Words are tools. Even if you’re not a writer, you use them every day in order to exist in the modern world (unless you order your daily grande iced sugar-free vanilla latte with soy milk by grunting and pointing). As with any set of tools, the more of them you have, the more accurately and effectively you can accomplish a task. Most of us use only about 2,000 words a day, though on average we know 10,000 words or more. Considering there are easily more than a million words in modern English, it’s ovious we could all stand to expand our vocabularies. The best way to do so? That’s right: reading. Here are a few books that will expand your vocabulary and entertain.
Anything by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare invented or introduced so many words to the English language, we might as well call it Shakespeare’s English. Estimates suggest he coined or brought back into use some 1,700 words, which doesn’t even count the long list of common phrases that come to use right from the pages of the Bard’s plays, from “all of a sudden,” to “one fell swoop,” to “method to my madness.” Pick a play, read it, and gain dozens of words that will astound and amaze.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
James Joyce is another author whose use of language is astounding. Ulysses sports about 30,000 unique words—meaning words that don’t occur elsewhere in the book—and Joyce is credited with transforming many words and phrases, such as botch, into new forms and usages. Even if you don’t quite understand the plot or all the signs and symbols—and don’t worry, many college professors don’t, either—simply reading the words will introduce you to a huge number of new ones, which you can then pronounce with a distinct Irish brogue, to the annoyance of everyone.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Another novel many keep locked away out of sheer terror, Moby Dick sports about 17,000 unique words and uses them in a much denser way than even Ulysses, offering up a new one in practically every line. Melville’s language is lyrical and dignified, and many words you might not be familiar with can be understood in context, making it not just the painfully detailed story of 19th-century whaling you’ve been dreaming of, but an incredible way to improve your vocabulary without downloading a single app.
The Aubrey-Maturin series, by Patrick O’Brian
There’s a reason the companion to O’Brian’s classic Napoleonic War novels is called A Sea of Words: the author met very few of them he didn’t like. Following the adventures of British naval officer Jack Aubrey and physician and spy Stephen Maturin as they engage in espionage and sea warfare in the early 1800s, the books are filled with wonderfully obscure words, ranging from sailing-specific terms (you’ll be capable of being rated as a seaman after reading all 20 of them) to terms that have fallen into disuse (not to mention Aubrey’s famously terrible puns). In between the thrilling derring-do and intrigue, you’ll absorb one of the liveliest vocabularies in literary history.
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
Yes, you read that right. While her “unique word” density isn’t far above average, Rowling’s obvious love of language introduces plenty of new words to absorb and incorporate into your conversational toolbox. Of special note are the names of spells, often taken from obscure phrases and Latin vocabulary, all neatly packaged with built-in definitions in the forms of the spells’ effects. There’s not a more entertaining set of books to read if you want to walk away with a hefty new bag of words to toss around, though we’d also offer a warning: if you’re looking to sound erudite in your next job interview, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of pointing your pen like a wand and shouting “Stupefy!” at the top of your lungs.