Books to Read in Germany

Reading and travel, two of my favourite things.  Reading about travel, even better.  I confess that when I travel I like to have at least one book in my suitcase that is either about the country or written by a native.  This summer we drove across Germany: here is my list of books to read in Germany.

Books to Read in Germany

HISTORY BOOKS TO READ IN GERMANY

THE SHORTEST HISTORY OF GERMANY by James Hawes

Everything you need to know about German history from the earliest settlement, through the Roman occupation, the many German principalities, the rise of Hitler, post war economic recovery and reunification.  Told succinctly and in an incredibly easy to understand manner.  This is the book that all four of us read during our Germany holiday this year.  There were unseemly scuffles to get hold of our now battered copy as one person finished it.  Even if you are not visiting Germany, I would recommend that you read this.

  • Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes
  • Published by 
  • Paperback £8.99

THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE by Thomas Harding

The story of twentieth century Germany is told via the history of one house and the five families that lived in it.  It was built by a Jewish family as a rural retreat from Berlin, when they fled Germany, it was taken over a composer and his film star wife. They, in turn, were forced to leave the house at the end of second world war.  We follow the house through Soviet occupation and through to reunification.  Somehow because we get to know the people and the house, the nation’s history seeps through in a way that dry texts just don’t.

  • The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
  • Published by Old Street Publishing
  • Paperback

STASILAND: TRUE STORIES FROM BEHIND THE BERLIN WALL by Anna Funder

We talk to the teens about the Cold War and the Iron Curtain and it is nothing more to them than the Second World War reminiscences of my parents …. ancient history.  On the ground it is hard to believe that East Berlin and East Germany were once not only forbidden territory but hugely different to our reality.  In Stasiland, Anna Funder talks to and tells the stories of the people who lived behind the wall.  We learn what it was like to be watched and controlled by a less than benevolent state.

TRAVEL WRITING TO READ IN GERMANY

THREE MEN ON THE BUMMEL by Jerome K Jerome

Following the huge success of Three Men on a Boat, Jerome K Jerome wrote about his three heroes’ travels in the Black Forest on bicycles.  This had me snorting with laughter at various points.  A Bummel, in case you were wondering, is a journey of any length that has no set route but does have a set amount of time in which to be completed.

A TIME OF GIFTS by Patrick Leigh Fermor

OK, so I included this in my Books to Read in the Netherlands selection but it is one of my favourite ever books and so makes a reappearance.   Eighteen year old Patrick Leigh Fermor sets out to walk from the mouth of the Rhine to the mouth of the Danube in the lead up to the Second World War.  Inspiring, beautiful writing.  One day I will travel from mouth to mouth.

TO THE END OF THE RHINE by Bernard Levin

This is no longer in print but available for pence second hand on a well known internet bookseller.  Bernard Levin was a giant of a journalist in the latter part of the twentieth century and this is his account of his journey from the mouth of the Rhine to its source.  I include it here because it came out during the period that I lived on the Rhine (Mannheim and Basel at different times) and just captured the way that the great river flows through the history and economics of region.

CLASSICS TO READ IN GERMANY

THE SORROWS OF THE YOUNG WERTHER by Johann Wolfgang van Goethe

Goethe is German literature to many people.  He wrote Romantic literature and poetry (he dabbled in politics, science and garden design too): an all round clever clogs.  The Sorrows of the Young Werther was his breakthrough novel but he also wrote Faust.

GRIMM FAIRY TALES by Philip Pullman

I know, Philip Pullman didn’t write the Grimm Fairy Tales.  The Brothers Grimm wrote the tales but in all honesty the siblings prose is a little dense and very scary to the modern eye.  Philip Pullman has retold his fifty favourite tales Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella are all here.  Fantastic stories retold by a master.

ELIZABETH AND HER GERMAN GARDEN by Elizabeth von Arnim

Another of my favourites.  Elizabeth von Arnim was an Australian who married a German Count.  Elizabeth and her German Garden tells of a foreign woman married into the German aristocracy trying to integrate into society.  Tending the garden of her country estate gives her great solace as things go from bad to worse.  On the way you get a scene where our heroine whooshes across snow clad plains in a horse drawn sledge, I want to be that woman.

DEATH IN VENICE by Thomas Mann

Venice might not sound very German but Thomas Mann was German to his fingertips. You may be familiar with the film of the same name starring Dirk Bogarde based on the book.  A well known German author is suffering from writer’s block and goes to Venice to seek solace.  Whilst there he sees a beautiful young man with whom he becomes obsessed.  The pair never speak or touch.  Everything ends tragically.  Don’t let that put you off.

STEPPENWOLF by Herman Hesse

More dark nights of the soul with Steppenwolf.  This time we have a middle aged man who feels that he is ill suited to everyday life, especially its more frivolous aspects.  On his travels he discovers a magical theatre.  There is no happy ending for anyone.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front tells the tale of veteran of the First World War.  We follow him from his enlistment soon after the outbreak of war, back home on a visit and through many nameless battles.  This book made me cry, made me think about the ordinary men on both sides that became soldiers and made me realise that every story has two sides.

GOODBYE TO BERLIN by Christopher Isherwood

You’ve heard of Caberet, the musical, well Goodbye to Berlin is the novel that it is based on.  Meet Sally Bowles and the cast of Berlin habitués in the interwar period as Hitler begins his rise.  Slowly being Jewish or gay or even just different becomes harder and all the time the party keeps on going.

MODERN GERMAN LITERATURE

PERFUME by Patrick Süskind

Now I look at my copy of Perfume, it was published in 1985 …. not so modern any more, but as I bought it when it was new, modern it is.  Perfume is one of those books that stays with you.  It is gruesome and grisly and yet somehow deeply compelling.  An ugly man with a profound sense of smell becomes obsessed with beautiful young girls. To tell you more is to spoil the story.  Suffice to say that you will learn a lot about extracting the essence of aroma.

AUSTERLITZ by W G Sebald

W G Sebald is another of my favourite authors, he manages to introduce an amazing sense of place into his work.  That having said he is not a straight forward read.  Photographs pop up during the book, they appear to be real but we are reading a work of fiction.  Austerlitz tells the story of a man who arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport during the Second World War.  We learn of the story of his mother and her death in Theresianstadt and then onwards to Paris to unearth his father’s tale.

GUIDE BOOKS TO READ IN GERMANY

ROUGH GUIDE TO GERMANY

No journey is complete without a travel guide.  I dare say that in this age of the internet we don’t need them but I am a twentieth century girl and like a guide book.  I once tried an electronic version but missed the real thing.  When I lived in Germany the choice was between a Green Michelin Guide or Baedeker.  When the Rough Guide appeared it was if suddenly guide books were written in my kind of language and I confess I remain very loyal.  Where to go, what to see, what to eat, how to get there, a bit history and some politics.  Germany is such a vast country that the book itself weighs quite a bit and did spend most of its time in the car or the hotel room rather than being carried around.  

Do you like to read books that have an affinity to the region that you are visiting?  Do you have any favourite German flavoured books that I have missed out?  For travel minded bibliophiles I also have Books to Read in the Netherlands post that you might like.

“Untold
Two Traveling Texans
The Rough Guide to Germany was sent to me in return for an honest review.  All views are my own.