10 must-read books for language lovers

Reading is as essential as it is mandatory when learning another language and trying to understand facets of communication. This list of our favorite fiction and nonfiction books aims to inspire and entertain language lovers, writers, bookworms and anyone fascinated with the written word.

1. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Lynn Truss

Former editor Truss wrote a book about the purpose and value of punctuation in “a delightfully urbane, witty, and very English way” and reiterates why it’s time to pay attention to commas and semicolons, whether you’re an editor or not. In a humorous manner, she explains why punctuation shouldn’t be mishandled, otherwise there can be a risk of losing clarity and conveying a totally different message.

2. The Elements of Style

William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White

One of the best books on writing, it offers practical advice on writing clearly and communicating effectively. Based on experience, this creation by Strunk and White is also highly recommended by university-level English teachers. Focusing on the rules of usage in literature, composition and grammar, their tips seem basic yet practical and invaluable, and is organized like a style guide or reference manual.

3. The Language Hoax

John McWhorter

Linguist McWhorter wrote this short, opinionated book to address the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which argues that the language we speak greatly influences the way cultures behave and perceive the world. He argues that this idea is wrong, because it’s language that reflects culture and worldview, not the other way around.

4. In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World

C.J. Moore

In Other Words is a unique collection of “untranslatable” and culturally-bound words from around the world. It contains tons of linguistic gems with meanings and etymologies, conveying concepts that resist translation in different cultures. Hard-to-translate words give us insights into the culture of its people and its language. For example, “kiasu” is a Singlish word that describes someone who always wants the best for themselves and to always be on top of things. This book comes in handy for everyone who loves traveling, cultures, and languages.

5. Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages

Guy Deutscher

In his book, Deutscher makes intellectual arguments to explain how language shapes culture and vice versa. He demonstrates the ways in which culture influences language as the “language mirror” in the first section of the book, and also how language influences culture as the “language lens” in the second half. The academic convinces the reader in a provocative way that our native language affects and influences our thoughts and how we perceive the world.

6. A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess

This dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess from 1962 was adapted into a movie in 1971 and has since made its mark. The book revolves around the protagonist’s journey into adulthood, and is an essential read for teenagers. But what made the book stand out is the language invented by the author, who was also a linguist. Teenage characters in A Clockwork Orange spoke Nadsat, a fictional register or argot, which is a form of Russian-influenced English. Fans even created and published a Nadsat term glossary online.

7. Embassytown

China Mieville

“How can a novel about language leave one speechless?”, as one fan stated. An amazing work of the imagination, lyrical prose and humor, Embassytown’s core ideas are language, the problem of communication, and of spoken truth. It is about how minds shape language and how it shapes minds, too. The protagonist, Avice Benner Cho, is a human colonist who returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She is unable to speak the Ariekei tongue, but realizes that the people made her a part of it and she is a figure of speech—a simile, to be exact.

8. In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri and Ann Goldstein (Translation)

Pulitzer Prize winner Lahiri was born in London to Bengali Indian immigrants, and moved to America when she was three years old. A translator, her desire to learn Italian became an obsession so she moved to Italy with her family to learn the language extensively. She wrote this memoir in Italian, investigating the processes of learning a language, seeking a new voice as a writer, and finding a sense of belongingness. Lahiri wanted to produce another version of herself in the same way she could transform a text from one language into another.

9. Silence Once Begun

Jesse Ball

Set in a Japanese town where eight people mysteriously vanished, Ball’s novel is a thriller that involves a man who confesses to a crime he didn’t commit, then subsequently—and inexplicably—takes a vow of silence. This allows the other characters around him to inform the reader of his history, tendencies and character. A short yet compelling read, this book is full of beautiful prose worth reading in one sitting.

10. Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)

Eileen Myles

Inferno is a well-received novel, a poetic memoir, and a stream-of-consciousness rolled into one. It’s about the author’s narrative journey of discovering her sexual identity and creative drive in New York back in the city’s heyday. Myles’ book is full of anecdotes and her prose captures the hearts of the readers with the same vibe as her poetry. Some critics have labeled it as an autobiography but, whatever it is, The Huffington Post named this artistic piece of work one of the stunning novels for language lovers in 2014.

Have you read any of these books? Tell us what you think or share your own recommendations!

Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.

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