Alessandro Baricco SETA – Book Club

alessandro baricco seta

Title: Seta
Author: Alessandro Baricco
Published: 1996

Why we read this book in our book club

For this session of our book club, we have chosen Seta by Alessandro Baricco.

We have chosen this book because the story is intriguing and the narrative captivating. It is the curious story of Hervé, at first, appearing uninspiring and not at all special. But as we follow his voyages, we also witness his awakening to life. Baricco’s language is poetic and enchanting. It is not difficult for a student of Italian compared to other authors. In addition, this is a short story, so if – after reading the chapter – you wish for more, finishing this short book will be within reach of any B2 students.

This is what the book club is all about, discovering a new author, reading a carefully chosen excerpt and falling in love with it or not. If the latter is the case, this is also good; you can read something else next time. For each of our book club sessions we pick a new book and select one chapter for you to read.

Seta: the story

Seta is set in the mid-1800 in France in the small village of Lavilledieu in the South of France. It is the story of Hervé Joncour a silk merchant and specifically a silkworm merchant. He is married and has no children. He is a quiet man with no expectations, whose destiny seems to have been decided for him.

After a pandemic which affects the silkworms, Hervé is forced to travel to the far East and visit Japan to illegally purchase silkworms. For the last two centuries Japan has been closed to the external world. During his first travel to Japan, Hervé meets the mysterious Hara Key. He also sees a girl and he falls in love with the idea of her. He returns to Japan multiple times hoping to see her again.

The book tells the story of this idealised and impossible love, but also about the more real one closer to home, which is rediscovered by Hervé towards the end. It talks about the metaphor of travelling and of the awakening of a man to life.

What we will be discussing in this book club

Our book club discussions vary according to the books we read and the contributions of the participants. The moderator provides enough structures to ensure that discussions flow, however, also flexibility and freedom so that participants have enough space to express their ideas.

For this particular book, we will start by focussing on defining the characters, their specific traits and what these mean for the story and for the overall meaning of the book.

We then focus on specific quotes from the book either suggested by the teacher moderator or by the participants. We will discuss what the quotes suggest and what bearing these elements have on the story itself.

During the book club there is a focus on specific language used in the book, and again, both the moderator and the participants will contribute either interesting or new language to analyse or simply to put forward and explain.

Interesting quotes from the book:

“Pioveva la sua vita, davanti ai suoi occhi, spettacolo quieto.”

“Per mille volte cercò gli occhi di lei, e per mille volte lei trovò i suoi. Era una specie di triste danza, segreta e impotente.”

“È uno strano dolore. Morire di nostalgia per qualcosa che non vivrai mai.”

“si chinò su quanto era rimasto della sua vita, e riiniziò a prendersene cura, con l’incrollabile tenacia di un giardiniere al lavoro.”

“Ogni tanto, nelle giornate di vento, scendeva fino al lago e passava ore a guardarlo, giacché, disegnato sull’acqua, gli pareva di vedere l’inspiegabile spettacolo, lieve, che era stata la sua vita.”

The author and the book

Alessandro Baricco was born in Torino in 1958. He studied philosophy at university and at the same time studied piano at the conservatory. His love of music and literature inspired his first book, a paper on Gioacchino Rossini. He published his first novel, the critically acclaimed Castelli di sabbia, in 1991 and has won the Premio Selezione Campiello and the Prix Médicis Étranger. In 1993 he published Oceano Mare which has won the Premio Viareggio and the Premio Palazzo al Bosco. In 1994 he wrote Novecento and Seta was written in 1996.

All his books have been translated into various languages. Baricco has also written numerous papers and articles. He has written and directed for the theatre. He has also created TV programmes on literature such as Pickwick, del leggere e dello scrivere and Totem. In 1994 he created and founded a school of creative writing based in Turin called Scuola Holden. He has also directed a film called Lezione Ventuno.

Seta is one of best-known books by Baricco. This international best seller has been translated into 30 languages. François Girard made it into a film with Michael Pitt, Keira Knightley, and Alfred Molina. The book is a short story written in his unique style, simple and poetic.

Alessandro Baricco has written 13 novels:

  • Castelli di Sabbia, 1991
  • Oceano Mare, 2993
  • Novecento, 1994
  • Seta, 1996
  • City, 1999
  • Constellations, 1999
  • Senza Sangue, 2002
  • Questa Storia, 2005
  • Emmaus, 2009
  • Mr Gwyn, 2011
  • Tre Volte all’Alba, 2012
  • Smith & Wesson, 2014
  • La Sposa Giovane, 2015

Further reading

Here are some sources where you can find more information about Alessandro Baricco and his books:”

How to join the book club

Join our book club! We read selected chapters of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by a native teacher passionate about literature. Click if you wish to know how our book club works. Book your session here.

Three steps for reading in a foreign language: solving the jigsaw puzzle

Three steps for reading in a foreign language

Three steps for reading in a foreign language

Why is reading in a foreign language so important for learning it?
Why is reading in a foreign language difficult?
Are there any techniques to make it easier?

Read on to find the answers to these questions.

The power of context and stories
The British Council, in one of their campaigns, told us that it only takes a 1000 words to learn a language. This is true if we consider that even mother tongue speakers use a relatively small vocabulary in their everyday life. However, words must be meaningful and related to context for a learner to retain them. The internet is full of lists of words, nevertheless if you have ever tried to learn Italian by memorising words, you will already know that this does not work.

The power of context and stories does not only lie in making vocabulary memorable, but also has the power of contributing meaning to a word, even a new word, that the student has never come across before. Reading is an invaluable way of learning a language and it is especially powerful for learning new vocabulary and phrases.

Why is reading in a foreign language difficult?
Most students find reading Italian literatures difficult. I can see two reasons for this. One is that the material is too hard because the students are still at the intermediate stage or below. The second is that the level of the student is high enough, but the student lacks the right techniques and the mindset. There is a solution for both cases.

Use graded material
If the material is too challenging, this is because these students are intermediate level or below. In this case, the solution is simple: reading graded material will help learning without being overwhelming. Graded materials are books which are written according to the level of the students. They are based on the number of words used. For example the one marked as 400-500 words are for beginners, 1000/1500 are for pre-intermediate level and so on. Start with one that you think you can manage and as your reading becomes easier upgrade to the next level. Even at pre-intermediate levels the next tips should help.

Use the correct reading techniques
The second problem is when a student reads in the same way as they read in their own language: expecting to understand each individual word. This is a common mistake amongst my more advanced students. Unfortunately, this can become exhausting because there will be numerous words that, when first read, they might not be familiar with.

Solving the jigsaw puzzle
Reading a text in a foreign language is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. When you start, you only see a pile of pieces. If you tried to put them together randomly you might be overwhelmed by the task. So, you might start by getting some clues about the puzzle, for example by looking at the picture on the box and by identifying the borders. In a similar way, before reading start to get some clues about the genre of the book, the book cover, the title, the table of contents, the titles of the chapters and any illustrations available. Our brain is wired to produce meaning based on a variety of clues and our previous experiences, trust yourself and let the brain to its job.

3 steps for reading any texts
So, after you got some clues about the book, you are ready to start, and these techniques should help:

1. First read: get the feel
Read as if you want to get the feel of the book, as if you were immersing yourself in a warm bath. Relax and read the entire section from start to finish. This could be the full chapter or if the chapter is too long, choose to begin with half of it. In your first read don’t use the dictionary. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand, focus on what you do. To go back to our puzzle analogy: use the key words you do understand to piece the rest together.
After finishing, try to summarise what you have understood. Use logic, what do you think happened, so what usually follows?

2. Second read: get the gist
The second read is when you will start underlining some words which you think are key to understand the sentence or the paragraph. These words should be crucial to the meaning of the chunk of text and very few. Even in this second read, don’t use the dictionary. Your understanding after the second read will be far greater compared to the first, even without the dictionary. Read again till the end. Trust yourself and the ability of your mind to understand more than you think.

3. Third read: dig deeper
The third read is when I would use the dictionary. Using it only now will ensure that those words have become already meaningful to you even if you don’t grasp them completely and therefore also more memorable. The work that you have done without the dictionary has given those words some meaning already, and you have built up the overwhelming desire to understand what they mean. In the same way as when you only have a small piece missing in the puzzle, you can already imagine what you are looking for. This process is what enables your long-term memory. This is because our minds have been designed to retain only information that is perceived as important.

Changing your mindset about reading
Ultimately, for reading in a foreign language, we need to change our mindset. Abandoning the fear of unknown words and accepting that we need a fresh way to approach an authentic text written for native speakers. Learn like children do; throwing yourselves into the new, using your imagination and especially enjoying your reading.

To sum it up:
In short, reading in the target language requires the same techniques as solving a jigsaw puzzle. At the beginning it looks complicated but if you stick with it all the pieces fall into place. Follow the techniques described without fear and trust yourself and the process.

Happy reading!

Fancy join our book club?
We read one selected chapter of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by native teachers.
Click here if you wish to know how our book club works. You can book your session here.

Book Club Reading: Un ragazzo normale

Learning Italian by joining a book club

Learning Italian by joining a book club

Book Club Selected Reading

Title: Un ragazzo Normale
Author: Lorenzo Marone
Published: 2018

The author and the book

Lorenzo Marone was born in Naples in 1974. He worked as a lawyer for ten years, he then left this profession to become a writer. He published his first book, La tentazione di essere felici, in 2015. This has been translated into 15 languages and it was made into a film (La tenerezza) directed by Gianni Amelio. He has written 8 books and won numerous prizes such as Premio Stresa and Premio Selezione Bancarella then he published Un ragazzo normale in 2018 and won the Premio Giancarlo Siani.

He has also published:

La tristezza ha il sonno leggero
Magari domani resto
Cara Napoli
Tutto sarà perfetto
Inventario di un cuore in allarme
La donna degli alberi

Here are some sources where you can find more information about Lorenzo Marone and his books:

The story

Mimì is the protagonist of Un ragazzo normale. He’s twelve, wears glasses, loves reading and he is super smart. This boy is also obsessed with astronauts, comic books and the film Karate Kid. He lives in a building block in Naples in the area of Vomero where his father is the doorman. Il Vomero is the area populated by the middle and upper classes.

The boy spends all his spare time outside with his friend Sasà or in the two-room apartment that he shares with his parents, his teenage sister and his grandparents.

This child is fixated with getting a spiderman costume that his parents cannot afford, he is in love with Viola, a girl who lives in one of the upstairs apartments and daughter of more affluent parents. He is also into telepathy and tries various experiments with whoever he finds that is agreeable to them.

The book is set in the year 1985, which was a strange year for Naples. For example, it was the year that it snowed. This is an event in Naples, considering that prior to that, it only snowed in the years 1929, 1956 and 1971. During 1985, he also meets Giancarlo who becomes his superhero. Giancarlo is a 25 years old journalist who drives a green Citroen Méhari and writes dangerously about the Camorra. The boy is instantly inspired by the journalist and becomes his friend.

To understand the story completely, it is important to mention that Giancarlo was a real person: Giancarli Siani. He was murdered by the Camorra in 1985 because of his work. At the time he was reporting about the links between politicians, constructions contracts and organised crime.

Why read this book?

We choosed this book for various reasons. It is beautifully written and it is amusing and moving at the same time. It gives a good view of a very recent past and consequently, offers a more current view of Italy, its values and culture. The author is an award-winning writer, who has enjoyed critic and public success.

Quotes from the book:

“Le cose straordinarie, quelle che resteranno per sempre nella tua vita, arrivano spesso in punta di piedi e all’improvviso, senza tuoni e particolari avvisaglie. Proprio come quella nevicata dell’85.”

“Perché alla fine di quella terribile e magnifica estate capii che gli unici superpoteri a disposizione di noi poveri umani sono i rapporti che riusciamo a costruirci, gli amori, le amicizie, gli affetti. Sono la qualità di queste relazioni a fare la differenza fra chi è super e chi, forse, lo è un po’ meno. Perché quella maledetta sera capii di essere solo un adolescente che si era trovato, per una serie di circostanze, ad avere a chef fare con qualcosa di più grande di lui. Capii di essere un ragazzo normale. Come lo era Giancarlo, un ragazzo normale.”

Learning Italian by joining a book club

We read one selected chapter of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by native teachers.
Click here if you wish to know how our book club works. You can book your session here.