How can I approximately gauge the difficulty of a(n unknown) book?

Sometimes I pick up a book which isn’t really well-known or popular (for example, not on learnnatively.com) and even though try to read everything I’m interested in regardless of difficulty I do get a little bit curious from time to time.

I know that furigana might be a possible indicator but does that automatically mean that books without it have adults as their intended target audience? I know that difficulty, whatever that may mean, is subjective but there is a clear difference between a childrens book and a book aimed at adults.

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Books you can buy online usually have previews you can check to get an idea of the difficulty.

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Yeah but books that are difficult to me aren’t necessarily an indicator that they use more sophisticated language haha. Might just be that I’m not particularly experienced in that specific domain.

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Then there’s no better way to get familiar with that domain, is there? :slight_smile:

At that point you’d have to search for reviews or ask people who have read it before.

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jpdb.io has a great list of materials with difficulties etc.
so does koohi.cafe

If you use their SRS it gets even more granular with information on difficulties, too

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I don’t think you really know until you sit with it, but samples are a good way of testing it. Something that I recommend most people to do, because you know yourself and your level best. If you don’t have sample text, but you have the book try skimming and scanning it. Things I pay attention to is density of text, kanji and words I don’t know, grammar I don’t know, how long are the sentences and just readability in general.

If that doesn’t work can always ask others. Any book you’re particularly interested in?

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I don’t think one can judge books by any JLPT level, unless they’re specifically graded, because they would in general contain an imbalance of vocabulary and kanji vs grammar. For instance, N2 features tons of grammar which one would find in books, but very sporadically.

In a way yes, but that’s not universally true. Light novels targeting younger teen audiences will have some furigana, but regular teen novels already may not. There is also loads of non-book reading content for teens and kids which don’t have furigana.

Yeah, there are a lot of reasons a book can be difficult:

  • convoluted sentence structure
  • author likes to use obscure vocabulary (I’m currently working through Soseki’s I am a Cat and making very slow progress because the cat’s narrative style is very pompous and hits both this and the preceding point…)
  • tendency to talking in abstracts rather than more concretely (some of Kyon’s narration in the Haruhi light novels does this)
  • covers a topic you know nothing about
  • has genre or field specific vocab you don’t know (your sixth samurai novel is going to be easier than your first because you’ll have picked up a lot of the common terms)
  • characters speak in dialect a lot (eg kansai-ben, or the ‘samurai-speak’ that crops up in historical novels)
  • no furigana, or insufficient furigana for your current reading abilities
  • probably more I didn’t think about

It doesn’t to me matter much which of these (or which combination) might apply – the result is the same, the book is slow for me to read, I often feel like I’m not understanding or skimming over too much, and in general it’s not much fun.

My usual approach for identifying books that are about the difficulty level I want:

  • read stuff by authors I’ve read before. This is pretty reliable because most authors have about the same style over all their books and the difficulty level is thus broadly the same. Needs adjustment for things like genre vocab, and it isn’t 100% true (I am a Cat is way harder than Sanshiro by the same author)
  • read the first page or two. Adjust a bit to account for books getting easier once you’ve got through a chapter or two and have the hang of how the author writes and some of their pet turns of phrase
  • children’s books are easier than light novels are easier than novels-for-adults are easier than Serious Literature (as a generality)

Also, it’s not a big deal if you misjudge the difficulty level. If it’s easier than you thought then you can read through it quickly, and practicing fast, fluent reading is worth doing. If it’s harder than you thought and it’s too much of a slog, put the book aside and try another. There is no rule that you have to finish every book you start :slight_smile:

Bonus suggestion for people just starting on reading books in Japanese – make a record of every one you finish. I use booklog.jp, other similar services are available, pen and paper works too. I find it very satisfying to be able to look back and say “I read all these, look how far I’ve come”. (I’m currently at 238 books read over 15 years.)

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For young children, sure, but once you get into LN or what would be called YA in English genres, all bets are off.

Look at it from a different perspective: video games. The age range that LN’s start at would be playing something like Persona 5, a game that explores themes of existentialism and likes to use Kanji for words like あなた and どこ.

無職転生 is my favorite example of a hard book that looks easy, at least for the LN.

You have a 40-something year old narrator who will happily throw out colloquial sayings, have internal monologues on the sociopolitical ramifications of adventurer guilds, and spice it up with a bit of light science as he explores how magic interacts with physical phenomena.

Good times. :confused:

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Furigana usage/frequency: If you can find a sample page, then check for furigana. If there is furigana on simple kanji, then likely it is a lower level reading. If there is little to no furigana then it is likely a higher level read.
Character size: smaller tends to be harder level reading
Character spacing: small spacing tends to be harder reading
Font style: blocky “sans-serif” style fonts tend to be lower level reading
Research it: googling the name followed with “何才” can help lead to Japanese blogs, stores, and forums that mention the appropriate age level

If it is in a topic you are interested in then it may be worthwhile to battle through it line by line, word for word to at least learn the vocabulary even if the grammar is too tough. I have found Koichi’s recommendation of the “1st page rule” of books to be pretty helpful.

Also if you are searching books of the target reading level on sites like amazon.jp, then books of similar topic and reading level should also be recommended by the site.

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