Want to brush up on your knowledge of Czech history and culture before stepping off the plane? Here are 17 essential books to give you a taste of the city. The titles are ordered alphabetically by author.
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The Gardener’s Year, Karel Capek
Karel Capek is one of the most important Czech writers of the early 20th century. In The Gardener’s Year, Capek offers a guide to gardening through illustrations of bumbling gardeners that will leave you both informed and amused. As Capek’s gardeners battle unruly hoses and shelter plants from the cold with the clothes off of their backs, they embody the all-too-human hope that everything will work out in the end. After they fumble their way through four seasons, 12 months, 26 chapters and 117 pages, they realize that nothing ever really works out and work never really ends. This book will help any visitor to Prague understand the temperaments of its citizens and, interestingly, its weather. Capek keeps his tone light and upbeat, which makes this book an easy and uplifting read. You will look forward to each new chapter and the trouble the gardeners have gotten themselves into next.
— Cara Lynn Clarkson
Farewell to Prague, Miriam Darvas
Farewell to Prague is a compelling non-fiction journal written in the shadows of World War II. Following the First World War, a Belgian family must escape from Berlin under the power of the Nazis. They relocate to Prague, where they again must flee six years later when the Germans march into the Czech Republic. The eldest child and the author of the memoir, Miriam Darvas describes the events that resulted from the nomadic life her family grows to know with grief and elegance. When she is forced to separate from her family and seek a new life in England, turmoil unravels back home. Miriam returns to Prague to learn the fate of her family after the conclusion of the war. Farewell to Prague is an emotional, eye-opening read for a history-enthused audience.
— Morgan Weeks
Professor Peter Demetz presents the vast history of the Czech capital of Prague in his account, Prague in Black and Gold. From tribal beginnings to the early 20th century, his preciseness of information is intriguing but overwhelming. This is a preferred post-read for your visit to the Bohemian capital. Reading it beforehand is time consuming, and the text is overflowing with detail. The book goes into great depth about the revolutionary, political and religious history that shaped most of central Europe with an emphasis of the effects of such in Prague. The book is long, but cheap, and sheds light on the ethnic and social history that molded the magical city over its lifetime. Read it after the trip and use it more as a reference. It’s best to have prior knowledge about revolutions around Europe.
— Andrew James
Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe: A Novel, M. Henderson Ellis
John Shirting is the protagonist of Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café, and he is a quiet man from Chicago who gets laid off from his job as a barista at Capo Coffee. When Shirting comes to Prague, he makes it his sole mission to bring a Capo Coffee after the fall of communism. During his time in Prague, Shirting meets a series of complex characters — one is Jason “Bunny,” a former roadie for Guns ‘n’ Roses, who tells him about Marlboro being the “symbol of freedom” in Prague because people only smoke as a political statement. The author constructs a vivid picture. He says the cross between the communist and post-communist era can be seen in the differing architecture of the two periods. Any person interested in the Velvet Revolution and how Prague has changed since then will find this an ideal read.
— Rachel Brannon
Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague, Myla Goldberg
This is a quick read that offers helpful tips, advice and a brief history of Prague, comparing it over the years to what it is today. Tourists should read this book during or just before their visit to Prague. Upon arrival, the reader can immediately relate to descriptions of the escalators down to the metro, as Myla describes them running at “cartoonishly high speeds.” This is in no way a travel guide but more of an insight into what Prague is like. Goldberg offers tips for what to be wary of while in the city, such as the metro cops who dress casually but whip out their badges. She also describes what Prague was like under Communism and the changes it has endured over time. Although Goldberg is an expat recounting her visits to Prague, Time’s Magpie is accurate, nicely written and enjoyable to read.
— Kaitlin Kent
Closely Observed Trains, Bohumil Hrabal
This novel recounts 48 hours of the final two weeks of the Second World War through the eyes of a young Czechoslovakian, Milos, simultaneously concerned with his family’s besmirched name and his own quest to prove his manhood. The story tackles tough and tragic themes that Hrabal balances with comical anecdotes, which creates a sense of kinship with the protagonist, a train station apprentice with a sexually dissatisfied first lover and a yearning for advancement in the ranks of station workers. The alternating flashbacks are effective in keeping the reader engaged in Milos’ story, disclosing just enough information to make his death in the final pages of the book an event worthy of both admiration and sadness. The novel is the perfect medium for conveying true Czech attitudes toward German control during World War II and was originally banned for such sentiments. Any traveler to Prague would benefit from this easy-to-read national classic that brings to life a notable period in the country’s rich history.
— Melanie Chandler
I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal
This narrative follows a young Czech man, Ditê, as he bounces from hotel to hotel working as a waiter in the years leading up to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The focus of the story is on Ditê’s Napoleon complex and the great lengths he goes to make himself seem more important and masculine. This complex is illustrated in the string of lovers Ditê leaves behind before settling down with a young German girl, an adamant Nazi supporter. Ditê begins to sympathize with the Nazis and turns his back on his own people for some time. However, as time passes and Nazi activity becomes more extreme, he realizes he is first and foremost a Czech and no longer agrees with their ideals. He eventually fulfills a lifelong dream to own a fancy hotel, but it is cut short by the Communist invasion. Hrabal’s work is an essential read because it paints an entertaining and informative picture of some of the darkest times in Czech history.
— Meg Mitchell
Amerika, Franz Kafka
Amerika may seem unrelated to a reader interested in learning about Czech culture, especially considering the explicit and simple title of the work. Yet through Karl Rossmann, a Bohemian emigrant from Prague forced by his parents to move to New York after impregnating a housemaid, Kafka highlights the significance of the character’s German identity in his self-discovery and exploration of a new land. Rossmann, naïve to American ways, pays close attention to other characters’ ethnicities, generalizing expectations from non-Germans and offering his German perspective in many circumstances. Explicit references are made to Wenceslas Square in Prague, and there is repeated acknowledgement of the changing landscape in his homeland between the time he knew the area and decades lived by older European emigrants he meets. Faced with numerous encounters of adversity, Rossmann’s misfortune could sadden readers, but his perseverance and optimism encourage readers to continue to support him. Amerika is an effective novel for readers seeking insight about the experience of American immigrants from Europe in the early 20th century. Though the work is one of Kafka’s more humorous and realistic novels, the ending is incomplete and challenges readers to conjure their own imagination of Rossmann’s fate.
— Brianna Chambers
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Stemming from a lifetime of experiences in the Czech Republic is Franz Kafka’s masterpiece, The Metamorphosis, which details the tribulations of a family breadwinner who suddenly finds himself transformed into a giant beetle. Half ridiculously fictional, half autobiographically psychological, The Metamorphosis is a short story set in Prague that details how Gregor, the story’s main character, increasingly loses sympathy from his family for his condition, eventually culminating in social alienation. The story ends with Gregor’s death and complete disconnection from the outside world. Kafka’s depressingly dismal but thought-provoking work is essential in understanding Czech history and culture. After his death, Kafka became a celebrity of sorts in the county and is largely considered by locals to be one of the most important literary figures in Prague’s history. Before travelers visit Prague, they should brush up on some of his work to better understand the cultural undertones of apathy and apparent unhappiness present in the Czech Republic’s capital city today.
— Daniel Funke
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Arrested for an unknown reason and shielded from an elusive judiciary, Joseph K. is a victim of imperial corruption. The novel follows K. as he looks for a way to prove his innocence in a case clouded by crooked legalities, leaving him to search blind. It seems no one even knows the real reason for his arrest. Written between 1914 and 1915, the book gives a true picture of pre-World War I Prague — a society filled with prostitution, social hierarchy and injustice. No one can be trusted, especially those of higher authority. Kafka’s personal encounters with the law are shown through K.’s discomfort in the suffocating atmosphere of the Court. Similar to many of Kafka’s other great novels, The Trial remains unfinished. This leaves the reader with many unanswered questions but embodies the artistic style of Kafka that made him such a literary icon in modern-day Prague.
— Katy Roberts
Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr
Prague Fatale is a historical thriller following the investigations of Bernie Gunther, a Berlin policeman. The book is set in 1941, as World War II took shape in Europe. Gunther finds himself working as a bodyguard under Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotector of Bohemia. Gunther is put to work when a body is found in a locked room. Everything is at stake for Gunther, and he must solve the mystery to maintain his reputation. The stress shows as Gunther feels he is “an impostor” and cleans bullets to blast the “prison cell” that is his skull. The book provides an interesting contradiction between Gunther and the senior Nazi SS officers who are guests of Heydrich. Knowing the stakes of the mystery adds an edge to the plot, leaving the reader gripping for each new piece of information.
— Danimarie Roselle
The Joke, Milan Kundera
The Joke takes place in Prague and is told from four viewpoints, making it fast-paced and leaving little room for lulls. The story is made up of running jokes that connect its characters in a way that is interesting and refreshing. Contrary to what the reader would guess, the jokes tend to sway more toward morbidity than light and fluffy. The story explores the relationships among the characters and “The Party” that dominated during the timeframe of the story. This novel is for anyone interested in reading firsthand accounts of the Communist era from different viewpoints.
— Christina Montford
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel, Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being may, at first, seem “unbearably” philosophical. However, what begins as a tedious read opens into a beautifully intertwined story of four people bound together by chance and love. In the story, there are allusions to German philosophy, Greek mythology and symphonic motifs, which all blend to support Kundera’s underlying theme. The majority of the book takes place in Communist Czech Republic, with a focus predominantly in Prague. He often alludes to well known areas, such as Old Town and Petrin Hill, which would interest any reader who has traveled or is traveling within Prague. He includes interesting historical facts and stories about these well known areas. The anecdotes give the reader a new vantage point to see these historical areas — from a set of eyes that endured the decades of Communist control in Prague.
— Emily Mitchem
Prague: A Novel, Arthur Phillips
Despite the title, this novel is not set in Prague. Instead, the setting is Budapest, Hungary. Prague is a city that symbolizes a new form of life to the group of Americans who have traveled to Budapest for different reasons. In the characters’ eyes, Prague is a place that provides people with the opportunities they desire. Four characters lead the story — the Price brothers, who are Jewish; Emily Oliver, from Nebraska; and Mark Payton, the Canadian. The brothers find themselves in the city at different times for contradicting reasons. Scott Price escapes to Budapest to rid himself of his unenjoyable childhood, mostly due to his brother, while John Price, an optimist, travels to Budapest in hopes of finding Scott. Emily lands in Budapest with the hopes of fulfilling her political career to the fullest by working for the U.S. embassy. Mark uses his opportunity in Budapest to learn more about “nostalgia,” his area of study. The four North Americans make friends in Budapest who come from different backgrounds with interesting stories. Throughout the novel, the reader follows fictional lives while also grasping a sense of what it was like to live during the new post-communism time. It is interesting to understand why the characters long to live in Prague while also learning about the history.
— Ann Drinkard
The Prague Orgy, Philip Roth
This novella by Philip Roth is an epilogue to his trilogy, Zuckerman Bound. The short story details the pursuit of an American novelist, Nathan Zuckerman, and his attempt to recover the unpublished manuscripts of a martyred Yiddish author. His hunt takes him to Prague during the 1970s, where the nation is tightly bound under Communist rule. The stringent government of Czechoslovakia juxtaposed with American freedoms paints a stark image of the results of such a rigid regime. This book is an essential read that dives into the effects of the totalitarian society that clutched so much of Europe for such an extended amount of time because it serves as a reminder of what Prague’s history is and not all that long ago. Roth illustrates the idea that Communism infiltrated every aspect of life in countries that it took control over, especially the arts. This exciting story not only keeps you entertained but also paints a vivid picture of life in Communist Prague that is sure to give you a better appreciation for the historic city.
— Natalie Adams
The Seven Churches: A Gothic Novel of Prague, Milos Urban
Just as the title suggests, this gothic novel set in modern-day Prague combines a murder mystery with the disdain of modern architecture taking over a magical fairytale city. The story follows Květoslav Švach, a failed former police officer whose luck suddenly changes when he stumbles upon a murdered body hanging from its Achilles tendon from the bell tower of Saint Appolianaris’ Church. This event sparks a chain of murders through seven historic, gothic churches of modern day Prague. A second plot emerges when Matthias Gmünd arrives in Prague to preserve many of the churches that are being threatened with renovation, which is Urban’s obvious opinion about the modern architecture and city lights he believes are polluting the city. The stories intertwine when a large number of the architects involved with both Švach and Gmund go missing and end up dead. The product of the two story lines is a commentary on whether Prague was in a better place during the medieval “golden age” or now, during the modern era. True to the genre, The Seven Churches: A Gothic Novel of Prague emphasizes the importance of the architecture to bring about a feeling of dark nostalgia and suspense, something Urban does impeccably. Those who enjoy a classic gothic novel with a suspenseful and murderous twist will enjoy Urban’s work as well as those who are strong advocates for preserving historic architecture for the sake of keeping the heart of a city alive.
— Lauren Taylor
Helga’s diary, translated by Neil Bermel, is a well-written, detailed memoir through the eyes of a child and her firsthand experiences of what the Jewish people experienced through during World War II. Jewish families in Prague and around Europe were torn apart from loved ones, forced to live in conditions that often lead to the spread of diseases, starved and treated inhumanely. Helga Weiss, a native of Prague, was one of the few young survivors. Out of 15,000 children who left for camps from Czechoslovakia, only about 100 returned. The diary, written by Helga, puts the reader into the scene, giving strong detail about what went on at concentration camps behind closed doors. Pictures scatter the diary, giving the reader a black and white view of what the time period offered. This recollection of an innocent little girl’s experience pulls on your heartstrings and emotions, keeping you from putting the book down before her fate is revealed.
— Ashley Rosenberg