A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Ready Player One on Kindle. I very much enjoyed it and if you’re into science fiction, as well as 70s/80s popular culture, I highly recommend the book. But, that’s not really what this post is about. It so happens, I read a French translation of Ready Player One, not the original English version. As I type, I can sense the purists shaking their heads. I agree, that in general, if you can read a book in the language in which it was written, that’s the version you should choose. Below, I explain why I sometimes ignore this ideal.
I also understand the objection to an electronic format. When it comes to cozying up on the couch for a pleasurable read, I greatly prefer traditional hardcover or paperback books. I love the feel of the pages and the weight of the book in my hands. I also believe the studies that claim readers of print retain more details about the story than readers of ebooks. However, if you are learning or trying to master a foreign language, the electronic format has several advantages that will accelerate your acquisition and assimilation of new vocabulary.
Before I dive in, one quick note. You don’t have to own a Kindle to read books available on Kindle. There are numerous free apps for Mac, Windows, Linux and elsewhere that will essentially turn your device into a Kindle.
1. Inline French Dictionary
Perhaps my favorite reason to read French on Kindle is a built-in French dictionary. While reading along, if you come to a word that you don’t recognize, simply select it, and a definition will pop-up on your screen. It may be that the word has many definitions and that the one offered, doesn’t seem to fit. In this case, you can jump directly into the dictionary and read a more complete list of possibilities as well as examples of common expressions using the word.
Rapid access to a definition is obviously convenient but more importantly, the franco dictionary keeps you reading French. Your vocabulary will grow more rapidly if you remain immersed in French while you read and avoid seeking out English definitions. This can take a while at first. In reading one word’s definition, you may come across another word that you don’t recognize and thus must also lookup. Again, Kindle still makes this easier than if you were reading print and using a printed dictionary. You can select any word in a dictionary definition and jump to its definition, continuing this process until you finally have a complete understanding of the initial word. Kindle’s back arrow, lets you rewind back to the original text, reviewing each word as you go.
2. Kindle Highlighting and Notes
My twin daughters are seniors in high school this year and both are in their second year of a two-year English literature class. One thing their teachers have stressed is the importance of annotating the texts they read. All students have to mark words they don’t know and also write comments on sticky notes that they leave in the books since they can’t mark up school property. Their teacher last year was so over-zealous on this point that he required kids to write 2-3 sticky notes for every two-page spread. I can attest that this sucked all the joy out of reading. However, in a weak defense of the teacher’s intent, I find that highlighting new vocabulary and taking a few notes is often useful.
Happily, Kindle provides features that allow you to do just that. You can highlight a section of text or a word simply by selecting it and then holding your finger on the selection. There are even different highlight colors if you want to get fancy about it. In addition to highlighting the text, you can add your own note. I use notes to write definitions for new phrases that I’ve had to track down elsewhere—those that weren’t already in Kindle’s French dictionary. If you want you can also tweet the selection, search for it on Wikipedia, or post it on FB, adding your own commentary—all without ever leaving your Kindle device.
3. Sharing the Story with Friends Reading in English
When I first started reading on Kindle, my kids were in elementary school and one of my daughters was a huge fan of Harry Potter. She really wanted me to read J.K. Rowling’s books so that we could discuss them together. I’d read the first volume of the series but my life seemed too busy to take on more. While my three kids were at school, I had begun working toward a degree in French. On the rare occasions where I found time to read for pleasure, I wanted to read non-fiction. Then I learned about the French editions of Harry Potter available on Kindle. It was just what I needed to convince me to read more of Harry’s adventures. If I was improving my French at the same time, I could justify the effort.
As you might imagine, I had to look up an awful lot of words at first. My vocabulary did not include nouns like drool, fang, claw, spell, broomstick, wand, elf, or goblin; verbs like shudder, dodge, growl, creak, plod, groan, or stammer; adjectives like gloomy, swarthy, squishy, beleaguered, tongue-tied, boorish, or whimsical; or adverbs like ineptly, fancifully, bleakly, or zealously.
It took me a while to get through volumes 2 and 3. I no longer remember the number of months but I’m sure that when I finally finished, my daughter had long since read the entire series and moved on. It still gave us much to talk about and share. Since then, I’ve read a couple dozen books in French that my kids loved and wanted me to read in English. Ready Player One is the latest example.
A few of my close friends recently read the graphic novel trilogy March, John Lewis’ autobiography which chronicles 50 years of the civil rights movement. They’re urging me to read it so we can discuss it together. Guess what, it’s available in French on Kindle. I can learn about John Lewis’ remarkable legacy, enjoy Nate Powell’s illustrations, and share the experience with non-francophiles, all while improving my French.
4. Lower Prices and Better Availability
When it comes to buying books in French, availability in the United States can be an issue. The problem was even worse a few years ago. Thankfully, a number of UK-based booksellers now sell over Amazon.com and can ship directly to the United States. (It is still impossible to order from Amazon.fr or other French-based online stores where you’ll find the widest selection.) If you can find a title on Kindle, you’ll pay less and have your book immediately.
To give you a feel for the price difference, the French Edition of Ready Player One is $10.99 on Kindle. To buy a new paperback, the cheapest price I could find, which includes shipping from the UK, was $24. In both cases, the book takes two to three weeks to arrive.
If you’re a fan of graphic novels, as I am, you may have noticed that differences in price and availability are even more pronounced. Graphic novels cost significantly more to print but the electronic format does not carry added overhead so bandes dessinées for Kindle are quite reasonable. Below are examples of three that I’ve read.
L’Ambulance 13, by Patrick Cothias and Patrics Ordas, is the story of a WWI ambulance driver. Kindle price: $4.99. Hardcover (not available in paperback): $35.40 plus 3-4 weeks
Kobane Calling is a memoir by Zerocalcaire, detailing a Syrian humanitarian aid trip. Kindle price: $6.99. Used paperback in “Acceptable” condition: $32.32 plus 4-8 weeks
Les Grands Espaces, by Catherine Meurisse, is the story of two girls whose parents decide one day to go and live in the country. Kindle price: $6.99. Paperback $43.65 plus 4-5 weeks
5. Many French Classics are Free
For the purists that I mentioned above, Kindle has a lifetime supply of French classics at little or no cost. Since the copyrights have long expired, you can find them for free on Kindle, a format that requires zero reproduction costs.
You may wonder why there are often several different Kindle editions of the same title on Amazon. Take time to read the descriptions and be careful to download the original classic. Abridged versions or French versions of cliff notes may attractive covers that appear to be the original work. Occasionally, you’ll see a nominal charge of less than a dollar. This is the case for the version of Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir shown below. Here, the complete work is supplemented with annotations that promise to help those readers who are planning to take the bac in 2021.
That’s my two-cents when it comes to reading French on Kindle. If you’ve developed some useful Kindle habits, or tried Kindle and rejected it, or have a particular French title for Kindle that you loved, please leave your thoughts in the comments.