To expand your vocabulary, books of any kind are good to read. For adults, however, it can be difficult to find books that are both easy and interesting.
Harry Potter may be fun to read — but at 4,224 pages it requires a lot of time without offering a lot of useful vocabulary (unless you plan to attend wizarding school).
The same can be said for a lot of other famously easy books in English.
Instead, I usually recommend these books for my adult students:
- Being There by Jerzy Kosiński
- Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly
- The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
In addition to being relatively easy and short (under 200 pages), they feature situations and conversations that are typical for adults (like answering the phone, making small talk, and discussing health or relationship problems). They can also be enjoyable to read – with beautiful writing, interesting characters, and entertaining plots.
Easy English Books for Grown Adults
Being There | Jerzy Kosiński
Just 160 pages, Being There is a satirical novel by a Polish-born writer who learned English in his twenties, after emigrating to the United States.
The novel is about a gardener named Chance, who works for a wealthy old man and has lived his entire life on the man’s estate. When the old man dies, Chance is forced to leave the house and enter the ‘outside world’, where people mistake his simple words for deep wisdom. Powerful people begin asking ‘Mr. Gardiner’ for advice, and he soon becomes an advisor to the U.S. President.
On Wednesday, as Chance was dressing, the phone rang. He heard the voice of Rand: “Good morning, Chauncey. Mrs. Rand wanted me to wish you good morning for her too, since she won’t be at home today. She had to fly to Denver. But there’s another reason I called. The President will address the annual meeting of the Financial Institute today; he is flying to New York and has just telephoned me from his plane. He knows I am ill and that, as the chairman, I won’t be able to preside over the meeting as scheduled. But as I am feeling somewhat better today, the President has graciously decided to visit me before the luncheon. It’s nice of him, don’t you think? Well, he’s going to land at Kennedy and then come over to Manhattan by helicopter. We can expect him here in about an hour.” He stopped; Chance could hear his labored breathing. “I want you to meet him, Chauncey. You’ll enjoy it. The President is quite a man, quite a man, and I know that he’ll like and appreciate you. Now listen: the Secret Service people will be here before long to look over the place. It’s strictly routine, something they have to do, no matter what, no matter where. If you don’t mind, my secretary will notify you when they arrive.”
“All right, Benjamin, thank you.”
“Oh, yes, one more thing, Chauncey. I hope you won’t mind … but they will have to search you personally as well. Nowadays, no one in close proximity to the President is allowed to have any sharp objects on his person — so don’t show them your mind, Chauncey, they may take it away from you! See you soon, my friend!” He hung up.
The novel was also made into a film with the same simple style as the book, giving you a second opportunity to practice your English listening skills:
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs | Beth Ann Fennelly
For readers who enjoy stories about real life, Heating & Cooling is a nice little collection of personal memories (called memoirs in book form) by the poet Beth Ann Fennelly.
At 111 pages, her memoirs range in length from ten words to three pages and cover a variety of ‘adult’ topics, like married life and social interaction.
In every book my husband’s written, a character named Colin suffers a horrible death. This is because my boyfriend before I met my husband was named Colin. In addition to being named Colin, he was Scottish, and an architect. So you understand my husband’s feelings of inadequacy. My husband cannot build a tall building of many stories. He can only build a story, and then push Colin out of it.
Small Talk at Evanston General
And what is it you do? he asked, after a moment of silence. My mother was in the bathroom exchanging her dress for the cotton gown.
I had the sense that he was asking to fulfill some kind of med school training: Engage the patient’s loved ones in coversation.
Five outlandish occupations pinged through my head, all lies. But I knew I shouldn’t mess with him. I needed to get him on our side and keep him there. I’m a writer, I said.
A rider? A light turned on in his eyes, suddenly as blue as his scrubs. He put his fists up and bounced them: a cowboy bounding over the plains.
No, I said. A writer. Which now seemed to require a gesture, so I held up my imaginary pen and wiggled it.
Oh, he said, all business again as my mother came out of the bathroom. Well, he said, me too. He untied her gown with one hand and slipped the black Sharpie from his pocket with the other, clamped it between his teeth to remove the cap, and then drew dashes on my mother’s naked chest, indicating where his scalpel would go.
Like poetry, the pleasure of these brief stories is in their emotion, imagery, and humor, rather than plot, setting, or characters.
You can also learn some interesting things about the English language (for example, that writer and rider have the same pronunciation in American English, and that the word story means both ‘a short narrative text’ and ‘a level of a building’).
The New York Trilogy | Paul Auster
Published in 1987, The New York Trilogy is a collection of three short crime novels written in a minimalist style, with simple situations and very few characters. Like fairy tales, but with criminals and detectives instead of princes and talking animals.
In the excerpt below, a character named Daniel Quinn receives a phone call from someone who wants to speak to a detective named Paul Auster. Quinn pretends to be Paul Auster, and becomes embroiled embroiled: to become involved in a difficult situation in a mysterious crime:
“Hello?” he said.
Again, there was a silence on the other end. Quinn knew at once that it was the stranger.
“Hello?” he said again. “What can I do for you?”
“Yes,” said the voice at last. The same mechanical whisper, the same desperate tone. “Yes. It is needed now. Without delay.”
“What is needed?”
“To speak. Right now. To speak right now. Yes.”
“And who do you want to speak to?”
“Always the same man. Auster. The one who calls himself Paul Auster.”
This time Quinn did not hesitate. He knew what he was going to do, and now that the time had come, he did it.
“Speaking,” he said. “This is Auster speaking.”
“At last. At last I’ve found you.” He could hear the relief in the voice, the tangible calm that suddenly seemed to overtake it.
“That’s right,” said Quinn. “At last.” He paused for a moment to let the words sink in, as much for himself as for the other. “What can I do for you?”
“I need help,” said the voice. “There is great danger. They say you are the best one to do these things.”
“It depends on what things you mean.”
“I mean death. I mean death and murder.”
“That’s not exactly my line,” said Quinn. “I don’t go around killing people.”
“No,” said the voice petulantly. “I mean the reverse.”
“Someone is going to kill you?”
“Yes, kill me. That’s right. I am going to be murdered.”
“And you want me to protect you?”
“To protect me, yes. And to find the man who is going to do it.”
“You don’t know who it is?”
“I know, yes. Of course I know. But I don’t know where he is.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“Not now. Not on the phone. There is great danger. You must come here.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Good. Tomorrow. Early tomorrow. In the morning.”
“Good. Ten o’clock.” The voice gave an address on East 69th Street.
“Don’t forget, Mr. Auster. You must come.”
“Don’t worry,” said Quinn. “I’ll be there.”
One entertaining aspect of Auster’s stories is that they’re highly modern (indeed, postmodern) and break a lot of traditional ‘rules’ about storytelling. In the excerpt above, Auster has made himself a character in his own story.
Easy English Books for Young Adults
In recent decades, books for teenagers have also become popular with grown-upsgrown-up: an informal word to describe an adult (often used by children, or when talking to children) since they tend to be more exciting — with stories set in future eras, exotic lands, or different worlds.
If the books above sound a little too boring for your taste (as they tend to be, for young people), then you may enjoy one of these books instead.
Fahrenheit 451 | Ray Bradbury
Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 imagines a future where books are illegal and television is the main source of information and entertainment.
The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose job is not to stop fires but rather to start them. One day he meets a new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarisse, and they engage in a bit of small talk:
“Do you mind if I ask? How long’ve you worked at being a fireman?”
“Since I was twenty, ten years ago.”
“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”
He laughed. “That’s against the law!”
“Oh. Of course.”
“It’s fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.”
They walked still further and the girl said, “Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”
“No. Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it.”
“Strange. I heard once that a long time ago houses used to burn by accident and they needed firemen to stop the flames.”
She glanced quickly over. “Why are you laughing?”
“I don’t know.” He started to laugh again and stopped. “Why?”
“You laugh when I haven’t been funny and you answer right off. You never stop to think what I’ve asked you.” ... She increased her pace. “Have you ever watched the jet cars racing on the boulevards down that way?”
“You’re changing the subject!”
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days. Isn’t that funny, and sad, too?”
“You think too many things,” said Montag, uneasily.
You can learn more about the political themes and historical context of the book in the video below (but beware of spoilersspoiler: a piece of information about a book, film, or television show that may ruin your enjoyment of the story, if you have not already read or watched it):
The House on Mango Street | Sandra Cisneros
Just 103 pages, The House on Mango Street is an award-winning and much-loved coming-of-age novel that is frequently studied in schools and universities in the United States.
It tells the story of a 12-year-old girl and her Mexican-American family through brief texts (like those in the excerpt below) that focus on different aspects of their lives over the span of one year.
While that may not sound very exciting, you can learn a lot of useful vocabulary for daily life (or the IELTS Speaking Test) from its poetic, diary-style chapters:
Everybody in our family has different hair. My Papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carlos’ hair is thick and straight. He doesn’t need to comb it. Nenny’s hair is slippery — slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is the youngest, has hair like fur.
But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.
Boys & Girls
The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours. My brothers for example. They’ve got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the house. But outside they can’t be seen talking to girls. Carlos and Kiki are each other’s best friend … not ours.
Nenny is too young to be my friend. She’s just my sister and that was not my fault. You don’t pick your sisters, you just get them and sometimes they come like Nenny.
She can’t play with those Vargas kids or she’ll turn out just like them. And since she comes right after me, she is my responsibility.
Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.
The Giver | Lois Lowry
A famous 130-page novella for teens, The Giver can be found in many classrooms in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.
Although it’s bannedban: to give an official order to stop or forbid an action from some schools (due to references to violence and sexuality in the story), the story shouldn’t be too shocking for readers who have already experienced pubertypuberty: the stage in a young person’s life when s/he changes from a child into an adult, and develops the ability to have children and/or ever watched a news program.
You may even enjoy reading about a future/fantasy world where crime, poverty, unemployment, and illness are non-existent. A perfect world, for almost everyone. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Again and again, as he slept, he had slid down that snow-covered hill. Always, in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something — he could not grasp what — that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop.
He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance...
But he did not know how to get there.
He tried to shed the leftover dream, gathering his schoolwork and preparing for the day.
School seemed a little different today. The classes were the same, but during the breaks for recreation periods and the midday meal, the other new Twelves were abuzz with descriptions of their first day of training. All of them talked at once, interrupting each other, hastily making the required apology for interrupting, then forgetting again in the excitement of describing the new experiences.
Jonas listened. He was very aware of his own admonition not to discuss his training. There was no way to describe to his friends what he had experienced there in the Annex room. How could you describe a sled without describing a hill and snow; and how could you describe a hill and snow to someone who had never felt height or wind or that feathery, magical cold?
Even trained for years as they all had been in precision of language, what words could you use which would give another the experience of sunshine?
To further practice your English, you can watch the film version from 2014. (Warning: the video below contains a few spoilers.)
Photo by Lacie Slezak