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Reading books in Dutch

art by Nadia Prins, 2020

This year I decided to bring my Dutch to a new level and embrace reading a book in Dutch. Reading a book sounds like a scary milestone, so I knew that getting over it will help me to realize how far have I come. 

So far I read “De engelenmaker” – Stefan Brijs (sci-fi, mystery page turner) and “Pogingen iets van het leven te maken”- Hendrik Groen (short stories of a Dutch man who lives in the retirement home). I am thinking to go for Anne Frank Diary next. It seems to be a very emotional book about a historical event, I have visited the museum in Amsterdam, and a book is not so long.

Now that I am done with the book #2 – time to reflect!

Challenge one: reading stops being relaxing.

To some extent, we read a lot these days: posts on LinkedIn and captions on YouTube. At the same time our attention spans are getting shorter. As years go by, it is getting harder to force yourself to sit down with a book. Reading is usually considered to be your leisure time; and reading in a new language is not always (never?) a relaxing activity.   

Solution: I set timer to read “just for 15 minutes”. After 15 minutes, while you  are in the zone, you are more likely to go on and read more. I also do not treat this particular reading as “relaxing time”. 

I treat it as “learning Dutch” moment. For relaxing, I do other things.

It removes the pressure of “enjoying the read”. Yes, you like the book; at the same time you know that now you dedicated time for your improvement. 

Challenge two: what to read.

Starting with  children books is a common advice for those who learn Dutch.  “Jip and Janneke” are waiting  for you! I appreciate this tip, but I find children books boring. I can recommend one children book I liked though – Het ministerie van Oplossingen. It is a bit of a children  detective story. Finding such treasures in the shelves of kid books was always hard for me.

Solution: my solution was to ditch books for a while and learn Dutch in other ways: read newspapers, watch TV shows, do exercises. If I am not enjoying the plot, I could not force myself to keep going with the book.   

There are plenty of textbooks, newspaper articles or short stories to select from until you feel confident reading a book that is actually fun.  

Challenge three: not understanding what you read

That actually was a true problem with the first book I read this year (de Engelemaker). The book is a combination of mystery, science, religion. I must admit, some explanations and references were hard to get. Missing a couple of pages can put you off, and force you to throw a book away.

Solution: I have a couple.

(1) reading digital copies. When I read on iPad, I can hold a finger above any word, and immediately see a translation. It releases some frustration and allows to look up any word seamlessly.

(2) having a book with a longer plot rather than short  stories. Reading a book with a complex plot was at times hard for me; but missing some paragraphs still allowed me to follow the plot. 

Missing a paragraph in the short story often meant not understanding the punch line of the story. 

And people who read the Stories of Hendrik Groen can relate that it has a lot of cultural references and jokes that are not quite expat friendly. 

(3) just rolling with it – reading as it is, inventing plot along the way. It also helps if someone else reads a book together with you, so you can share your thoughts and fill in the gaps!


What can I suggest to those who want to pick up their first book in Dutch? Just do it!

Did I learn much from reading these two books in Dutch? Unsure. I still found reading longer opinion pieces in newspapers (such as NRC) way more useful for learning of the language. 

Would I recommend? – of course! 

For me it was (and is) an exercise in confidence, allowing myself to develop. It also helps to learn something new about the language and culture. 

Do you have any good books in Dutch  written by Dutch Speaking authors? Bonus points if they cover a historical event or shed light on the culture. Share away! 

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