruelling things I've ever read. I could hardly stand it. (Not because it was badly written, but because of the content + real-life context.) But I felt this weird obligation to get through it, since I enjoy her other work so much and clearly she wanted to tell the FF story too...

    I kept mine in an old paper book cover. :D

  • At 11:56 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Thanks for your comment, Emily. I looked at the Akizuki Koo stuff on Amazon. Is there any particular title that you recommend?

    Dan - Congratulations on JET!!! Do you know what prefecture?

    I will put the two Murakami Haruki titles you recommended on The List. I read a couple of his short stories in Japanese in college and I liked them, too. I should probably read more of them.
    I do like his writing style a lot.

  • At 9:45 午前, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    A search for 読みやすい on Google brought up this page:


    which lists some romance and fantasy titles that may be good for second-language learners, although reading Harry Potter in Japanese is *NOT* recommended IMHO. On this list the only one I've tried was キノの旅
    The beautiful world; I tried that when Homodachi was reading it. It looked interesting but I never finished it.

  • At 6:10 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    Excellent post.
    I agree that translations are a bad idea. Therefore I would not recommend Coelho.
    Margaret Marks

  • At 8:32 午後, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    thanks! i'm very excited. won't know where until may, but i requested kyoto, hyogo-ken and then shizuoka-ken. hopefully i'll end up in kansai. spent last year in tokyo and would like to see some new stuff.

    also NOT included in the yomiyasui category would be the japanese translation of thomas pynchon's V. heh, i like the original a lot, so one day at kinokuniya i decided to take a look at the translation. madness. i would have gotten it, but it was expensive to boot. (i think over 6000 yen between the two volumes it's been split into.)

  • At 10:29 午前, Blogger butterflyblue said…

    Great, maybe they'll put you here in Hyogo then.
    Hehe, two of the books I bought the first time I came to Japan were a Japanese translation of Crime and Punishment and another of the Odyssey...needless to say I never read them!

  • At 11:35 午前, Anonymous 匿名 said…

    If you're interested in Akizuki Koo, the Fujimi Orchestra series is a pretty good bet--starting with the 3rd book, 'Manhattan Sonata.' (These are VERY easy to find in used bookstores, in my experience). The series does decline in quality with the later books, though.

  • At 3:17 午後, Blogger butterflyblue said…


  • At 11:10 午後, Blogger NewsMan said…




<< Home