Monday, March 16, 2020

How to Read Zola: A Personal Guide

One of the things I love the most from hosting Zoladdiction is to find new Zoladdicts (readers addicted to Zola's) - either people who have read Zola for some times, or those who read him for the first time. And from my eight years of hosting Zoladdiction, I have been observing that most of those who have read Zola, tend to love him and keep reading his books.

From year to year, people keep asking me almost the same question about how they should read Zola - especially his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle - or which book they should start with. Hence, you can regard this post as a sort of guidance - not from an expert, but just an enthusiastic reader. It's my personal view, and hopefully you will find it useful.

First of all, you need to know how many books Zola had written. The answer is... A LOT! He would be your perfect choice to start an "author challenge" (reading works of certain author) - you won't run out of good materials for years! :) Not only novels of many titles, Zola also wrote some short stories, essays, novella, plays, and in case you didn't know, he even wrote the controversial J'accuse! - an open letter to France President criticizing the unjust anti-semitic accuse of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French officer.

Now, back to the main question: Where should I start? There are several entry points which you can chose according to your need.

Start from the best

My common advice to start reading a new author is always starting from his/her masterpiece or most notable work. If it resonates with you, then it's very likely you would love his/her other works. In the case of Zola, it's: Germinal. It is a very thoroughly researched book - Zola took effort to go down into the mine pit and interviewed some workers, and you'd feel suffocated yourselves when reading it, as if you were there! It's so beautifully written with complex plot, and alternately emotionally touching and aggravating. It's also my favorite novel of all time!

The Rougon-Macquart cycle

Have you heard about this monumental project of Zola? There are two possible approaches to start your project:

Chronological order

The best way is starting from the beginning: The Fortune of the Rougons. It's the introduction to the two families (Rougons and Macquarts, plus Mourets) and historical background of the Second Empire of France. It lays the foundation and serves as navigation map to the following novels.

Random order

You have one or two Zolas on your TBR right now, and just want to read it? NO PROBLEM. The Rougon-Macquart's are standalone novels depicting different issues. You can easily pick one randomly according to your whim. In fact, I have started from L'Assommoir myself, then continued randomly through the cycle.

Short Stories Teaser

For some readers (including me), it's not easy to try a new author, especially one whom you're not sure you'll like. Start from his/her short stories! It serves as teaser, and you'd have nothing to lose. Zola wrote quite a lot of short stories, you'd love him after reading few of them, I guarantee! :) You can download/read online, or picking one of Zola's short stories collection.

Mildest Zola's

You might have heard/read about Zola's blunt honesty of writing? Well, in case your reading comfort has been Victorians, and you are a bit worried about raw Naturalism, you might start with Zola's mildest novel (also from The Rougon-Macquart cycle): The Ladies Paradise. At least it won't "blow your head" unexpectedly, and there's a bit... ehm... love story in it! :)

The Rawest

Maybe you are one of the minorities who are always eager to pick the most extreme choice? Then you'd thank me of ever picking The Earth. It's the rawest of all (I have read so far). Though the severity of the "blow" is only second after L'Assommoir, the brutal scenes are the most shocking.

Single Novel

Rather daunted to start The Rougon-Macquart, a cycle of twenty novels, and prefer, instead, a single standalone noncommittal novel? Therese Raquin would be perfect. It's one of Zola's most notable works, and one of my most memorable - it's my FIRST Zola! I remember being hooked from the beginning, and I think I finished it in just two days.


If you haven't been impressed so far, maybe you'd prefer his semi political semi humanitarian piece: J'Accuse! and other writings concerning the Dreyfus Affair. I loved especially Zola's last speech before his self-exile. Wait... you do know about Zola's self-exile to avoid jail, right? No? Then perhaps you need first to...

Know Zola from Biographies

This is my last attempt to convert you to be a Zoladdict! LOL.. just joking :D But sometimes, knowing an author - what he valued and how he viewed things - would lead you to love his/her books.

Now I assume you have made your mind of WHICH book to read next from Zola? Next you'd need to decide WHEN. Let me help you...


It's Zola's birth month (2nd April is his birthday), and we will have a Zola reading event....

If you haven't signed up yet, you can still do it at the Announcement post. Don't forget to let me know in the comment or tag me on Twitter/Instagram.

See you on April, then, and prepare to have FUN!


  1. This is a great post! (Especially since I'm one of those people who scarcely know Zola.) Thanks!

    1. I'm glad you find it useful, Reese. And I hope you'd become his fan too one day! ;)

  2. I definitely think all the novels can stand alone, it doesn't matter where you start as long as it's one that interests you. My first Zola was The Belly of Paris and I chose it because it was about food, so I really enjoyed it. But when I read Germinal I really understood what all the fuss was about. La Bete Humaine is probably my favorite, it's absolutely riveting. I've found something I liked in nearly all of them, the only one I didn't like was Nana. I'm looking forward to Zoladdiction in April, I just have to choose my novel!

    1. Hi Karen, we share the same dislike. Nana is one of my least favorite too. I still can't see why some people love it. I, too, didn't find anything to love about it.


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