To cultivate one's taste in English prose, the most effective way is to read English books extensively. Yet one may be at a loss to choose the appropriate books, especially as a beginner. I would like to share some of my experience.
My first English novel was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, recommended by many English teachers and professors as an ideal book for English learners. But my experience was somewhat disastrous1
. Stumbling along the lines, I had great difficulty in understanding the novel, let alone enjoying it. It's not the vocabulary that troubled me, but rather the way Austen constructs sentences, and her way of thinking, which seemed too remote to me at that time. My fading enthusiasm was much recovered after reading Hemingway's novel Farewell to Arms. No long and complicated sentences. And I particularly liked his concise2
style. So my first suggestion is, as a beginner, you'd better choose contemporary novels instead of classical ones. You can easily engage yourself in reading, get fun out of it, and gradually build up confidence. I do not mean to exclude classical novels for ever. Actually, the second reading of Pride and Prejudice greatly pleased me (probably the result of my improved English comprehension). It is only that classical novels are less accessible to beginners due to their language styles and social background. I'd like to recommend three contemporary novelists to you－Ursula Le Guin, Ernest Hemingway, and Doris Lessing.
However, reading novels is not the only way to improve your English. In fact, if you restrict yourself to novels you will miss a lot of treasures. English essays can at once inform you, entertain you, and refine your taste in English. The best example is Bertrand Russell's work. Its language is plain, yet you cannot help feeling the elegance4
and the peculiar5
sense of humor. His simple language enables his philosophy within the reach of ordinary people. The same is true of George Orwell's work. Here comes my second suggestion－essays are indispensable.
My last advice is never follow others' recommendations and opinions blindly, however famous or influential6
the person might be. Some days ago, I listened to the audiobook of Somerset Maugham's autobiography7
The Summing Up. In a chapter he regards Edward Gibbon and Samuel Johnson's style as pompous8
. Though I admire Maugham's prose, I cannot agree with his view. Probably one can label Johnson's work as pretentious9
, but definitely not Gibbon's. In fact, his lucid10
style makes his works highly readable, and you can hardly believe they were written over 200 years ago. Therefore, we should be open to various ideas, but always think and determine for ourselves. As a saying goes, one man's meat is another man's poison. With that in mind, we are bound to find out our favorite writers through reading and develop our fine taste in English.