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Literary Choices for Students of English as a Second Language

April 12th, 2009

Once you’ve achieved a basic mastery of the English language and have a good understanding of English vocabulary, the world of books and literature will open up to you.  There are many good choices in the realm of English literature for you as a newly-minted speaker.

One of the best places to start is with the works of Ernest Hemingway.  He is not only noted for his use of simple words, but his mastery of the English language is one of the best of all time.  It would be hard to make a bad choice among his collected works, but a favorite of many new English students is The Old Man and the Sea.

In this book the characters are portrayed simply, and the language becomes a tool for that portrayal.  The levels of characterization are complex, but that is never reflected in complex grammatical structures.  Hemingway’s mastery is in the way that his simple terms and simple sentence structure become complex images.  For example, to describe a fish as it is pulled from the sea, Hemingway wrote, “The fish came out of the water endlessly.”  Immediately the reader knows, and knows deeply, that this is a big fish. But the word choices are uncomplicated and easy for a reader to grasp while retaining the great beauty of his prose.

Another good choice for the new English reader are the James Herriot books, known collectively as All Creatures Great and Small.  Their portrayal of the veterinary practice of a mid-twentieth century veterinarian in the Yorkshire countryside is an easy read, but one that speaks to anyone who grew up on a farm – regardless of where that farm was.

Where the Red Fern Grows is another fine choice for the new English reader.  Not only is it an interesting story, but it’s written in simple language that isn’t hard to decipher.  The novel centers around a boy and his dogs, another theme that many new readers can relate to.  In keeping with the dog theme, there’s also Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, another American master of 20th century literature.  Like Hemingway, his evocative style isn’t diminished by his simple vocabulary choices.

There is another book by Steinbeck that should be mentioned – his telling of the Arthurian legend, published under the title The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  Steinbeck was impressed by this book when he was a young boy, and as he grew as both a man and a writer, he became concerned that these stories were becoming less and less accessible to the common man.  He wanted to change that with the writing of this book, which features simple, easy to read text and rich descriptions.

But, of course, no list of great English literature would be complete without a mention of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.  The serious subject matter of racial injustice is set off with humor and a tight storyline – all written in simple, understandable language.  In fact, it has been said that Lee is more of a storyteller than novelist, and this novel gives an enjoyable introduction to a very dark time in American history.

Of course, these books are only the tip of the iceberg of great English literature, and many deserving works have been left out of this list.  But hopefully, this will give you a good introduction to finding great literature.  In addition, every community has an expert that will be glad to help you – you’ll find these wonderful and helpful experts behind the desk of any library.