A NY Times story by Sarah Maslin Nir, “Among Readers in Polyglot New York, 50 Shades of Best Sellers,” points out the obvious fact that “literary tastes among immigrant cultures turn out to be as different as their cuisines.” But the fun is in the details:

In the Queens Borough Public Library system, the number of foreign-language books has doubled over the last decade and now includes Bengali, Croatian and multiple languages spoken in Afghanistan. The Brooklyn Public Library caters to cardholders in about 30 languages, according to its Web site, and has a special multilingual center at the main Grand Army Plaza branch.
As the compositions of the city’s immigrant populations have changed, so, too, have the books that are carried. Mr. Baumann increasingly buys books in French as the city’s population of Francophone Africans has increased. Harlequin Romances are their top request. A Lower East Side branch, once in the heart of Little Germany, has a longstanding endowment to buy books in German, now little used.

Of course, I particularly enjoyed this bit:

At Saint Petersburg Trade House in Brighton Beach, where each supermarket along Brighton Beach Avenue carries caviars from Russia’s Bering Sea priced by grade like gasoline, classical Russian literature, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in Russian are requested daily, said Violet Lazareva, 48, the store’s literary consultant. “All the parents teach their children that they should read Russian classics in Russian,” she said. “They’re better in Russian, really.”

Really, they are! (Thanks go to Eric for the link.)


  1. Just started in on Russian about a month ago. Oh how I would love to read The Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian…wonder how long it’ll take to get to the point where I can? At this pace, I’d say a few years at least :/
    After having read your “My Languages” page I’m quite pleased to see you have a strange fascination with Russian dictionaries–could I possibly trouble you for a recommendation? Perhaps your top two or three? I would be using them to reference modern Russian popular media (movies, songs, etc.), literature (written within the last 150 years or so most likely, e.g. Dostoyevsky), and also, of course, conversation with native speakers.

  2. For a beginning dictionary, I highly recommend the Oxford Starter Russian Dictionary. They’ve done a great job of selecting useful vocabulary and explaining how it’s used, with an eye to the sorts of things that are likely to confuse the English-speaking student; I still consult it from time to time. Of the larger dictionaries, my standby is the Oxford Russian Dictionary (I mainly use the older edition with separate books for E-R and R-E, which is more convenient for carrying around, but the big two-way is more up-to-date). I also like the Katzner dictionary, which is better on American usage, but it isn’t as comprehensive and I don’t use it nearly as often.

  3. Too bad about the Harlequin.
    But fabulous about the Russian lit.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Africans borrowing Harlequin romances: are the borrowers men or women? these must be French translations of the Harlequin series.
    I have never been a fan of Harlequin-type novels, but I understand that there are two series: one the old-fashioned type with prim-and-proper “demure damsels”, and a more recent “bodice-ripper” type. When I was young (and also when my mother was young) the first type (the only one) was called romans à l’eau de rose, lit. ‘rosewater novels’, supposedly suitable for young ladies. My mother, who had read a fair amount of them in her own youth, did not want me and my sisters to read such literature, as it was too unrealistic: typically the demure damsel encountered a dashing but no-good man and was ready to elope with him but was saved in the nick of time by a “knight in shining armour” who married her. We were told not to count on the shining armour showing up!
    Here is another type of rosewater novel. which I actually read (as an adult), written by a Belgian author: an upper-middle-class, devoutly Protestant family is shocked one day by the arrival of the man’s long-lost brother, fresh from South America with his 6-year-old daughter, whose mother has died. The father is also dying, and he asks his brother to take in the girl and raise her as a Catholic like her South American mother. The family follows these instructions to the letter, sending her to a school run by nuns where she is well cared for, while the family is cold to her, especially the mother, and the oldest son is quite nasty to her. Fast forward 12 years and the girl will have to leave the school and the house and start earning a living, since the family will no longer support her. Meanwhile the oldest boy, now a man, has gradually changed his attitude towards the girl and (of course) is now in love with her. She has been trained as a singer at the school, while he has learned to play the organ. Now he even converts to Catholicism! The parents are apoplectic, but the young people manage to get married. Fast forward a few more years, and the young couple, who have already produced “numerous children” (sic), limit the practice of their musical talents to the service of the Church.

  5. Thank you, Stephen, that’s exactly what I was looking for! I’ll probably be picking up one of those Oxford dictionaries here soon (it will be staying home, so I’ll likely go with the larger one).
    Per chance, do you have an online Russian dictionary that you especially like or trust?

  6. Yandex is extremely useful.

  7. marie-lucie says

    Amazon has copies of the Starter dictionary, some of them very cheap. You can also look inside the book. I am tempted to get one, my Russian being VERY rusty.

  8. Talking of dictionaries, you can also try this one:

  9. marie-lucie:
    For men, it’s very difficult to enjoy reading Harlequin romance novels.
    Mostly because male protagonists are rude and not very likable. Also, heroines are usually quite stupid which is very irritating.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Are doctor novels an international thing? Here there are (used to be?) magazines with new doctor novels every weak, each telling the story of a young woman of twenty catching the heart of a handsome doctor in his late thirties. I have read exactly one: In the cottage I used to frequent as a student, there was one in the first aid kit, and you had to read it and sign to be allowed to practice first aid. Anyway, it was exactly as SF describes the Harlequin story, full of underlined quotations like My wife will not be working!.

  11. marie-lucie says

    SFR: For men, it’s very difficult to enjoy reading Harlequin romance novels.
    Men are not the intended audience! That’s why I wondered whether the Africans reading them were men or women.
    I hope I did not give the impression that I was a fan of Harlequin-type novels. The rosewater novel I summarized above struck me as totally unrealistic. I guess I read it (I don’t remember when or where) because I had nothing else at hand to read at the time.
    Trond: doctor novels are a variant of the genre. How many nursing students must be given the wrong picture of their possible future by such novels!

  12. — I guess I read it (I don’t remember when or where) because I had nothing else at hand to read at the time.
    I was staying at my cousin’s house for a couple of weeks and read her entire collection of romance novels out of boredom.
    Anyway, there is a sub-genre of romance novels – historical romance which is somewhat more interesting and usually of better quality (requiring more research and probably more talent).
    I like particularly a series by Diana Gabaldon called “Outlander”. It’s about a modern British woman who got mysteriously transferred to the 18th century Scotland and fell in love with highland Scottish rebel.
    Surprisingly good written book which men can definitely read and enjoy.

  13. i read when i was younger Golons’ Angelique series, and enjoyed reading it, so after that never tried to read any other strictly genre like literature, cz it seems to me those are must be as if like all the same, the same thing happened with the sci-fi books too
    if i had nothing to do i would read of course anything, otherwise it seems just like so waste of time to read those, though i suppose some of them are written very well and interestingly and informative and so on
    it’s maybe just a matter of patience, i have not enough patience to watch tv, for example, and keep flipping around the channels, though i waste much more time browsing the internets and not that broadly even too. so maybe it’s a matter of one’s just habits

  14. –Golons’ Angelique series
    Very good series, particularly first three or four books. Serge Golonn was a pseudonym of Vsevolod Sergeievich Golubinov, a Russian-French geologist, adventurer and writer.
    He was responsible for historical research and his wife Anne Golon did the writing.

  15. ooh, i am glad i read the best in the genre too, it’s as if like my intuition works there 🙂 always like something that turns out unexpectedly having something more to it as if like hidden, good to know
    so perhaps the later genre-y books i tried just didn’t come close to their standard and i would drop reading those out of not only impatience

  16. Sounds like an interesting guy. Too bad the Wikipedia article is so insubstantial.

  17. very interesting, i read the series in rissian in the 90-ies, yes
    too bad they had so much trouble with dishonest publishers discrediting their work
    in buddhist beliefs, if one has a recognizable kind of troubles like money or “hel am” which means like trouble with people, legal disputes or just quarrel,
    so then some certain mantra texts are believed to remove the “spell”, i wonder whether those really work and if work, to try to help to remove those troubles could be like a pretty interesting experiment if disillusioning, so i mean, it moved me so that i wanted as if like to suggest those methods to ASG’s case, if it was possible at that time of course / a half-joke
    it’s really interesting to think about differences between religions, buddhists or shamanist beliefs seem like something resembling visits to a doctor or a psychotherapist, one goes to the temple says one’s troubles and the monks as if like prescribe this or other sacred texts that are believed to fix those problems
    when all different christian churches mostly seem like work as people going there on sundays and listening to sermons that are supposed to guide one to lead a good and fulfilling life, the same is in the muslim and jewish faiths, i guess
    the only thing resembling those prescriptions like attitude in tibetan buddhism seem the catholic indulgences forgiving sin, no?

  18. Arztromane
    They are alive and kicking everywhere in Germany – at your local supermarket, in kiosks, drugstores. Entering the term in amazon.de turns up 1,271 results. I once read one in a scientific, enquiring sort of way, and learned the word Brandung from it (ocean breakers discharging torrents of passionate foam on yearning beaches etc.)
    I too read a couple of Angéliques as a kid and found them spannend, as I remember. I was too young to be snobbish. Whatever I liked wasn’t any lovey-dovey stuff, at any rate. They were hidden about the house, along with Peyton Place and Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. Along with The Naked Lunch that I bought at a drugstore, they gave me a considerable head start over my compeers.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Now that you say it, I think the one I read may have been of German origin, the doctor being named Dr. Horst Wegener or some such.
    My wife’s been trying to make me read some of her historical romances, saying they’re of reasonable literary quality — well above my detective novels, anyway! — and very educational.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Trond: well above my detective novels
    Then perhaps you are not very choosy about your detective novels, my favourite type of novel (but I am choosy).

  21. Have you read Tony Hillerman, m-l? If so, what do you think of his work? He’s one of my favorite mystery writers.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I’m not the one saying they’re above my detective novels. To me the essence of detective novels is that they use an extreme situation to paint portraits of society and of the persons involved. That’s why I read Denise Mina, anyway. I read Fred Vargas for the dialogue.
    I’ve read a couple of Tony Hillerman’s books. It would have been many more if they hadn’t stopped coming out in Norway.

  23. learned the word Brandung from it
    I doubt that any Artztroman can hold a candle to From Here to Eternity.

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