TOP STORIES Read your way through Berlin

Read your way through Berlin

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This story is part new series knowledge of the world through books. We’ve asked some of our favorite writers to recommend books to help you get to know their cities better, and for tips on literary landmarks to visit. Over the next few months, we will travel the world with them, from Madrid to Mexico City, Istanbul and beyond. Subscribe to Book Newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a single stop!

Berlin is not beautiful. You must know this in advance. People come here not for the beautiful architecture of an old European city.
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The Berlin Cathedral seems huge. Across the street is the absurd Stadtschloss – a castle that was demolished in 1950, replaced with a rather brutalist building, and then recently rebuilt from the ground up to match its 19th-century façade with a hyper-modern interior. On Potsdamer Platz, a tent-like glass roof serves as a strange time capsule of how people imagined their future in the early 1990s. A little further down the road stands the Brandenburg Gate, a neoclassical monument that has become a symbol of the new, reunited Germany.

The twentieth century left a deep mark on this city. Not so long ago, Berlin was still divided by a wall. And the story in front of the wall was even darker: watch out for the little golden rectangles on the pavement – Stolpersteine ​​or stumbling blocks – each bearing the name of a Jewish resident of Berlin killed by the Nazis, and a constant reminder of people whose children and grandchildren could now live here. . In Berlin, if you know your history, you will find pain around every corner.

But when the weather is nice and you’re cycling from the Neukölln area to Kreuzberg, to Friedrichshain, and to Prenzlauer Berg, the architecture recedes and you gain a sense of freedom as you drive past endless stretches of cafes, restaurants, and parks full of people saying so. many different languages.

Much of Berlin’s appeal lies in what happens indoors – in its cafes and clubs, as well as in people’s apartments. The gloomy history of the city gave rise to a search for joy, sometimes extreme. There is a serious dance and club culture, ranging from techno music to afro beats, in dance schools and on the streets. The presence of a large number of large spaces after the fall of the wall also led to many great artists having studios in Berlin and consequently created a thriving contemporary art scene. As for literature, many prominent German-speaking writers, including those from Austria and Switzerland, now live in Berlin.

But perhaps the best thing about Berlin is that its mantra of equality for all still holds true in so many ways. Berlin is still available (well, relatively speaking) and you don’t need a lot of money, be cool. With style and attitude, you’ll get into Berghain or another exclusive club better than any billionaire. I don’t know when it happened, but Berlin somehow rose above its tragic past and became a wonderful place to live.

The great classic is Alfred Döblin.Berlin Alexanderplatz.This is one of the great modernist novels of the 20th century, and knowing Berlin is just one of many good reasons to read it.

Vladimir Nabokov”Gift“. This is the last book he wrote in Russian – a great novel about a man and a woman whom fate is trying to bring together (for a long time and unsuccessfully). And also about the huge community of Russians who took refuge in Berlin after the revolution. For obvious reasons, this is a timely topic.

Irmgard Keun “Faux silk girl“. This is a highly original, extremely stylish novel about Berlin in the early twentieth century. The narrator is a young woman whose irreverent and funny voice is hard to forget.

Hans Fallada Every man dies alone“. It’s one big social novel set in Berlin during Nazi rule, written by someone who lived through it. You will have nightmares, but it will give you an idea of ​​what it really was like only great novels can do.

Thomas Brussig “Short end of Sonnenallee.One of the most brilliant satirical novels about life in East Berlin, in the shadow of the wall (literally). Translated by Jonathan Franzen and Jenny Watson, with a foreword by Franzen, will be published April 2023 by Picador Original.

Sven RegenerBerlin blues“. One of the funniest German books ever, it talks about what it was like to live in Berlin after the reunion with a lot of booze and no money.

And if you read a little German, try the recently published and therefore not yet translated story of Jens Biska.”Berlin“. As with the city itself, don’t be intimidated by its sheer size.

Any of the novels of Theodore Fontane, the great writer of the 19th century. They often take place in the rather idyllic landscape of Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin.

And Voltaire’sMemories of the life of Monsieur de Voltaire“. Potsdam is only an hour from Berlin, and exploring the friendship between Frederick the Great and the greatest writer of the 18th century, which led to many very entertaining mutual slanders, is endlessly interesting.

Now, for obvious reasons, they talk about the great Ukrainian writers – for example Yuri Andrukhov and Andrei Kurkov, as well as Russian dissident writers who ended up in Germany and are unable to return to their homeland for political reasons, such as Vladimir Sorokin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya and Viktor Erofeev. These are household names in Europe, which means that, like the names of almost all the world’s great non-English writers, they are little known in the US.
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Listen to Bertolt Brecht.Threepenny Opera“. There is even a BBC production featuring David Bowie. Yes, officially the action takes place in London, but this is the quintessential play about Berlin in the 1920s. Don’t try to understand the history: just enjoy the songs.

While listening to The Threepenny Opera, you might want to take a stroll through the Berliner Ensemble, where The Threepenny Opera premiered in 1928 and where Brecht himself staged his plays after returning from his Hollywood exile. There is also a monument to Brecht, but the real monument is, of course, his theater.

This is no joke recommendation, but head to the Hohenschoenhausen prison, where the East German secret police interrogated dissidents, many of whom were writers. Then it could not be found on any map: few people even knew about its existence. Now the guides are former prisoners! Former prisoners are so young, relatively speaking, that you understand in your gut how recently there was a dictatorship. It may ruin your day, but it will help you learn more about the second half of the 20th century than most books or museums.

From the Berlin Ensemble, walk 10 minutes past the Friedrichstraße train station, which was the train station between East and West during the Wall, to the giant Dussmann bookstore on Friedrichstraße. It has everything, in all languages, and it is so big that you will never find a way out.

Or, if you are already in the western part of the city, head to Bücherbogen at Savignyplatz. It’s smaller than Dussmann, but probably the prettiest independent bookstore in Berlin.

Then take all the books you bought and, if it’s spring or summer, head to the rugged Volkspark Friedrichshain and stay there until the sun finally sets. But if it’s winter, then don’t even try. Avoid the park.

In fact, if it’s winter, don’t come to Berlin at all.


  • “Berlin Alexanderplatz” Alfred Doblin

  • “Gift,” Vladimir Nabokov

  • Faux silk girlIrmgard Keun

  • Every man dies aloneHans Fallada

  • Short end Sonnenallee,Thomas Brussig

  • “Berlin Blues” Sven Regener

  • “Berlin,” Jens Biskey

  • Novels by Theodore Fontane

  • “Memoirs of the Life of Monsieur de Voltaire”. Voltaire

  • “The Threepenny Opera”. Bertolt Brecht


Daniel Kelman’s latest novel, Till, adds humor to a story set in conflict-ravaged Europe and will be made into a major movie. This is his eighth novel and has been or is being translated into more than 20 languages.

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