Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: The Russian's World: Life and Language (Genevra Gerhart)

If I wanted to give someone a thorough introduction to the Russian language and culture using only one book, I would most likely choose The Russian's World: Life and Language, by Genevra Gerhart.  This book, at 418 pages (that is, including indices and appendices -- the pages of actual content amounts to around 380), gives you an overview on what you need to know to get around if you were to begin studying/traveling/living in Russia.  Topics like superstitions, popular Russian names, wedding traditions, politeness and formality are all addressed in this book, and in fine detail.  That's not to say, however, that this book is only useful to beginners.  I've been studying Russian for 6-7 years now and have spent two academic years in Russia, but just from perusing this book I picked up a lot of information that I didn't previously know. 

The book deals with practical topics that most travelers should have a background in, such as the names of different types of clothing in Russian, but it also delves into areas that are highly specific, such as being able to read aloud complex mathematical formulas and equations (on the level of calculus, for example), in Russian.  The format of this review will be a bit different than my others -- the main reason is that I can't really think of anything negative to say about this book, so I will mostly talk about the structure of the book and the way the topics are introduced.  To answer the question of "Who should buy this book", I would say "everyone", because I think that no matter how extensive your background in Russian (language and culture) may be, there is something to be gained from reading this book.  I don't think you could go wrong with bringing a copy of this book to Russia -- it could serve very useful along with the most updated version of the Lonely Planet guide to Russia.

Overview of the Book

The book is divided into five general "parts", consisting of 2-5 sections each (which are, in turn, divided into subsections -- each section has on average 7 sections, and all of this is indicated neatly in the Table of Contents).  The names of all of the sections and subsections are given in both English and Russian (with stress marks!)

Each section is devoted to a general topic in Russia (some examples:  Food, Education, Transportation, Medicine).  Since this is by no means a textbook on the Russian language or culture, it is not necessary to read the book sequentially from beginning to end -- it makes much more sense to skip around and read what interests you most.  That said, if you are completely new to Russian and just want to get the basic phrases down, then it's worth starting with the first chapter, because that's the chapter where the basic phrases like "hello", "excuse me", etc. are covered. 

The bulk of the text for each section is written in English, but there are many Russian words interspersed within the English texts.  In some places they take the forms of separate "vocabulary lists", where key Russian words are listed next to their English translations, and in other places they are simply talked about within the text.  There are also places where quotes and aphorisms are given in Russian, with their rough English translations included immediately afterward.  Occasionally longer texts in Russian will be presented (usually about a paragraph in length), and for these the translations are given at the Translations subsection (each section has a separate 'Translations' subsection at the very end).  There are a lot of pictures and diagrams to go along with the text -- the diagrams range from acute and obtuse angles to the layout of typical Russian houses to different cuts of meat (with the Russian names of each cut indicated) to pictures of different animals, flowers, and mushrooms (with their Russian names, of course, included). There are even guides on how to read braille and morse code in Russian, as well as a complete Periodic Table of the Elements in Russian.

If you can't read Cyrillic yet, you should probably just look at a basic Russian textbook (such as Golosa or The New Penguin Russian Course -- though the latter does not come with audio) to get acquainted with the alphabet.  The Russian's World has a guide to Cyrillic transliteration on the very last page, and Chapter 13 deals with the history of the Russian alphabet and different dialects of Russian, but this book isn't the best place to learn the letters and their sounds (in addition, there aren't any audio cassettes or CDs that come with this book, so it's best to consult a Russian if you need to hear how something sounds but don't yet know how to read it).  This book does not use any type of transliteration or Romanization.

One other thing I want to mention is that this book does a good job of listing references to other sources of information.  One of the appendices is called "Some References From The Beginning To The End of Russian", and it mentions some useful resources for both intermediate learners and students on the graduate level (I saw some references to publications by Розенталь, Даль, Зализняк in the list).  References are also credited within the chapters themselves -- Даль's etymological dictionary in particular is mentioned often.

Finally, I want to mention again -- this is not a textbook, but it is a comprehensive guide to Russian culture with great opportunities to expand your language skills as well.  Even if you don't plan to talk about differential equations in Russian anytime soon, I think it's still great to see what kinds of words and roots are being used to talk about such things, and it is rare to see any Russian-learning resources to delve so deeply into these topics.


  1. There is now a sequel to this book:

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