Reading novels can help you learn German by helping you with new vocabulary, seeing how the language is used in practice, and understanding more about German culture.
The novels we’ve reviewed in our short guide are best for intermediate language learners, i.e. levels B1 and B2. Some of them are suitable for learners at level A2 as well, like the 2 extra in the title.
Before we get to the books, did you know you can get them 100% free? Just go to the German Kindle store, then the free short classics or free classics sections.
If you don’t want to read classics – yes, they’re not for everyone – look at Amazon Kindle’s list of free contemporary titles. Click on Top 100 gratis for the latest.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s classic tops our list, unsurprisingly. The title is translated as “Faust 1. The First Part of the Tragedy”.
The fact that the plot’s divided into scenes is quite useful to language learners. It follows Dr. Faust and his ill-fated quest for free will as he is caught up in the perpetual and relentless conflict between the Devil and God.
Originally published as a serial novel in a Swiss journal, “The Judge and His Hangman” by Friedrich Dürrenmatt may date from 1950, but it’s still relevant.
The mystery novel centers on the search for the perpetrator of a crime. In a lot of German schools, it is mandatory. The fun detective story is suitable for intermediate learners of the language who are looking for some light reading. The language is simple and the plot is intriguing, yet straightforward.
This was not written in German originally – it’s actually Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s 13th work – but that doesn’t mean it’s not good for German language learners.
The title literally translates as “The Pilgrimage Years of the Colorless Mr. Tazaki,” but it is far from religious in nature. The middle-aged protagonist ponders why he was cast out of his friends’ social circle back when they were at school.
This makes it relevant to adolescent learners of German as well as to those of us, whose existence proves the wounds of adolescence take years to heal.
Notice that in the title, “Herr” does not take the genitive ending -s like Mann would, ex. “des farblosen Mannes”. This is because “Herr” is in the category of N-Deklination nouns. These are masculine nouns, which take the ending -n in the accusative, dative, and genitive cases.“The Pilgrimage Years” sold over one million copies in just a month. Mr. Tsukuru Tazaki muses over his Vergangenheit and Gegenwart, but his partner urges him to let go of the past and move on.
No list of German novels – or of novels made into movies – could be complete without Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”.
Written in 1985, this coming-of-age/mystery novel shines the spotlight on a killer with an extremely powerful sense of smell. The kind where he can smell a toad in a river tens of miles away. The protagonist, who was born with no body scent, stalks and kills young women on his prowl for the “perfect smell”.
The plot is not hard to follow because Süskind’s sentence structure is pretty simple. The narrative style gets a bit complicated at times, but that shouldn’t deter you.
The book has sold over 20 million copies, making it the most-read 20th century German novel.
Momo is an exciting novel for learners of all ages. Author Michael Ende, famous for his fiction, is one of the most popular 20th century writers.
Momo is the quirky tale of a child who takes time back from time-robbers and returns it to the people.
Leonie Swann’s novel was translated as “Three Bags Full”, but the literal translation is “Glennkill: A Sheep Crime Novel.” It’s actually written from the viewpoint of a flock, who find their shepherd has been murdered and play detectives to find the killer.
The people of the town and reporters are also involved. They gossip, speculate, and talk comprehensibly in German.
Here, the author means “human” by “homo”. The protagonist Walter Faber is a successful engineer. Swiss author Max Frisch portrays his rational approach to life in skillful detail.
Faber will take logic over love and fact over feeling any day. He’s doing great until a series of unconceivable coincidences forces him to reexamine his principles.
“Homo Faber: A Report” is a great starting point for students of German who want to read a well-written modern story from a first-person perspective. It is not shallow, but it is not challenging either. You can also watch the movie starring Sam Shepard.
This is perfect for learners of all levels. The well-known children’s book, published in 1929, is about a young boy who leaves his village to travel to the German capital.
The story has realistic descriptions of art, crime, and cabaret. If you want to learn more about life in Weimar Germany, it is a must.
“Die Arbeit der Nacht: Roman” (Night Work: A Novel) by Austrian Thomas Glavinic is a must if you’re a fan of post-Apocalypse works.
The protagonist Jonas wakes up realizing he is the last man alive. The novel dives into the meaning of life and human existence. An interesting new subplot is ushered in as Jonas begins struggling with his unconscious, manifesting itself in strange activities he does in his sleep.
Few are unfamiliar with Hermann Hesse’s classic, so there’s no better time to read it in German.
This is the story of a young man who turns his back on his family to pursue his lustful and avaricious aspirations. He wants to start a new life and he does, albeit not exactly as he imagined. You can discuss this popular book with other learners and deepen your knowledge further.
Many of us are familiar with fantasy tales like Michael Ende’s popular “Never-ending Story”. The book is a great opportunity to become familiar with common fantasy literature vocabulary.
Last but certainly not least, we recommend “The Reader” (as in the movie starring Kate Winslet, based on this book).
It is about a teenage boy that starts an affair with an older woman, who opens him up to sex and other, less expected things. This intermediate-level novel was written by Bernhard Schlink. The subdued clarity helps the reader grasp the essence of the story rather than force them to filter through vocabulary endlessly.
How Can Reading German Novels Help You Improve Your Skills?
Novels are a great way to transition from the intermediate to the advanced stage. These German novels are perfect for learning the language because they are easy to understand.
Many people are familiar with the stories of the classics because they’ve read them in their native language in school. Understanding what is going on becomes easier. You can watch the movie also if the novel was made into one.
German novels expose the reader to language variety. Intermediate ones in particular offer a vast range of linguistic differences and story lines, giving the reader the chance to learn about German dialects and even interesting historical varieties.
Helps with Remembering Vocabulary Easily
Intermediate novels help with new vocabulary by placing it in colloquial language and conversation. A lot of teachers say colloquial language shouldn’t be learned. We beg to differ. It’s something you’ll find indispensable in everyday life if and when you move to a German-speaking country.
You’ll always come across new words regardless of whether you’re learning German with textbooks, modern stories, or classic literature.
Use online dictionaries to help you learn new German words or an old-fashioned German-to-German dictionary if you have the time and patience. These dictionaries are helpful by providing definitions of the words in German. You’re then more likely to remember them. There are pictures of the ones that are more difficult to explain.
Exposure to German Culture
Finally, there is valuable cultural understanding to be gained from reading novels in German. The reader is exposed to history, helping them obtain further knowledge of how German culture has developed over time.
Bonus: 2 Collections of Stories
Short stories are easier to read than books. We recommend the Baumgartner & Momsen detective series to lower intermediate learners and the Café in Berlin collection of short stories to beginners.
The detective series is very popular with readers across the globe. It is about two detectives’ adventures with a focus on natural everyday speech and idioms. The series is complete with exercises and an integrated dictionary.Café in Berlin was written to help learners transition from studying words and phrases in isolation to comprehending naturally flowing text. This collection of short stories was crafted to let beginners understand and appreciate the intricacies of spoken German using basic vocabulary and simplified sentences.
For more German reading materials, check out German Short Stories for Beginners! It comes with built-in dictionary within the stories so no need to check the words you don't know
A FUN AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO LEARN GERMAN