To Be, or just Being There: reading public domain vs. contemporary literature

To Be, or just Being There:
reading public domain vs. contemporary literature

One of the advantages of technology, especially for English language learners, is online literature. Reading is an important English skill. Online literature makes it easier to practice. Sources such as the BBC website have news items and special ESL/EFL sections. However, as interesting as they are, these sites are more like a one-sided lecture than a language exchange. They may have questions and tasks for you, but interacting with them is limited.

A better way to learn about Western culture is by reading fiction stories and novels (poetry is also good but more difficult to understand). There are websites with public domain literature you can download. A popular example is “”. Gutenberg is an umbrella organization. This means it organizes many different websites into one group. All of its websites store, catalogue and provide access to public domain literature. You can read novels by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Samuel Hawthorne, DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and many others (if you don’t know these names, head to Gutenberg now, they’re that important).

However, public domain literature is more than 70 years old (sometimes much older). The grammar and language is much different from how we speak today. Idioms have become cliches. Sentences sound like something a grandparent might say. Reading these is more work than pleasure. Even native English speakers find public domain literature confusing; and Shakespeare? The average person can’t understand Shakespeare at all. Even authors like Jack London can be difficult to understand.

By comparison, contemporary authors (who are alive and writing today) use language that is relevant now. These books and stories demonstrate how people talk to each other day to day, and include native English speakers mistakes (and, yes, we do make them). Some authors use more difficult language (for example, xxx) while others use simpler language (writers like James Michener) so everyone can enjoy their books. The trick is to find an author whose writing you enjoy and focus on reading their work.

Reading contemporary authors can be expensive but you can sometimes find paper copies of their books in libraries, used book stores, garage sales and flea markets. Some novels even show up as audio books you can listen to. Don’t ignore public domain literature completely; it’s a good way to learn about Western culture. But if you want to learn to use the language, today’s writers are the obvious choice.
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