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The Russian Tongue: Bookworms and bestsellers

Sara Buzadzhi
Sara Buzadzhi - Sputnik International
Although this summer in no way compares to last year’s inferno, it's still hot enough that all most of us want to do is lie around sipping cool drinks and working our way down several Best Beach Reads lists; легкое чтение (light reading) to you.

Although this summer in no way compares to last year’s inferno, it's still hot enough that all most of us want to do is lie around sipping cool drinks and working our way down several Best Beach Reads lists; легкое чтение (light reading) to you.

Some of this light reading is bound to be detective fiction. In Russian, you often see the adjective остросюжетный in front of detective, thriller, or love story, as in: Остросюжетный шпионский детектив о женщине-суперагенте, основанный на реальных событиях. (An action-packed spy detective novel about a female superagent, based on real events.)

This adjective would be translated differently for different genres, as it means, literally, intensesubject drama/detective/etc. story. So an остросюжетная любовная драма could probably be translated as an “intense/dramatic love story,” for example.

Many summer reads definitely fall into the category of trashy novels, pulp fiction – бульварное чтиво. (The translators of Quentin Tarantino’s movie went for the more obvious «Криминальное чтиво».)

What else? Definitely some science fiction or fantasy (научная фантастика, фантастика). The best/most well-known Russian practitioners of this genre are the brothers Strugatsky. Their most famous novel is «Понедельник начинается в субботу» (Monday Begins on Saturday), which tells the story of a regular Soviet research institute that happens to be studying magic.

The word фабула refers to the plot of the book, which blurbs always make grand promises about: Детективный роман, но такие качества какзахватывающая фабула, своебразный герой, убедительность и четкость деталей ставит его в ряд лучших произведений Грина. (It’s a detective novel, but its captivating plot, unusual protagonist, and believable and precise details put it among Greene's best novels.)

Here the adjective захватывающий is used, from the verb захватывать, the physical meaning of which is to snatch or grab, so you can see where the figurative meaning came from. Another common adjective for plots is занимательный, entertaining.

The downfall of too many decent plots is the ending: Трагическая развязка романа шокировала многих читателей. (The novel’s tragic ending shocked many readers.)

When you get hold of a really enthralling book, you say in English that you devour it, and Russians also talk about the consumption of a book like food, but in a slightly different way: Она за вечер проглотила книгу. (She swallowed the whole book in one evening.)

Russian and English share one phrase for those who make a habit of that: bookworm (книжный червь). It does seem, however, that the English phrase has a slightly endearing cast; you would use it to describe someone who just loves to curl up with a good book and might prefer that to social interaction, say. The Russian, meanwhile, is somewhat more negative, and is also used to talk about bureaucrats and paper-pushers: эту кабинетнуюкрысу, книжного червя, as one story described a buttoned-up clerk (office rat and bookworm).

Here's an example of its more familiar usage from Trotsky's memoirs: В библиотеке я был всегда один, если не считать книжных червей, которыеизъели множество томов XVIII столетия. (I was always alone in the library if you don't count the bookworms devouring stacks of 18th-century tomes.)

A more benevolent word for a bookworm without any associations with bureaucracy, something your grandmother might use, is книгочей, formed, obviously, from the words книга and читать. A less common word for a bibliophile is книголюб.

If we are talking about bureaucrats, another related word is буквоед. At first glance, you might think this is also about someone who loves the written word so much that they “eat it up,” following the pattern of людоед (people-eater, cannibal). But actually this describes someone who is a stickler, following the letter of the law (буква) instead of the spirit.

Whatever type of reader you are, you should probably boycott the section in a bookstore I saw recently titled «Гламурное чтение». What does that even mean? However great it is, I don’t think reading can be glamorous unless you're doing it on a yacht in a gold bathing suit and big sunglasses.


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The Russian Tongue: How to lose friends and annoy people

The Russian Tongue: When sorry is the hardest word

The Russian Tongue: Minding your Russian Ps and Qs

The Russian Tongue: Bombing your way around Moscow

The Russian Tongue: Making merry with Father Frost

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The Russian Tongue: There is nothing like a dame

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Learning Russian but finding the lessons too formal? In her entertaining column The Russian Tongue, Sara Buzadzhi gives practical informal tips on everything from dealing with traffic cops to flirting in the grocery store. Sara’s columns are published with permission of, where they appear every two weeks.

Sara Buzadzhi is an English teacher and translator in Moscow.

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