German books are… different

Note: This post isn’t sponsored – this isn’t an advertisement for any of the books shown or mentioned here.

I was at a friend’s place recently and she likes books. She’s a language teacher, so of course she likes books. She has a lovely collection on display in her flat, so (with permission) I had a little peruse. She had a great mix of German-language and English-language books, and as I was looking through them, I was reminded of just how different German books are to English books, besides the language of course.

The first big difference is noticeable from simply looking at the books as they are lined up on the shelf. English-language books typically have the title and author written on the spines from top to bottom, so you can read the writing if you tilt your head to the right. German-language books, on the other hand, have the writing on their spines going from bottom to top, meaning you have to tilt your head to the left:

English-language books (reading from top to bottom)
German-language books (reading from bottom to top)

If you’re someone like my friend and you mostly separate the books according to the language they’re written in, this won’t cause much of a problem. If you categorise your books in some other way that mixes the languages though, you’ll end up tilting your head back and forth from side to side as you scan across the bookshelf.

Mix of English and German-language books, with spines reading in different directions

This difference in direction means that if you stack English books with the front covers facing upwards (as one usually would), you’ll be able to read the writing on the spines. Do this with German books and the writing on the spines will be upside-down.

Stack of English-language books – the spines read the right way up
Stack of German-language books – the spines read upside-down

There are thought to be good reasons for both directions. The top-to-bottom variant (which the English books tend to have) are useful for when you stack the books, like we saw above. The bottom-to-top version (like with the German books) are thought to be more helpful and intuitive when the books are lined up in an upright position, for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it corresponds better to the tradition of reading left-to-right as you go from book to book. It also means that book titles can be read sequentially as you tilt your head to the left and move along (if you have five volumes, for instance, you would read them I, II, III, IV, V as you go along). If this if hard to picture, this is what I mean:

Course books by Austrian publishers with the spines reading from bottom to top

If you tilt your head to the left to read the titles of the books, then you read ‘downwards’ as you read along left to right. Maybe this makes it clearer; it’s the same books but rotated:

Course books by Austrian publishers with the spines reading from bottom to top – side view

Notice how as you read ‘downwards’ from this view that you’re reading the titles of the books in sequential order? This wouldn’t be the case with books by English publishers!

Of course, this whole discussion doesn’t apply to books that are so thick that the writing on the spine can be printed horizontally, in which case English and German books are generally the same (you don’t get many books with spines that are intentionally upside-down).

Once you’ve spent enough time tilting your head back and forth looking at the spines, you might want to decide on what book to take from the shelf. You might then have a look at the front cover, which is where you’ll probably notice some more differences between the English and the German versions. Let’s look at an example of the same book in both languages:

The Fault in our Stars by John Green – English book cover
Das Schicksal ist ein mieser Verräter, German translation of The Fault in our Stars by John Green – German book cover

Aside from the obvious differences in the cover art and in the language of the book title, there are some other features that are present in one version and not the other. One such difference is the genre. It’s possible for both German and English-language books to give the genre on the front cover, but this is much more common in German books and a relative rarity with English books.

On a German book cover, you’ll likely see Roman on the front of many novels:

Das bin doch ich by Thomas Glavinic – with Roman on the cover
Träume in Zeiten des Krieges by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – also with Roman on the cover
Mitternachtskinder by Salman Rushdie – once again with Roman on the cover

Sometimes you might even find a more specific kind of genre, like Liebesroman, Bildungsroman or Thriller. Some of these can get veeeery specific:

Der Glückspilz by Ephraim Kishon – a satirischer Roman
6 österreicher unter den ersten 5 by Dirk Stermann – and this is a Roman einer Entpiefkenisierung!

On English books, you might see something like A novel printing on the front, but this is comparatively rare (and in this case, rather easily missed):

Falling Man by Don DeLillo – but is it a novel?
Oh yes, there it is

It’s almost taken for granted with English publishers that the consumer will automatically know when they’re holding a novel in their hands. Publishers of German-language books must assume their audience needs that extra little bit of reassurance that what they are holding is indeed a novel.

Despite it being so common, the naming of the genre on German-language book covers is considered optional, in contrast to elements such as the title of the book or the author. (Interestingly, I came across one website [1] that specifically advised against using the word Roman on book covers because it’s too generic – though it seems to work just fine for the apparent majority of publishers. I do have to agree that Roman is quite unnecessary because it is so generic).

Another difference has to do with the English-language books. Here it’s moderately common to have testimonials printed on the front cover: “A triumph”, “The best book you’ll read this year”, “A timeless masterpiece”. Brits might be known for their modesty and humility, but a book cover is definitely the place for them to flex and brag about the greatness of their literary creations. If the book has won an award, you can be sure that the publishers will let you know on the cover:

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – with a couple of testimonials and letting us know it is a bestseller and it was longlisted for a prize!
Normal People by Sally Rooney – with even more testimonials, also a bestseller and an award-winner!
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy – and those testimonials are hard to miss!

German-language books, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more reserved when it comes to telling the world just how brilliant they are. They would much rather use the cover space to reassure you that they are in fact novels and let you make up your own mind as to the book’s quality.

It would be remiss of me to write a blog post comparing English and German-language book covers without having a look at my favourite difference. This is specific to the Harry Potter series. You know what, it doesn’t need an explanation. Just see for yourself:

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling – English book cover
Harry Potter und der Halbblutprinz, German translation of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling – German book cover

What happened to poor Harry! And poor Dumbledore for that matter…

At the start of this blog post, I said that my friend mostly separates her books according to language. She told me she does this partly to separate the languages, but partly because it’s more aesthetically pleasing to have all the spines read in the same direction. So if there happens to be a book of the same language but with a spine that goes the other way, measures must be taken to maintain order:

They’re all German-language books, and all the spines look like they’re going in the same direction, but there’s an imposter…

She would rather have the book upside-down and have it so all the spines read in the same direction – now that is dedication to keeping things uniform! Which I fully support – one must do what is necessary!

Final thought: I did find one little section of the book collection where the spines go in different directions. Why are these English-language books the other way round? Explain yourselves!

…Well, it turns out ‘The Shining’ and ‘Saturday’ are written in German, so they get a pass. The fact that they kept their English titles is just deceiving. ‘Speak’ is written in English though… But it’s a German publisher, so I guess I can let that slide!

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[1] (09.06.2022)

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