Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: English Bites! - Manish Gupta

It feels awkward to return to writing after more than four months and not have anything very insightful to share. I've been working just too hard and spending too less of a time on anything else, so the creative juices have almost stopped flowing. But I shall make a comeback - very soon.

Right now, I am reviewing a book that the author was so kind as to send across to me a long while back, and thankfully also has been very accommodating in letting me have my time in reading and reviewing it.
English Bites! My Fullproof English Learning Formula by Manish Gupta (a smooth-talking banker, in his own words) is not your run-of-the-mill fictional novel or a biography or an auto-biography. It's an honest attempt at making the English language more accessible and interesting to anyone who has difficulty learning it or who needs to brush up his/her English for competitive examinations like the GRE and GMAT. A latent function the book also very conveniently serves is of helping seasoned English speakers brush up their vocabulary and learn the etymologies of and relations between various words.


English Bites is primarily an attempt to make English learning an interesting and exciting exercise, and not something that one is compelled to do out of sheer need. Through his own life story - starting off from his schooling in the vernacular medium and gradually charting his years of painstaking effort at mastering the language - the author has embedded difficult and commonly misunderstood words throughout the narrative and mentioned their meanings and examples in the footnotes for easy reference of the readers. He has thus invented a fun way of helping those with the least interest or perceived aptitude for English, to start taking interest and find it more and more easy and do-able as they flip through the pages. He has written the book in the form of an account and thrown in many instances and anecdotes that amuse the reader and also drive home his point in many cases.

The author has touched upon almost all the techniques and tricks that can be used to get better at the language - Mnemonics, etymological approach, relating words to anecdotes and so on. Ever so often, suitable illustrations have been added to prep up the tale a bit. When you pick up the book and go through the first 40-50 pages, you might think it isn't going to be a read worth your time. I made the same preconceived judgment. It stems from the fact that the author is initially warming up the reader to the rationale and process behind the conception of the book. It can be a bit boring, agreed. But it gets really interesting a little farther into the book. My copy is actually full of pages that I've earmarked for giving another glance or two later.

The book is also a very interesting take on the idiosyncrasies and vagaries of the ever-elusive English language. He describes funny English tools, like Amphibiology (totally unrelated to amphibians or biology - it implies the ambiguous use of grammar) and a whole list of oxymorons used in everyday conversation. The author also frequently gives out English trivia that is great to know. For example, very few of us would have known that the word 'serendipity' is actually derived from 'Swaran Dweep', the Sanskrit name given to Sri Lanka upon its discovery.

Halfway into the book, I sadly realized that even I am not as much an expert at the language as I had so far imagined. Many of the words mentioned in the book and their varying usages quite befuddled me. But then it dawned upon me - most of the extra-difficult words are directed chiefly towards the CAT/GRE/GMAT/XAT aspirants and are of little, if any, use in everyday English conversations or the average written material, so I did not try hard to memorize any of the high-flying words that sounded alien. But many of the subjects touched upon in English Bites have enriched my understanding of the English language, as also my vocabulary, and general knowledge.

It is humanly impossible to be perfect in your first attempt at doing anything, writing being no exception, and there are indeed some areas where the book could have been better. The initial 50-60 pages could definitely use some revision to make them more appealing, for I'm convinced they could end up being a reason why people keep the book down, unfinished. There could also be a wider coverage of topics and types of words - although no one book can do enough justice to a language, especially with a vocabulary as vast as that of English. The first half of the book is slightly more interesting than the second, which could be boring for some. The narrating style could also be more informal and less professional in order to connect better with the targeted audience.

All in all, I'd give a 3 on 5 to English Bites! Published by Penguin Books, the book is priced at rupees 250. It is definitely a good pick for anyone interested in enriching their English vocabulary and verbal ability, though not so much for someone who's just starting out at learning it. It would be advisable to rather pick up a basic grammar book and work your way upwards.

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