This is an outstanding response to an immigrant reader’s question from last Monday’s Wall Street Journal that I had to add to my posts. Crossen, in her “Dear Book Lover” column, writes:
“In a sense all American fiction is immigrant fiction. It’s ‘the literature of crossings, of uprooting and transplantation,’ wrote the critic Charles L. Crow. ‘New settlers seek fresh starts, but bring selves nurtured elsewhere. If regions confer identity, the identity of the immigrant is never fixed, but always floating between two realms.’ In this era of easy mobility—the average American moves 11 times in a lifetime, according to the Census Bureau—that description would seem to fit many people like me, born and raised in America.”
In her column, she advises reading selections for immigrants to America who want to read adult fiction that will help them to learn the English language. My own addition to her list would be Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 , from 1953 (Bradbury autographed a 40th anniversary edition for me). This is a great followup to a previous post of mine on Ben Franklin and “A Boy’s Plan’s for Self-Improvement.” –SB
The Wall Street Journal
- DEAR BOOK LOVER
- JANUARY 16, 2012
Books for Better English
By CYNTHIA CROSSEN
The clerk at my building’s convenience store is from the Middle East. I was carrying John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and he asked me to lend him books that he could read to improve his English. He wants adult books (I asked him about Harry Potter) and presumably fiction. Do you have any suggestions?
—M.B.M., St. Paul
What a cheering question: An immigrant with what I imagine to be a fairly difficult job wants to polish his English-language skills by reading books.
‘House of Sand and Fog’
The first novel that leapt to mind was Andre Dubus III’s “House of Sand and Fog,” because it’s about a well-educated immigrant from Iran forced to settle for a job as a convenience store clerk. But things don’t end well for Genob Sarhang Amir Behrani. Another novel about an immigrant, Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake,” has a more hopeful outcome. The writing in both books is accessible (in Ms. Lahiri’s case, it’s often beautiful).
I looked online for lists of books recommended by librarians and teachers for so-called emergent adult readers. These books are also sometimes known as “high-low,” meaning high-interest plots with lower levels of vocabulary. Many of the suggested books are short, which doesn’t always make sense to me. One of the most demanding books I’ve ever read was “The Red Badge of Courage,” whereas some of Stephen King’s door-stoppers seem ideal for reading practice. Another short book that often appears on these lists is John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” which seemed like a tough slog to me when I read it in school, although I ended up loving it. Also, the idea of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” being a good book for emergent adult readers strikes me as ludicrous. Better one of Larry McMurtry’s Western hulks, Pat Conroy’s yarns or Herman Wouk’s sagas.
If a virtue of a book for inexperienced readers is brevity, then collections or anthologies of short stories might be worth a try. The annual edition of “Best American Short Stories” includes works by some of the finest short-story writers of our time, and may help a reader better define what he or she is looking for in longer fiction. (There are also annual collections of Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Essays.) Short-story collections by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger might also be a manageable path into American literature.
If your man is willing to experiment, I recommend he try a graphic novel, though you may have to overcome a very understandable aversion to comics. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” books are beautiful and powerful, and the illustrations reinforce the language. Two other good graphic novels for adults are Craig Thompson’s “Blankets” and “Habibi.”
I hope all American citizens, immigrants or not, know they have free access to books at their local libraries, and also free access to the recommendations of their librarians. Most librarians I know are proud of their ability to find appropriate books for readers at different levels of proficiency and interests. Many libraries also have book clubs, so readers less confident of their judgments and analyses can try them out with their book-loving neighbors.
Audiobooks are another way to read, with the added benefit of hearing English spoken by narrators who have (for the most part) excellent diction. Most libraries have collections of these, too. The mellifluous actor Erik Steele reads Peter Benchley’s “Jaws“; Garrison Keillor reads a collection of Lake Wobegon monologues for a compilation called “My Little Town“; Gary Sinise reads John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley in Search of America.”
Immigrants to America don’t necessarily want to read fiction about immigrants to America, but if they do, there’s a rich field of literature to choose from: Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle“; Colm Toibin’s “Brooklyn“; Chang-Rae Lee’s “Native Speaker“; T. C. Boyle’s “Tortilla Curtain“; and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Lazarus Project.”
In a sense all American fiction is immigrant fiction. It’s “the literature of crossings, of uprooting and transplantation,” wrote the critic Charles L. Crow. “New settlers seek fresh starts, but bring selves nurtured elsewhere. If regions confer identity, the identity of the immigrant is never fixed, but always floating between two realms.” In this era of easy mobility—the average American moves 11 times in a lifetime, according to the Census Bureau—that description would seem to fit many people like me, born and raised in America.