The best books about language

7 authors have picked their favorite books about language and why they recommend each book.

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The Rhetoric of Religion

By Kenneth Burke,

Book cover of The Rhetoric of Religion

Kenneth Burke was Shakespeare scholar, biblical scholar, poet, novelist, literary critic, rhetorical theorist, the father of “Dramatism,” and a ferocious homegrown, self-taught intellect, and this book is Burke at his best. It boldly addresses the vital role that language plays in human life and religious thought, advocates a thoroughgoing study of theology not to assess any veracity therein, but rather, as a specimen of language use, for, whatever else theology may be, it is, at the least, verbal, and, the study of religious language reveals much about human motives and self-understanding. This book also touches upon some of the interesting relations between money, guilt, and the Christian notion of redemption. It ends with an “Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven,” which is a lengthy mind-blowing fictional dialogue set in Heaven between “The Lord” and “Satan” regarding “the word-animal,” and it playfully draws out important connections between language, negativity, property rights, time, and…

Who am I?

Corey Anton is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University, Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics, Past President of the Media Ecology Association, and a Fellow of the International Communicology Institute. He is an award-winning teacher and author. His research spans the fields of media ecology, semiotics, phenomenology, stoicism, death studies, the philosophy of communication, and multidisciplinary communication theory.

I wrote...

Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism

By Corey Anton,

Book cover of Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism

What is my book about?

Sources of Significance confronts consumer capitalism and religious fundamentalism as symptoms of death denial and degenerated cultural heroism. It outlines heroisms worth wanting and reveals the forms of gratitude, courage, and purpose that emerge as people come to terms with the meaning of mortality. Corey Anton opens a contemporary dialogue spanning theism, atheism, agnosticism, and spiritualist humanism by re-examining basic topics such as language, self-esteem, ambiguity, guilt, ritual, sacrifice, and transcendence. Acknowledging the growing need for theologies that are compatible with modern science, Anton shows how today's consumerist lifestyles distort and trivialize the need for self-worth, and he argues that each person faces the genuinely heroic tasks of contributing to the world's beauty, harmony, and resources; of forgiving the cosmos for self-conscious finitude; and of gratefully accepting the ambiguity of life's gifts.

Philosophical Investigations

By Ludwig Wittgenstein,

Book cover of Philosophical Investigations

Surely the greatest work of philosophy of the 20th Century. It delves into a wide range of philosophical issues, including the relationship between language and the world. OK, it’s tough to understand without also reading some accompanying secondary literature – but it is endlessly beguiling. It’s one of the few works of philosophy that repays being re-read. I took a Wittgenstein paper at university - and have called myself a Wittgensteinian ever since.

Who am I?

David Edmonds is a philosopher, podcaster, and curry fanatic. A distinguished research fellow at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, he is the author of many books including Wittgenstein’s Poker (with John Eidinow), The Murder of Professor Schlick, Would You Kill The Fat Man?, and Undercover Robot (with Bertie Fraser). If you eat at his local restaurant, The Curry Paradise, he recommends you order the Edmonds Biriani.

I wrote...

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

By John Eidinow, David Edmonds,

Book cover of Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers

What is my book about?

On October 25, 1946, in a crowded room in Cambridge, England, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper came face to face for the first and only time. The meeting did not go well. Their loud and aggressive confrontation became the stuff of instant legend. But precisely what happened in those ten minutes remains the subject of intense disagreement. Almost immediately rumors spread around the world that the two great philosophers had come to blows, armed with red hot pokers. What really went on in that room? And what does the violence of this brief exchange tell us about these two men, modern philosophy, post-war culture, and the difference between global problems and logic puzzles?

As the authors unravel these events, your students will be introduced to the major branches of 20th-century philosophy, the tumult of fin-de-si cle Vienna--the birthplace of Popper and Wittgenstein, the events that led to the Nazi takeover of Austria, and Cambridge University, with its eccentric set of philosophy dons, including Bertrand Russell, who acted as an umpire at the infamous meeting.

In the Name of Terrorism

By Carol K. Winkler,

Book cover of In the Name of Terrorism: Presidents on Political Violence in the Post-World War II Era

While not a book about the Middle East per se, Winkler’s In the Name of Terrorism traces the rise of terrorism as a concern in U.S. politics and charts the narratives, frames, metaphors, and rhetoric used by presidents to make sense of terrorism to the American people. Focusing specifically on the evolution of “terrorism” as a concept in the leadup to the 9/11 attacks, this book provides vital background for those who wish to understand, as George W. Bush put it, why “they” hate “us.” A wide-ranging volume that effectively bridges the Cold War and the War on Terror, readers will better appreciate the importance of the president’s language choices after finishing this captivating book.

Who am I?

I'm a Communication professor at Fresno Pacific University and former Fulbright grantee to Jordan. Growing up in west Texas I was always fascinated with other countries. I encountered Arabic in college, and I quickly fell in love with a language and society that reminded me so much of my home—in fact, the word “haboob” is used by Texas farmers and Bedouin herders alike to describe a violent dust storm. While I was teaching English in Amman, I realized how much I enjoy learning how different cultures come to understand one another. My driving passion is to explore the centuries-long rhetorical history tying Americans and Middle Easterners together in mutual webs of (mis)representation, and this topic has never been more relevant than today.

I wrote...

More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

By Randall Fowler,

Book cover of More Than a Doctrine: The Eisenhower Era in the Middle East

What is my book about?

Nowadays, the Middle East can seem a quite complicated place. Between ISIS and Iran, Arabs and Israelis, Kurds and Turks, Yazidis and Druze, not to mention oil, Islam, terrorism, Judaism, and Christianity, the issues and conflicts that divide the region often appear bewildering to the average American—much less the ever-changing question of what U.S. foreign policy should be in the region.

My book cuts through those issues to directly explain the origins of American intervention in the Middle East during the Cold War. I use the lens of presidential rhetoric to trace the arguments, fears, and actions that drove U.S. policymakers to get involved in this important region in the first place. I show that many of the anxieties commentators currently voice about the Arab Muslim world are rather similar to the worries felt by Eisenhower and his team. My book demonstrates how major events like the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower Doctrine, coup in Iran, and the 1958 marine landing in Lebanon are still quite relevant to us today. 

Words and Rules

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

I’ve always loved observing children as they learn to speak. But I never understood what a triumph that is until I read Stephen Pinker’s book. He explores a huge range of topics, including what we can learn from the mistakes children make, how languages develop, brain imaging, major ideas in philosophy, computer speech simulation, Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics, and genetic research. And he does all that by focusing on regular and irregular verbs. Sounds dull? Think again. It’s a fascinating book.

Who am I?

I’ve been writing children’s books all my adult life. That means trying to find ways to communicate exactly what I’m imagining. I love words and stories. As a teenager, I wrote down my favourite words and carried them around with me. When I had children, I was fascinated by how fast they learned to make themselves understood, with and without words. The words we choose are important – but they’re only one way to communicate. What about pictures? Body language? Online media? Pheromones? The signals animals and plants give out? The more I learn about communication, the more fascinating it becomes.

I wrote...

After Tomorrow

By Gillian Cross,

Book cover of After Tomorrow

What is my book about?

Could I manage as well as they do? That’s the question that made me write After Tomorrow. I’d been learning about refugees in Chad, and how they cope with living in camps. Suddenly I thought, Suppose it was me? And then (because I’m a storyteller) Suppose it was a boy called Matt, who’s good at mending bikes…?

What if the pound collapsed and money stopped working? What if people started fighting over food? Would Matt and his family escape through the Channel Tunnel? What would happen when they arrived in France as refugees? I researched hard, to make sure the story was as realistic as possible. And the more I learned, the more scarily plausible it seemed…

Sleeping with the Dictionary

By Harryette Mullen,

Book cover of Sleeping with the Dictionary

“Pillow talk of the highest order” ends one review this book. Out of context that would seem to indicate this is a book about romance. There is romance, I suppose, but it is for the English language itself. Open the book at any point and you are likely to be knocked over by the sheer sounds and textures of words bumping into each other—literally and metaphorically. The greatest trick Mullen performs—and there are innumerable tricks here, including anagrams, puns, parodies, borrowed forms—is that she makes poems that are fun to read aloud but also serious in their fun.

Who am I?

As a child I did not enjoy reading of any kind, detested English class, and loathed poetry in particular. I simply couldn’t comprehend what relevance poems had to my life. Then, while living overseas, in my mid-twenties in a country in which I didn’t speak the language well and had no friends, I took refuge in an English-language bookstore. There, I would find the slimmest books I could find, which happened to be poetry collections, and I’d pull one down hoping for commiseration. At some point, I realized that I could make certain friends with certain poems. Twenty-five years of growing friendships later, now I read and write poetry for a living.  

I wrote...

Poetry: A Survivor's Guide

By Mark Yakich,

Book cover of Poetry: A Survivor's Guide

What is my book about?

I wrote the first edition of this book to fill a gap in the understanding of poetry. When I was a student, I desperately searched for a book that would explore the experience of poetry without obscuring poems in theoretical jargon or dumbing down the practice of writing poetry as mere self-expression (“write what you know”) or exercises in beauty (“a poem is a painting in words”). As I became a poet and professor, I found the need for such a handbook to be even more crucial—especially one that was playful and enjoyable to read!

Updated and expanded, including six new sections, the second edition of Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide probes a range of strategies for inspiring students and aspiring poets on how poetry relates to their lives.

Lost Languages

By Andrew Robinson,

Book cover of Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Andrew Robinson has written an excellent biography of Michael Ventris and also of Champollion, the man who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. In this book he gives overviews of three decipherments and surveys of as undeciphered languages and languages that we can read but not necessarily understand (one of my favourite languages, Etruscan, falls into this category). This book is a great jumping-off point if you want to plunge into the waters of decipherment, and has excellent illustrations. 

Who am I?

I was lucky enough to have been taught Latin at school, and I remember my first teacher telling the class that a tandem bicycle was so called because Latin tandem means ‘at length’. That was the beginning with my fascination for words, etymologies, and languages. At University I was able to specialise in Greek, Latin, and Indo-European languages and then for my PhD I learnt Armenian (which has an alphabet to die for: 36 letters each of which has four different varieties, not counting ligatures!). I am now Professor of Comparative Philology at the University of Cambridge. 

I wrote...

Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

By James Clackson,

Book cover of Language and Society in the Greek and Roman Worlds

What is my book about?

My book explores the ancient Greek and Roman worlds through language. It is well known that Romans spoke Latin and Ancient Greeks spoke Ancient Greek, but the complete picture is more complex and more interesting. Lots of other languages were spoken (some of which were only recently deciphered, others are still imperfectly understood), and many people were bi- or multilingual. Latin and Greek themselves came in numerous different varieties, dependent on geography, social status, and education. In my book (which can be read by anyone who doesn’t know a word of Latin, Greek, or Etruscan) I show how we can use languages to find out more about ancient societies, ranging from what language(s) Jesus spoke to what swearwords Cicero might have used. 

About Philosophy

By Robert Wolff,

Book cover of About Philosophy

It’s one of the best and most accessible introductions to philosophy, now in its tenth edition. It’s also by our favorite college teacher.

Who are we?

Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein have been thinking deep thoughts and writing jokes for decades, and now they are here to help us understand philosophy through jokes, and jokes through philosophy. They like philosophy and they like jokes, not necessarily in that order. Best of all, they like combining them. 

I wrote...

Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between

By Thomas Cathcart and Danny Klein,

Book cover of Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between

What is my book about?

A hilarious take on the philosophy, theology and psychology of mortality and immortality. That is, death. The authors pry open the coffin lid on this one, looking at the Big D, its prequel, Life, and its sequel, the Hereafter. Philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre have been wrestling with the meaning of death for as long as they have been wrestling with the meaning of life. Fortunately, humourists have been keeping pace with the major thinkers by creating gags about dying. Death's funny that way - it gets everybody's attention.

Practical Portuguese

By Sheila Watts,

Book cover of Practical Portuguese: Language for Living in Portugal

This is a hard book to get hold of, but worth hunting down if you want to begin to speak the Portuguese language with some fluency. Sheila moved to live in Portugal in 1987 and found most of the language guidebooks were of little use to her as she tried to navigate her way around the day-to-day reality of living in the Algarve. This is a book for people who live and work here, rather than a phrasebook that would help you book a taxi or order food at a restaurant while you are on holiday. I have found Portuguese to be a difficult language, but it is worth persevering with, and the locals are friendly and will always help you.

Who am I?

Alyson Sheldrake is the author of the award-winning Algarve Blog, and she is also a feature writer for the Tomorrow Magazine in the Algarve. She is an accomplished and sought-after artist working alongside her husband Dave, a professional photographer. She has published three books about their Algarve Adventures: Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal, Living the Quieter Algarve Dream, and her latest book is a new anthology of expat stories entitled A New Life in the Algarve, Portugal. When she is not painting or writing, you can find her walking their rescued Spanish Water Dog called Kat along the riverbank in Aljezur.

I wrote...

Living the Dream: in the Algarve, Portugal

By Alyson Sheldrake,

Book cover of Living the Dream: in the Algarve, Portugal

What is my book about?

Could you leave everything behind and start a new life in the sun? Have you ever been on holiday abroad and wondered what it would be like to live there?

Alyson and Dave Sheldrake did. They fell in love with a little fishing village in the Algarve, Portugal, and were determined to realise their dream of living abroad. They bought a house there, ended their jobs, packed up everything they owned and moved to the Algarve to start a new life.

Follow them as they battle with Portuguese bureaucracy, set up their own businesses, adopt a rescue dog, and learn to adapt to a slower pace of life. Laugh with them as Alyson propositions a builder, they try to master the Portuguese language, and successfully navigate the ‘expat’ world. Part guidebook, mostly memoir; this is a refreshingly honest and often hilarious account of life abroad, and is the first of Alyson’s three books in her ‘Algarve Dream’ series.

Fly By Night

By Frances Hardinge,

Book cover of Fly By Night

Imagination + beautiful writing. I love books that surprise me. Whether it’s with imaginative settings, intricate plots, beautiful writing, or humor. Surprise me, and I’m hooked. For me, no writer does this better than Frances Hardinge. Her books are incredibly unique. There is nobody who writes like her, who thinks up plots like her. Any one of her books is a trip on a totally new adventure. I started with Fly By Night and have read everything by her since.

Who am I?

I am an author of five books for children. I am also an avid reader of middle grade fiction, especially speculative fiction. I love exploring other people’s imaginations. It’s not only entertaining, but incredibly inspiring. Like most people, when I discover a book that I love, I can’t wait to share it with my friends. I hope you love these selections as much as I do! It was really hard to limit myself to just five. 

I wrote...

The Boy with 17 Senses

By Sheila Grau,

Book cover of The Boy with 17 Senses

What is my book about?

It’s a Jack and the Beanstalk retelling that takes place on a planet where everyone has synesthesia. On this planet, people don’t just hear sounds; they see and taste them, too. On this unusual planet, poor Jaq Rollop must save his family’s farm. To do so, he is forced to sell his beloved pet and only friend. Unfortunately, he gets swindled into trading it for a seemingly worthless key. But then something very strange happens. The key leads Jaq through a wormhole to a terrifying and magical land full of riches, overwhelming sensations, and giants. The name of this frightening land? Earth. 

School Library Journal described it as, “Cleverly told, this original take on a classic tale uses an unconventional setting to explore universal emotions.”  


By Young Vo,

Book cover of Gibberish

I love Gibberish for the brilliant way that Voh portrays how it feels to be the new kid at school, in a new country, with a new language. It’s a familiar story arc but told in such a unique way! Voh’s use of speech bubbles and emojis to represent the new language as gibberish is such a powerful tool to convey the confusion of the unfamiliar. I love how easily children relate to the text and the images—and in so doing, connect with the new kid. Masterfully done, I highly recommend this!

Who am I?

As someone straddling multiple cultures, growing up everywhere and belonging nowhere, I know what it feels like to not fit in. I know what it feels like to want to hide parts of yourself so you can fit in. And so, as a picture book writer and a Kindergarten teacher, I'm always looking for books that share stories about children trying to figure out their place in the world. I didn't have those books growing up. What a difference that would have made in my own journey. The books that I picked are unique in the way they portray belonging. I hope you love these gems as much as I do!

I wrote...

American Desi

By Jyoti Rajan Gopal, Supriya Kelkar (illustrator),

Book cover of American Desi

What is my book about?

A young girl longs to know where she fits in: Is she American? Or is she Indian? Does she have to pick or can she be both? American Desi celebrates the experiences of young children growing up first and second-generation Indian American: straddling the two cultural worlds they belong to, embracing all they love of both worlds, and refusing to be limited by either.

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