How to Become a Pro Foreign Language Book Hunter

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I have a lot of books.

For those (like me) who don’t quite have the means for frequent travel, L2 books can be difficult to acquire outside whatever country you have in mind. Over the years, I have expertly cultivated the ability to gather foreign books without having to travel to get them.

While these steps are based on the U.S., I think they’ll be applicable in other locations, too, except for the exact bookstores I list. The U.S. has the particular quirk that Spanish is the only non-English language that is very readily available, and you could probably find Spanish books at any major bookstore– this post will cover those of you looking for languages that aren’t widely spoken in your country of residence.

So, read on if you also want to start a ponderous book collection!

1. Know Where to Look

If you’re not living in a country that speaks your target language, you need to look for used books. The pickings are best near universities or in bigger cities, where they either teach classes on languages or where there are more immigrants from other countries. I know from long and hard experience that living in a small, nearly homogeneous town is not very conducive for target language book-finding, but it’s easier to get to a city than to fly to another country.

I’ve had some of my best luck in all languages at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts (not the university bookstore!) where I’ve found two really nice Hungarian Graceling books (a young adult series) and a couple of French science fiction novels (classic French novels aren’t too hard to find, in my experience, but finding mainstream or genre fiction is harder). My brother even got me a Hebrew Graceling novel for my birthday!

If you’re into Japanese, Book-Off is pretty much the greatest thing ever. It’s a used bookstore with both English and Japanese books and comics, and because of this wondrous place, I own entire manga sets in Japanese, without ever having set foot in Japan. I’ve personally been to the one in San Diego, and it was overwhelming the first time I walked in. Lately, they seem to be selling fewer books and more used appliances, but there’s still tons of variety. And it’s all very cheap.

But these are just two examples. I’ve found random things at used bookstores all over the place.

Beyond used bookstores, if you do find yourself in a huge city, try searching for a specifically L2 bookstore. Ethnic communities are a great bet (think: Chinatown), but I’ve found exclusively Chinese and Japanese bookstores outside of these communities.

If brick-and-mortar bookstores are failing you, never forget the existence of Amazon third-party sellers. The best way I’ve found to search for random books in your target language is to type in either an author who writes in your L2 or the translated/original title of a book in your L2. For example, to find my treasured Dutch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I just searched for Sjakie en de chocoladefabriek. Yep, it takes some trial and error, but you’ll dig something up eventually. I should know, because I found an Icelandic novel on Amazon 🙂

EDIT: I forgot a couple! Again, if you’re in the U.S., check out Half Price Books— I’ve found novels in Polish, German, and Japanese at the Pittsburgh location. Additionally, keep in mind online booksellers that sell foreign language books in your country. For example, this Polish site sells books all in Polish, but it’s a North American company. The prices are all in U.S. or Canadian dollars, and they’re also pretty reasonable. There are plenty of other online bookstores like that, so see what you can find!

Anyways…

2. Lower Those Standards!

If you want L2 books without going to an L2 bookstore, you’re going to have to be a little less specific in what exactly you’re looking for. Sure, you can run an Amazon search for a specific title, but it might not show up, so you’re just going to have to go down your list. And used bookstores? That’s a random grab bag.

When I’m starting a language, I’m probably going to want either children’s books or young adult books in my target language, preferably translations of books I already know quite well. That last part is negotiable, though, so I keep my eye out for anything that might fit the bill.

For example, when looking for books at Book-Off, I did happen to find a manga I loved in English as a kid (that was a good day– Kodocha), but I also looked through other kids’ stuff and got a variety of things that looked interesting or had cool covers. At any bookstore, with any language, I’ll pick up anything that looks good. Even if it’s not at the exact level I want at the moment, I might get there eventually!

For me, the flood gates are wide open when it comes to book buying. If it looks attractive and isn’t physically dirty, I’ll take it. I do leave some French and Spanish books alone if I’m not very interested, but that’s only because I have plenty in both languages.

(I’m not even discerning when it comes to languages, because who knows what I’ll be interested in someday.)

3. Enlist an Army of Family and Friends for Help

This last point might be obvious to everyone, but I’ll say it anyway. While I’ve only been able to travel to Quebec with my university French club and to Iceland for my honeymoon, I have lots of family and friends who travel waaaaaay more often. And they go to places that are non-English speaking. And they know I like books indiscriminately if they are written in another language. I hardly have to ask anymore because everyone just indulges in my odd obsession now.

I’ve been pretty lucky in the having-friends-and-family-who-travel-and-buy-me-nice-things area. For example, my father-in-law goes on frequent business trips to Japan. So, I told him I like Japanese books and that it wasn’t anything specific. He’s very, very nice, and he brought me back manga and novels (not that he reads Japanese)– just things with cool covers. When my own father went to Shanghai for a conference (and he didn’t take me with him), I asked for books. He got his host to help him find kids’ books and comics, and it was almost like he had taken me with him on that trip. A good portion of my collection consists of donations from kindly relatives and friends who know I’ll be incredibly happy with a cheap children’s book in a language I may or may not read.

I even had a French conversation partner a couple years back who got me French comics and novels for Christmas, and I sent him American things in return. If you have a friendly conversation partner, maybe they’ll be willing to help your cause.

It doesn’t hurt to ask people you know to pick you up something! Again, don’t be too specific so they aren’t spending their entire trip finding the exact book you want. You can also offer to pay them back if they do find something cool.

 

Before too long, hopefully you’ll have a book collection that is varied and massive, and all without having to travel. I do have tons of Icelandic and French novels from my adventures in Iceland and Quebec, but the vast majority of my books come from random finds in random places. Best of luck, fellow Book Hunter!

 

 

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