Sparkling with wit, Jane Austen’s graceful style is even more reader-friendly than the language of newspapers.
So are the first chapters of literary classics like David Copperfield and Sons and Lovers. They are all easier to read than newspapers.
That’s what I found in a readability test that looked at the number of words in a sentence and whether the words were long or short.
I could check only books available on the internet because the tests were all done online – by algorithms that breezed through the text the moment I typed in the text location or URL.
You, too, can calculate the readability of any online article or website by typing in its URL on this page: http://juicystudio.com/services/readability.php
It gives you the Flesch Reading Ease score and Gunning Fog Index score of any article you want to check. The higher the reading ease score and the lower the “fog index”, the easier it is to read. The page also explains what the tests are; you can also read about them in Wikipedia.
The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice had the highest reading ease score. Here are the famous opening lines:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
Not a hard word in those witty lines full of irony about eligible bachelors.
Now look at the opening lines of David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.
The author begins by recalling what others had told him about the moment of his birth. It’s another famous opening passage, which would be imitated by Salman Rushdie in his Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children.
Kipling begins Kim by showing what a naughty boy he is, running wild in colourful Lahore, a city now in Pakistan:
He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.
And here are the opening lines of Sons and Lovers, vivid as a photograph, which could only be written by a poet:
“The Bottoms” succeeded to “Hell Row”. Hell Row was a block of thatched, bulging cottages that stood by the brookside on Greenhill Lane. There lived the colliers who worked in the little gin-pits two fields away. The brook ran under the alder trees, scarcely soiled by these small mines, whose coal was drawn to the surface by donkeys that plodded wearily in a circle round a gin. And all over the countryside were these same pits, some of which had been worked in the time of Charles II, the few colliers and the donkeys burrowing down like ants into the earth, making queer mounds and little black places among the corn-fields and the meadows. And the cottages of these coal-miners, in blocks and pairs here and there, together with odd farms and homes of the stockingers, straying over the parish, formed the village of Bestwood.
The Hound of the Baskervilles begins almost like a movie, with Watson recalling the famous case:
Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry–dignified, solid, and reassuring.
Look at the opening description of Lord Jim:
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else. He was spotlessly neat, apparelled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler’s water-clerk he was very popular.
Conrad gives you a vivid description of Lord Jim. That’s what good writers do. They try to describe people, places and feelings with words that resonate. That is possible only when the reader understands the writer.
There are difficult writers like James Joyce and Henry James, of course.
But look at the opening lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which vividly recreates a child’s world:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.
O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.
He sang that song. That was his song.
O, the green wothe botheth.
When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.
His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:
Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.
Good writers have this protean ability to conjure up anything they please.