Polish Language Blog

Adventures in Reading po polsku – a guest post Posted by on Aug 26, 2009 in Culture

Remember how a few posts back I said all kinds of fun things about Joanna Chmielewska and recommended her books as an easy and painless choice for a beginner Polish reader?

Hmmm… Not so, apparently. This is what our fabulous guest blogger, Barb from Canada had to say about her experiences of reading Chmielewska. But not only Chmielewska. Barb tackled a few other books and this is what she has to say:

My commitment to learning Polish naturally included reading Polish books. Up until last year, the only Polish book I had ever read was Sienkiewicz’s “W pustyni i w puszczy” (assigned reading in Polish school).  I wanted to read books written by Polish authors that had a distinctive Polish voice or soul (dusza polska), not books translated into Polish.  Scanning the shelves at our local library (biblioteka) wasn’t very helpful, so I approached a friend and asked to borrow (pożyczyć) a few books.

I started with “Jestem nudziarą” by M. Szwaja. A light, easy read that falls into the genre of “chick lit”.  The book was very contemporary (współczesna), exposed me to female dialogues and relationships with men… – tricky the world over, it seems.

Next, I tackled “Szajka bez końca” by J. ChmielewskaChmielewska is a very popular and humorous author of criminal mysteries/adventures (powieści sensacyjnych i kryminalnych).  Other than the novelty of having a few chapters set in Barry’s Bay, home to Polish-Canadian cottaging and scouting camps (obozy harcerskie) with unpleasant memories of scratchy grey wool uniforms (mundurki), the book fell flat for me.

These reading exercises sound painless right?  They were excruciating actually.  My need to slowly mouth each word, besides causing dry-mouth, quickly got tiresome.  My other challenge was deciding how often to consult my dictionary (słownik).  Mostly, I tried to ascertain the meaning of a word from the context of a given paragraph.  I did have a 4-word rule however: if an unknown word appeared four times within a single sitting I would look it up.

Much of my initial frustration centered around making the link between “known” words and “unknown” spelling (ortografia).  Inevitably, I would be struggling my way through a 5-syllable word (why do Polish words have so many syllables btw?), only to experience an “I know that word, so that’s how it’s spelled” moment.  Embedding those written letter patterns with the known word sounds in my head was painful.  I have much better French letter pattern recognition due to years of aimlessly reading bilingual cereal boxes over breakfast.

My word recognition and reading speed eventually improved which also resulted in less “dry-mouth”.  After a time, I decided that I should also read out loud every day.  Having a greatly inflated opinion of my abilities (did I mention that I have a confidence problem?) I wanted to give “voice” to the lovely prose I could “hear” in my head.  What a disaster!! (co za porażka).  More about my pronunciation and verbal abilities in another post.

Eventually, I hope to work up to some serious Polish literature (literatura polska).  One of my goals is to read “Pan Wołodyjowski” by H. Sienkiewicz, a book I’m rather sentimental about.

PS. Barb, you too? “Pan Wołodyjowski” is something that I want to read as well. I’m very sentimental about the TV series.

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  1. Kuba:

    So Barb, what do you suggest we neophytes try reading in Polish?

  2. Thomas:

    I’ve been studying Polish for about a year now. Had lots of grammar and working on my vocab. I find my self wondering what the best time is to start really reading a book?
    Is it worth the effort if you need a dictionary with every sentence? Or maybe you should be reading when that’s the case. Any opinions/suggestions on this?

  3. barsorro:

    Hi all!

    Let me share a doubt… While Sienkiewicz’s “W pustyni i w puszczy” is probably a good book for an advanced intermediate (or advanced) learner of Polish, I think it a fairly crazy idea to assume that all of this author’s works are recommendable for inexperience users of the language. I don’t want to sound patronizing or present myself as one of those odious Poles who discourage foreigners from taking their Polish a step up! Not at all! It’s only that Sienkiewicz is nothing short of famous for his arcane handling of language stylization in his historical novels. Reading books from the so-called “Trilogy” (“Pan Wołodyjowski” is the last part of that series) or “Krzyżaki” you will encounter Polish that is _totally_ unlike anything you’ve ever heard or that you’re ever likely to come across in your life — unless you’re in mind to turn yourself to historical studies 🙂 I definitely suggest you steer clear from this literature and… leave it till a time when not only you will hardly ever need to consult a dictionary, but… you’d actually be proficient enough in Polish to have your friends consult you about the language 🙂

    All right, joke aside, Sienkiewicz really is _that_ difficult. Polish secondary school students have to _bore_ themselves through it. And that is purely on the grounds of the stylizations, for otherwise Sienkiewicz makes for an involving adventure fiction, nothing particularly profound.

    Yes, yes, I know — at this point I should come up with some recommendations of my own. Well… That’s nothing so easy for me. Let me ashamedly admit I’m not much of a book-worm. And I don’t read an awful lot in Polish. What’s worse — I don’t read those page-turner action stuff that doesn’t involve subtle metaphores and layers of hidden meanings — and it is this kind of books that use direct descriptive language worth of acquisition.

    Having said that, until I can perhaps think of something better, I’d like call up to your attention to two book series. One of them is by Zbigniew Nienacki and it goes by the collective title of “Pan Samodzik i…”. This is a series of relatively short novels which fall into the mystery-story category. Their protagonist is a museum custodian who uses his holidays to investigate mysteries involving stolen, misplaced or smuggled works of art. An attribute that additionally sets him out from the rest is a unique car which is a peculiar mix of a self-made amphibious all-terrain with a Ferrari drivetrain. (Needless to say, practically every book of the series features a car chase. :)) It’s a good, light read, although I must warn you that those books have some years on the clock, so you if you’re looking for a feel of the actual and the contemporary, they may not satisfy you. It shouldn’t be amiss if I describe this writing as an easier version of Chmielewska, aimed at younger audience.

    The second series is one of crime stories by Marek Krajewski. The series starts with “Śmierć w Breslau”… which is the only book of the trilogy that I’ve read so far. What you will find there is your typical crime mystery set in the city of Wrocław at the beginning of the 20th century, that is: at a time when the multinational city was part of Germany (thus its name: Breslau). Be warned, however, that this is adult literature, featuring sex, violence and a dose of quite serious brutality.

    Last but not least, I would like to heartily recommend Andrzej Stasiuk. He writes all kind of stuff: from a tough jail prose, through contemporary urban fiction, to travel impressions. His style is clear, direct, sensual, and simple. Very powerful, authentic and interpersonal, although reflexive and even philosophical at the same time. One word of advice: don’t go for “Mury Hebronu” as that is his jail-theme novel: it’s quite extremely brutal and you are likely to find it offensive (it’s very dissimilar to other things he wrote).

    Well, that’s just my three cents 🙂


  4. pinolona:

    I liked the look of Stasiuk in Massolit but didn’t quite get around to buying anything by him.
    I’m currently working my way through Katarzyna Grochola’s ‘Nigdy w Zyciu’ trilogy (I know, I know…). Generally I don’t look up words. Sometimes this means I miss a chunk, but so long as I’m relatively awake when I’m reading I can normally work out what they’re talking about, and reaching for the dictionary interrupts the narrative.
    I tried Olga Tokarczuk several months ago but didn’t really do justice to it – will wait until my Polish is a little better before trying her again…

  5. Michael:

    I find reading difficult as a beginner because as well as not knowing the meaning of the words, I don’t know the pronunciation either and I don’t want to memorise the wrong pronunciation, I like to hear someone else say the word first. A book is too big a task for me.

    I do like reading the captions to pictures because they are short, the pictures help to understand what is going on and it is entertaining.

    Or the titles to stories like below:


  6. Chad:

    Barb, thanks for sharing your techniques!

    I am working these short stories and trying to do the same 4-letter-before-lookup thing:


    I also sometimes read out loud or quietly to myself, but tend to just focus on reading comprehension and figuring out just what the hell is going on 🙂

    I found the .mp3 files that go along with these stories, but I can’t seem to retrace my google search. Anyway, I have these burned to CD and listen to them in my car.

    It’s nice to approach the same material via reading AND listening.

    I’m no where near tackling an actual book yet… but I’ll get there sooner or later 🙂

    Love the blog, thanks for your time!!


  7. Ronald:

    I enjoyed Barbs comments on reading Polish Language Books. Its Summer now and I am getting Quite Lazy. In Pasadena We have a Polish Language Study Class and the books we are using are Wsrod Polakow I & II. Watching Polish Television with out studying does nothing for me. The Volume I is excellent because the reading is fun and the Questions and Answers pretty thoroughly make sure you understand Quite a bit what the author is talking about After making bad guesses as an answer You get the gist and all is forgiven. It is a little too much for the beginner, beginner. It is excellent in explaining the pronounciation and alternations. I think these books are going out of print. Anyhow these books are worth the money. If wanted its called Wsrod Polakow .It is by Brygida Rudzka of the University of Lublin.
    Right Now they may be obtained at the Polish Art center in Hamtrack Michigan.
    Well good luck book Hunting.

  8. Ronald:

    This is Ron again!
    Does anybody have a Comment on Wsrod Polakow Volumes I or II? I would appreciate all comments.

  9. Maria Clara Soares Correia:

    Hi, Ron
    I know this Wsród Polaków I and II volumes. I think they are excellent, only there is a kind of gap between I and II, I mean, the second is much more difficult and less practical, for example, the way they display vocabulary is tiresome. There should be a volume in between. Nevertheless, I think they are an excellent tool for the language. And yes, Polish becomes an obsession!…
    Till soon
    All the best

  10. Timek:

    Although it is probably a bit embarrassing to buy Kasia Grochoła’s pulp at the bookstore and suffer the condescending look of the shop assistant, I think it’s a good place to start for intermediate students. The content is simple and the language relatively unsophisticated – sort of the literary equivalent of polskie seriale.

    It’s also a good idea to look at graphic novels – if you’re into anime/manga this can be a great way to pick up vocab and everyday usage that the textbooks won’t give you (plus you get the context from the visuals which helps a lot).

    Best of luck to all of those learning Polish! I know how hard it is :-0

  11. Kasia Stankiewicz:

    I left Poland when I was nine years old so my Polish is quite basic. I’m now 29 and thinking it’s about time I try and get better at it. Any suggestions of light and easy reading? Something modern too?
    My cousin suggested Harry Potter but it’s a bit too much fantasy.


  12. Basia:

    Hi Kuba/Ron:

    So sorry about the very tardy response about reading materials, but the reading post was put up a day after I left for my trip to Poland.

    Re: What to read, where to start questions?

    Thinking back, I made things a little to difficult for myself by limiting my initial choices to Polish authors. I wanted a true Polish voice, soul (blah, blah, blah). Reading is a journey, it really doesn’t matter where you start. If I had it to do over again, I would pick a book I know (translated into Polish) and start there. I suggest that the book be very “dialogue rich”. Conversations are much, much easier to understand than description-rich prose. The other good thing about “dialogues” is that it helps with conversations.

    Personally, I think I would have chosen Harry Potter. The books are aimed at youngish readers, but the storytelling is good enough to engage an adult. Other ideas: Marnie and me, Twilight series.
    Keep it very simple, but something that can keep you interested.

    Someone commented below that “pulp” fiction is also a good place to start.

    It is hard at first. You have to persevere. It gets easier. You’ll notice that every author uses stock phrases, words that are repeated throughout their book. They become very recognizable.

    The first two chapters of the book will take about 5 times longer to read than the last 2 chapters.
    Good luck

  13. Basia:

    hi barsorro:

    Thanks for all the great reading suggestions. Never in my wildest dreams would I suggest anyone start with Sienkiewicz. I just wanted to go on record that “w pustyni i puszczach” was the only book I had ever read many, many years before, and I did so because it was required reading in Grade 8 Polish school.

    “Pan Wolodyjowski” happens to be a reading goal of mine (one I hope to reach one day), it is steeped with sentiment for me. Sometimes one needs an emotional overlay to take on difficult challenges.

  14. Basia:

    Hi Chad:

    If you are tackling Swan’s “opowiesci mojej zony”, you are ready to tackle books my friend. Take the leap. I quite enjoyed reading the short stories. I took a slightly different approach with them however. Since the stories were short (5-7 pages) I decided that I would read/review /analyse the material very comprehensively. I looked up every single word I didn’t know, I analyzed grammar patterns, I made lots of notes in the margins. The glossary provided a nice, safe harbour and helped with vocabulary.
    Good luck with the reading and let us know how you make out.

  15. Basia:

    Dear Kasia:
    Give “Jestem Nudziara” a try. I think it is right in your wheelhouse. Light, breezy, contemporary.
    It’s sort of a Polish Bridgit Jones. I liked it. It’s a fun place to start.