Skip to main content

7 Excellent Books for Vocabulary Building

There is nothing quite like a good book. Getting lost in a story filled with rich characters in intriguing or exotic settings that you can become a part of, is an experience like no other. It s almost impossible to feel alone when you re reading a great book.

Books are also a great resource for finding words that may surprise you, intrigue you or leave you scratching your head. In other words, they are a great way to build vocabulary. Books may not be the most efficient or the quickest way to refine your inner lexicon but it may be the purest way.

When you encounter a word while reading that you ve never seen before or unearth one you ve forgotten the meaning of , you ve not only found a new addition to your lexicon, but you have an example of the best way to put it to use. That is not to say that other resources like vocabulary software are not worthwhile - quite the contrary. Vocabulary building software allows you to mine for words from the outside in, while books work from the inside out by embedding them in a world that brings them fully to life.

Pretty much any great book, from Charlotte s Web to War and Peace, is a superb example of the powerful use of language. But for the sake of simplicity, we are going to focus on seven of the best, listed below in no particular order. These books celebrate the joy of words and provide examples of how to put them to better use ourselves.

The Dubliners / Ulysses   Before anyone tackles the literary Everest of Ulysses, they should begin with James Joyce s masterful short stories, each of which poignantly tells a different Dubliner s story. Many of the characters in The Dubliners later shows up as minor characters in Ulysses, which is another reason to read it first. While The Dubliners is much easier to understand and told in a simpler language, it will help prepare you for the more challenging masterpiece that follows. The Dubliners is capped off by the masterful novella,  The Dead,  which ends with a heartbreaking internal soliloquy you will never forget. Ulysses is filled with words, some of which Joyce, like Shakespeare, coined himself words that vocabulary buffs will revel in but both books are rich in words you won t want to forget.

The Grapes of Wrath   Steinbeck employed a bold, innovative literary technique of interjecting a descriptive chapter between each chapter that helps moves the action forward. You could reason such a technique might stall the story every time you get into it. But, instead of halting the action, it creates literary magic that immerses you in the Joads  world. Each descriptive chapter has little gems of vocabulary you are reminded of or introduced to, which help fuel your own verbal repertoire. Steinbeck brings dialogue beautifully to life by having his characters occasionally misuse words at the right moments. The moving scene when Grandpa Joad is bartering for a loaf of bread with a small town waitress named Mae is a good example of this. Mae informs Joad that they don t sell bread by the loaf and tries to talk him into buying a  san widge or hamburg.  To this he replies,  We d sure admire to do that, ma am. But we can t. We got to make a dime do all of us. 

The Ghost Writer   Like other books by Philip Roth, this is a celebration of words and the literary world that brings them to life. Roth dives into this meta-literary microcosm through his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, who takes center stage for the first time as the protagonist loosely based on Roth himself. This short novel, which is the first of many Zuckerman books to follow, finds Zuckerman shadowing reclusive author E. I. Lonoff, to glean inspiration for his own writing. It is rife with sentences like   I had done it, escaped at last the wooden self-consciousness and egregious overearnestness   and sporadic attempts to be witty   and   in this house of forbearance I was better at suppressing my amorous impulses   unchained in Manhattan.  Almost every page unearths similar little gems. One of the best things about reading The Ghost Writer is it will be hard to resist following Zuckerman to the next book and the next, each a separate movement in a vast Rothian symphony of words, characters and ideas.

Nine Stories   Since Catcher in the Rye is, like To Kill a Mockingbird, widely read and readily assigned to high school students throughout the English-speaking world, we went with J. D. Salinger s other masterpiece, a selection of the best short stories he wrote during his short stint as a publishing writer. While Salinger fans eagerly await the slow emergence of his posthumous works that have been locked away in a bunker for decades, revisiting these masterful short stories is a great way to not simply bide our time but revel in his mastery of language and creation of memorable characters. Holden Caulfield would have loved these stories for their utter lack of pretentiousness. Nothing about them is phony and every word rings true.

To Kill a Mockingbird   There may not be a more beloved book in this or any age than this engrossing depiction of childhood. As Harper Lee s only book, people love it because of the endearing, real characters and the compelling events that bring them together for better or worse. The language she uses to bring it all to life is integral to the world she creates. No word is out of place. While there may not be as many unfamiliar words in this book as certain other classics on your shelf, it uses language in a way we would do well to aspire to. A powerful vocabulary is every bit as much about finding the right word as the most advanced and Lee is a master at finding the right word.

Up in the Old Hotel   While revered in certain circles, Joseph Mitchell isn t nearly as much a household name as the above-mentioned authors. His work was published in the same magazine as Salinger, The New Yorker, only his experience was very different. While Salinger struggled for years to get published in the magazine, Joseph Mitchell slid rather smoothly onto its staff after a career working at various New York newspapers. During his long career at The New Yorker, he published a few sparse stories a year. Each one was a polished gem, portraying the lives of eccentric characters throughout the city. The stories are told in such plain and simple language you almost overlook their literary mastery. You may have to look a little harder to find those words to add to your lexicon, because they re words you know, but you may not use them as much as they deserve or as well as Mitchell did.

While there are many ways for a person to enhance vocabulary, literature is a resource like no other when it comes to building your verbal and written repertoire. With the advent of eReaders and iPads, you can look up words on the spot without having to break away to get a dictionary when you find an unfamiliar word. Books are good for a lot of things like unwinding after a difficult day, but as a rich resource for building your vocabulary, they can t be beat.