Let’s talk about books and literature

[This post has been written with ESL/EFL students in mind, CEFR level B2 and above.]

Do you like reading books? What kind of books do you like best? Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

In this post we’ll go over the vocabulary that you can use to discuss books, from the words for different genres to providing physical descriptions of a book. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the link to an online exercise that will help you practise this segment of vocabulary.


Instead of repeating the word ‘book’, you can use some of its (partial) synonyms, such as:

  • a title
  • a volume
  • a tome
  • a publication
  • a read
  • a (written) work


Writing is commonly classified into two broad categories: poetry and prose. There are several key differences between the two but for now let’s just say that poetry is written in lines and stanzas, whereas prose is written in full sentences, grouped into paragraphs.

The word ‘prose’ originally comes from the Latin term prosa oratio, meaning ‘direct speech’, i.e. the ordinary language one would use in writing or speaking (hence the meaning of ‘prosaic’ as something common and uninspired, dull even), as opposed to poetry which has an unusual word order, metre, and other features that make it quite different from the way people normally speak or write.

Prose is divided into two groups: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction titles are books whose narratives are made up: they describe imaginary people and events (although they may be based on reality). They take the form of a novel, a novella or a short story. Depending on their content, fiction books can be further divided into many genres and categories; these are but a few:

  • adventure
  • crime
  • fantasy
  • historical
  • horror
  • mystery
  • romance
  • science fiction
  • thriller

Beyond these plot-based genres, books in which style and writing as a form of art are more important than the narrative itself are referred to as literary fiction.

On the other hand, there are non-fiction books, i.e. prose titles that are based on facts from and about the real world. Some of the popular non-fiction genres are:

  • autobiography
  • biography
  • geography
  • history
  • memoir
  • philosophy
  • science
  • travel

Both fiction and non-fiction books can be further classified into a great number of sub-genres. For a detailed list, have a look at this Wikipedia entry on writing genres.

Non-fiction books such as dictionaries, encyclopædias and various directories are collectively known as reference books.


If we disregard e-books, regular, paper books are produced and sold as hardbacks or paperbacks. Hardback or hardcover books are bound in stiff covers, while paperbacks are soft, with only thick paperboard used to make covers. 

Hardbacks often come with a protective and removable outer cover, usually illustrated. This cover is known as a dust jacket, book jacket or dust cover

Paperbacks are typically cheaper than books with hard covers, and they are often produced using lower quality paper; they also tend to be smaller in format. A small-format paperback is known as a pocket book, as it was originally meant to fit into a pocket.

Here are just a few adjective + noun collocations that might come in handy when describing the physical appearance of a book:

  • a slim volume = a small book
  • a thick book / a long book = a book with a lot of pages
  • a weighty tome = a big and heavy book


As with describing films or music, there are literally hundreds of words you can use to describe the content of a book, its plot or how it made us feel. Here I have a piece of homework for you: sort the adjectives below according to meaning. Which of them are positive and which are negative? Look up any new words in your dictionary.

A book can be…

  • action-packed
  • addictive
  • amusing
  • believable
  • bleak
  • boring
  • brilliant
  • captivating
  • charming
  • comforting
  • complex
  • confusing
  • controversial
  • dark
  • disappointing
  • dreary
  • edgy
  • enchanting
  • engaging
  • engrossing
  • entertaining
  • epic
  • evocative
  • fanciful
  • funny
  • gripping
  • haunting
  • hilarious
  • insightful
  • inspiring / inspirational
  • intense
  • interesting
  • intriguing
  • memorable
  • poignant
  • powerful
  • predictable
  • provocative
  • revealing
  • riveting
  • romantic
  • sad
  • scary
  • shallow
  • silly
  • soppy
  • suspenseful
  • terrible
  • terrifying
  • thrilling
  • touching
  • tragic
  • twisted
  • unpredictable
  • witty

A book can also be described using some of the following nouns:

  • a cliff-hanger (a part of a storyline, plot or book that ends in a shocking, suspenseful and unresolved way, so you just have to keep reading to see what happens next)
  • a page-turner (a very exciting book that you can’t stop reading)
  • a tear-jerker (a sad and sentimental story that makes you cry)
  • a nail-biter (a story or book so tense and suspenseful that it makes you very anxious)
  • a hair-raiser (a very thrilling and terrifying book)

In an upcoming post I’ll offer some nouns, adjectives and collocations that you can use when talking about writers.

Until then, I invite you to do a vocabulary quiz on the subject of books. You can also have a look at some of the book reviews I’ve posted on this blog. Maybe we like some of the same genres and authors!

And if there’s a book you’d like to recommend, do write about it in the comments section below, using some of the vocabulary presented in this post.

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