Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

You’d be forgiven for picking The Happiest Refugee thinking you’re going to get a light-hearty folksy anecdote from one of Australia’s most cheerful comedians. Indeed, there are plenty of chuckles to be had, but Anh Do’s life hasn’t all been smooth sailing (that is the most awful attempt at a joke I’ve ever made, you’ll see why in a minute, but it’s my blog so I’m leaving it in). I grew up watching Do in televised comedy festival galas and on TV shows like Thank God You’re Here, but I had very little idea about his background before I read his book. So, strap in, folks: this is one hell of a story.

The blurb probably sums it up best:

“Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. His entire family came close to losing their lives as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. But nothing – not murderous pirates, nor the imminent threat of death by hunger, disease, or dehydration as they drifted for days – could quench their desire to make a better life in the country they had dreamed about.”

The Happiest Refugee (2010)

That’s right: Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker.

Do was born in Vietnam in 1977, and his family fled to Australia in 1980. The blurb neither over- nor under-sells the horror of their journey. They were attacked by two different bands of pirates, who stole their engines, their jewellery, and pretty much everything else worth taking. One oddly benevolent pirate in the second crew threw a gallon of water on board as they were leaving, which was all that saved the family from dehydration. They were eventually rescued by a German merchant ship.

Now, as Do tells it, his father was only twenty-fucking-five when he packed his entire family (his wife, sons, aunts, uncles, and cousins) onto that leaky boat and took them to sea. There were forty of them, all told, on that fishing boat, just nine and a half meters long and two meters wide. Do Snr captained it out to open water, fixing the back-up engine with a rubber thong and basically running the whole operation, all while he was three years younger than I am now – mind blowing!



Because this is real life, Do’s father – brave as he was in his youth – is not perfect, and Do is really frank about their relationship, including periods of (literally) violent antipathy. His honesty impressed me to no end; when it’s your job to make people laugh, it must be especially tough to tell them about the time you grabbed a knife from the kitchen, prepared to stab your drunken father who was threatening your terrified mother. Their rocky relationship, and the steps forwards and backwards across the course of Do’s life and career, is a central part of his story, and as heart-wrenching as it can be, it’s all told with his characteristic and eternal optimism.

Do’s message seems to be this: work your arse off, and smile, and everything will turn out okay. Powered by elbow-grease alone, he made it through school and university (Business/Law at UTS), forged a decent career as a comedian and actor, pivoted into art (he’s been twice-nominated for the Archibald Prize) and writing, and he’s now raising a happy family with his wonderful wife, a million miles away from the life of poverty and peril that surely awaited him in post-war Vietnam. “I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything,” he says on page 113.



The Happiest Refugee has won more awards than you can poke a stick at – including the 2011 Australian Book Of The Year. Like The White Mouse, it’s hardly a literary coup (he’s a comedian, not a creative writing grad), but it’s a cracking yarn nonetheless. It’s one to read when you need a little optimism in your life. I feel like I’ve just met Do in a bar, and had an incredible chat about his incredible life over a few beers. And I couldn’t help but notice it doesn’t have a single one-star review on Amazon! You can’t get higher praise than that!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Happiest Refugee:

  • “I don’t want to fill this out. I just want to close out and start my next reading. Very annoying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Never read a better book in my life and I’ve read thousands” – craig reynolds
  • “Good immigrant story” – Reading Granny
  • “Top story, top bloke.” – Tezza41
  • “Really long and absolutely great. It just went on and on but you wanted it to,” – Jesse Crisp

Stamps In My Book Passport

It was fun looking at how far I’ve travelled through time in my books, so I figured why not look at where in the world they’re taking me, too? I was also inspired by an amazing TED talk by Ann Morgan, who committed a year of her life to reading a book from every single country in the world. I’ve talked before about how my current reading list isn’t great from a diversity perspective, so I knew that my book passport wouldn’t have that many stamps, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. Take a look…!

Stamps In My Book Passport - Text Overlaid on Image of Passports Laying On Top Of Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Unsurprisingly, given that I’m reading English-language books and I’m based in Australia, the most frequently-visited countries are Australia (The Dressmaker, The Rosie Project, and so on), the U.K. (Austen, Dickens, and so forth), and the U.S.A. (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Age Of Innocence, etc.). However, it would seem I’m also doing frequent trips to France, which I hadn’t realised before now (Tropic of Cancer, The White Mouse, and others).

I’ve also been to India a couple of times (A Passage To India, Kim), and to Spain (The Alchemist, Don Quixote), and to Germany (The Book Thief, All The Light We Cannot See). I put together this map, for a visual representation:

World Map Shaded By Settings of Books Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Of course, by necessity, this tally excludes trips to apocalyptic futures (The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange, and the like), and fantasy worlds (A Game of Thrones, Gulliver’s Travels, and similar), and space (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Martian, and more).

I’d really love to spend some more time in Africa, so that will be one focus for The Next List. I’m also surprised that I haven’t yet “been” to Canada or New Zealand! It’s been such a useful exercise to look at my reading this way, I think I’ll keep checking in and (hopefully) someday this map will be a sea of green.


Aren’t books magical? It would take me years to plan, save for, and undertake a trip to all of these places, but through books I can visit them all in a day or two. Where have your books taken you lately? Share your travels in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

I’d always thought Rudyard Kipling was a poet, but here we are. You’re never too old to learn! He was born in Bombay in 1865, and worked as a journalist in Lahore, until he began writing stories and poems about India. He wound up winning a Nobel Prize for his literature, so it would seem he was pretty damn good at it. He’s probably better known for The Jungle Book and Wee Willie Winkie, but I decided to read Kim, first published in 1901.

The blurb on the back of this edition is hectic, and I had no idea what to make of it:

“Kim, a young Irish orphan, is brought up in the native quarter of Lahore. While he is accompanying a Tibetan lama on his search for the River of Immortality, Kim is picked up by the British and groomed for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to capture the papers of a Russian spy in the Himalayas…”

Kim, Pan Classics edition (1978)

That makes it sound like some kind of mash-up of The Alchemist and The Thirty-Nine Steps, right? Actually, that’s probably not far off…

So, Kim‘s story takes place against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (which I thought meant chess, but apparently not). That’s what we now call the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, around the time of the Second and Third Afghan Wars (late 1800s, basically). Kipling loved India, his homeland, and right off the bat he gives you gorgeous portraits of the people, and the landscape, with particular focus on the bazaars and life on the road.

Kim is a young orphaned boy, his Irish father and mother having died in abject poverty. He etches out a living for himself running around the streets of Lahore, begging and doing small errands for the local horse traders and other sketchy types. He befriends an old Tibetan lama, who is on a quest to free himself from the “Wheel of Things” (yeah, alright mate) and find the “River of the Arrow” (bloody hippies). Kim thinks that doesn’t sound too bad, and he doesn’t have much else going on, so he ships out with the old guy, becoming his disciple and helping him along the road. He also takes on a secret mission from the local bigwig, to carry a message to the head of the British intelligence in Umballa, but that seems pretty incidental to the road-trip… for now.


Kim carries all of his father’s papers with him, which turns out to be a bad move. A regimental chaplain recognises him as the son of one of their soldiers, and ships him off to boarding school in Lucknow. The lama is pretty bummed to be separated from his only disciple, but agrees to pay for the bboy’s education and figures they’ll hook back up again later. Not only does Kim stay in touch with the lama, he also keeps his finger in with all his Secret Service connections, and trains himself in espionage on the sly. Hey, a boy’s got to have a hobby!

The military decides that three years of schooling will suffice, and Kim is appointed to a government position, with a bit of a holiday to get himself ready. He uses that time to catch up with his old mate the lama, and they trek to the Himalayas. Here’s where his worlds collide: the lama unwittingly pisses off the Russian intelligence agents, and Kim uses the opportunity to pick up a bunch of important papers and staff to pass back to the British as he’s rescuing his pal.

And cue an existential crisis: the lama starts wailing about how he has “gone astray”, because he can hardly expect to find this “River of the Arrow” in the mountains, so he orders his travelling companions to take them back. This suits Kim just fine, because it allows him to drop the Russian documents back to his British bosses.


Now, the lama gets his happy ending: he finds his river, achieves Enlightenment, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s up to the reader to decide Kim‘s fate. Either he chooses to stick with his old mate and live the life of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, or he sets off again to do more spying. Kipling was very deliberately vague on which way it goes. All Kim had to say to the lama in the closing passage is: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (Meaning “I am not a master. I am your servant.”) So, that’s about as clear as mud…

If I’m being honest, a lot of this plot went over my head as I was reading. I really only started to connect the dots when I was reading summaries online later. It’s like A Passage To India all over again. I just didn’t get enough of this story to offer any brilliant insights – sorry!

Kim is considered by many to be Kipling’s magnum opus, but that is (of course) hotly debated in some circles. A lot of the controversy seems to center around whether it should be considered children’s literature (I say no: if it went over my head, I don’t know what hope an eight-year-old has). It’s definitely an adventure story, a bildungsroman, and – drawing heavily upon Kipling’s own experiences growing up in India (including the clash of East and West) – it all takes place against this backdrop of politics and military conflict. You could probably spend years studying this book academically, because there’s a lot to look at.

Academics that have given it a gander have spent a lot of time considering Kipling’s depictions of race. The introduction to this edition says: “The once fashionable charge that Kipling was a particularly unpleasant apologist for imperialism, brutal, racist, and jingo, was always a caricature; yet there are parts of his work that give even his admirers pause.” And I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Even though the language seemed more contemporary than I would have otherwise expected, some of the stuff around Kim being a white boy who appeared brown gave me the icks.


I think you need to know what you’re getting in to when you pick up Kim, and you need to be deeply invested in the time period, the setting, the culture, and the politics, in order to fully appreciate the story. For the rest of us, I think you can probably pick up just about everything you need by reading a few summaries online, and scanning some extracts with Kipling’s particularly poetic and beautiful descriptions of India, for which he’s well known. For me, Kim was a pretty book, an interesting book, but probably not one I’ll pick up again.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Kim:

  • “The footnotes of the Kindle Edition don’t work properly. Tapping a word gives the footnote of the next word which is very inconvenient.” – T.O.
  • “The story is good just not the easiest story to read, maybe I had a bad week. I normally love Rudyard Kiplings work. I wish it was an awesome book with my name as the title. It’s not even a girl called Kim lol” – KimBuc2
  • “no written in any language I can fathom.” – 1thru5
  • “quick service good price great writing I didn’t get every reference” – bojangleshiker
  • “It’s old. It’s “racist”. It is an absolutely wonderful book !” – Karen W
  • “I had heart that Kim was one of the best books of all time. Had to wait 2 months for library to acquire it.



    Have never been so disappointed in anything. Cults, voodoo, spells, magic, demonic activity, caste system, blasphemy, abuse, violence, superstition, humanism (worship of certain humans), depression,… UGH!!



    WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!! DON’T BOTHER READING THIS.” – DeAnne


8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature

Last month, I wrote a post about literary heroes who are garbage people. I had to make some tough choices as I was putting it together, because some characters aren’t necessarily garbage people but they are damn annoying. It’s been niggling at me ever since: don’t these annoying characters deserve their moment in the sun, too? So, here you have it. The most annoying characters in literature, as determined by me.

8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Annoyed Young Girl Laying in Grass Field - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Harry (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one is first, because I’ve just got to get it off my chest! We all love the Harry Potter books, it’s the children’s series that changed the world etc etc, but ZOMG! Harry is the most angsty, self-absorbed nincompoop of all time! At first, he was kind of sweet, locked in his cupboard under the stairs and then staring around the world of magic in wide eyed wonderment… but by the time we get to Goblet Of Fire, he’s turned into a right arsehole. He seems to completely lack basic empathy – he can’t understand why his best friend might be a little peeved that he’s always the center of attention, for crying out loud! – and he basically runs around getting high off his own fumes for the next few years. Ugh! There are so many wonderful characters and true heroes in J.K. Rowling’s magical world, but I’m sorry (not sorry), Harry ain’t one of ’em.

Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s all take a minute to appreciate the fact that The Great Gatsby only exists because Nick Carraway thinks he’s the first guy to discover that partying with pretty girls is fun. Give me a break! Everyone else hates on Daisy and Tom, and really every character in this book is a right pain in the arse, but Nick is especially annoying. He trails after Gatsby like a puppy dog, he treats the creep like the second coming, and he can’t understand why no one comes to the funeral of the sad rich guy who borderline-stalked a girl for years. Seriously! If you want to re-visit the Jazz Age, by all means do so, but choose Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead; at least Anita Loos makes fun of the mopey white guys who seriously under-appreciate their ridiculously privileged lives. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Augustus Waters (The Fault In Our Stars – John Green)

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise, in saying this, I risk being attacked by an angry mob of John Green fans, but it has to be said: Augustus is pretty much the main reason The Fault In Our Stars sucks. He’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl stuffed into the body of a teenage boy amputee, a series of shitty affectations cobbled together into something resembling a character, ugh. The whole “I put cigarettes in my mouth but I never light them because it’s a metaphor” thing? It’s a metaphor for “you’re a dick”, mate. Get in the bin. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.

Cather “Cath” Avery (Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Cath is pretty harmless, on the whole, but damn the girl can get in her own way. If I’m being honest, there’s a few sour grapes rotting at the pit of my annoyance. Throughout Fangirl, she demonstrates time and time again that she does not give a single fuck for the time and effort that her writing professor is investing in her, and it infuriates me! Doesn’t she know how many writing students would give their left arm and their first born for that kind of attention? She just leaves it all flapping in the wind, so she can stay holed up in her room writing fan-fiction on a Saturday night (instead of doing her actual assignments for classes), and whinging about her sister having a life (instead of actually communicating with her, like a grown-up). Read my full review of Fangirl here.

Guy Montag (Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury)

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I really have no time for this guy at all. First, he lets himself get brainwashed into making a living doing a shitty job. That’s not great, but it’s understandable. But then he harangues his wife for being brainwashed into wanting a few material things and liking a few psychoactive substances, the hypocritical prick. And, to top it all off, he goes and meets a teenage girl, decides to have a mid-life crisis, and basically destroys the entire social order and runs off with his tail between his legs as the world burns down. Fahrenheit 451 is a beloved book, I know, and its message is perhaps even more resonant today than ever before, but Guy Montag is one of the most annoying characters in literature, hands down.

Pearl (The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne)

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can appreciate that Pearl is just a kid, and she’s been raised under a lot of undue pressure, so her annoying nature isn’t entirely her fault… but she drove me up the wall the whole way through The Scarlet Letter. Her mother, Hester, is a warrior woman, fighting the good fight and raising her head defiantly in the patriarchal world that would see her brought down. How could she raise such an entitled shit of a kid? And Hawthorne codes her as some kind of magic sunflower child, he may as well have written her a halo. What’s more annoying than that? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway)

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another American classic, another mopey privileged white dude. Jake Barnes spends the majority of The Sun Also Rises feeling very sorry for himself because his dick hasn’t worked since the war. I guess travelling the world, drinking and adventuring with friends, just isn’t enough for some people. His little problem apparently stops him from pursuing a love affair with his girl-crush Brett – and she just goes along with it! I don’t understand! This is such a solvable problem (haven’t they heard of cunnilingus? sheesh!), but they’d rather just sit around and whinge about it, with lots of long longing looks and stuff. Blegh! Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

Beatrice (The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri)

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, we all know The Divine Comedy is split into three parts. Dante spends the first two of them telling us all about how hot this chick Beatrice is, and how he’s pretty much only going through all of this so he can hook up with her in heaven. And when he gets there, she’s a total bitch! She literally tells him not to look directly at her (because she’s so hot he’ll be blinded, apparently) and hangs shit on him for not being an angel already. Then, after this heaping serve of sass, she totally retreats, just stands around smiling meekly (and coughing! why so much coughing?!) for the rest of Paradiso. She’s rude, and annoying! Read my full review The Divine Comedy here.


I feel much better having got all these petty annoyances off my chest. You should give it a try! Who are your most annoying characters in literature? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I managed to score this Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a market stall, for the princely sum of just $5. I’d been searching for it for so long, I’d happily have paid four times that. According to the author bio, Muriel Spark was pretty damn prolific, and yet this is the only book of hers that I’ve ever come across – and it was bloody hard to find! It’s definitely the best-known of her works, first published in The New Yorker, and then as a book by Macmillan, in 1961. The introduction promises: “… a sublimely funny book. It is also very short and has much to say about sex.” Honey, once you’ve made the sale, stop selling.

It opens in 1930s Edinburgh. The titular Miss Jean Brodie – who is, indeed, in her prime, and doesn’t waste a chance to remind you of that fact – is a teacher at a school for girls. She has selected for herself six ten-year-old students, her special favourites, the “Brodie set”. It was a funny change of pace going from The Thirty-Nine Steps, which had an almost entirely male cast, to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which (by nature of its setting and its story) is almost entirely female.

Under Miss Brodie’s mentorship, these six girls (Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice) learn all about world travels, love, and fascism. Yep, apparently that’s the new reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and it’s one heck of a combo! Miss Brodie finds herself entangled in a dramatic love triangle with her colleagues: the singing teacher, Mr Gordon Lowther, and the handsome one-armed (married!) war veteran, Mr Teddy Lloyd. It’s Lloyd that really gets Miss Brodie’s motor running, but ultimately she turns him down. He is married, after all, and she has some self-respect. She embarks on an affair with Lowther instead, probably closing her eyes and thinking of her one-armed Teddy all the while…

Anyway, the girls grow up (as kids are wont to do), but they maintain the close bonds they formed under Miss Brodie’s tutelage, and she keeps having them all around for tea and whatnot. The headmistress at the school, Miss Mackay, is not a fan of Miss Brodie’s teaching methods and the course this is all taking (hard to imagine why), so she starts throwing a few tea parties of her own, trying to gather dirt from the girls that would give her grounds for dismissal. Sudden unemployment sure does put a quick end to a woman’s “prime”, eh?





Now, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie does have a jumpy timeline, which normally I’m not inclined to enjoy, but I actually didn’t mind it so much in this case. One of the “flash forwards” in the story reveals that one of the Brodie set will ultimately (gasp!) betray their patroness, dobbing her in to the headmistress… but doesn’t show the reader which one. It was really cleverly done by Spark, and added an extra air of mystery and suspicion to the whole thing.

Anyway, back in the regular timeline, poor Teddy is still lusting after Miss Brodie, and (prepare yourself for an avalanche of creepy) he starts having the girls from the Brodie set come around and pose for his portraits. He ends up drawing all of their faces as his paramour *vomit*. Let me say that one more time for the cheap seats in the back: this teacher pains Miss Jean Brodie’s primey head onto the bodies of her pubescent students. Isn’t that the grossest thing you’ve ever fucking heard?! And yet, they all seem like they’re cool with it! Miss Brodie’s pretty damn flattered, even. She pulls a few strings, trying to egg Rose on to having an affair with the creepy old guy, figuring the young girl would be an adequate distraction from all of her prime-ness… but Teddy ends up sticking it to plain ol’ Sandy, instead, much to everyone’s surprise. Oh, and while all this is going on, Lowther dumps Miss Brodie. Pretty understandable really, given everything.

And this is where Miss Brodie really fucks up: she accepts a new member to the Brodie set, Joyce Emily. This newbie seems open to the whole fascism thing, so Brodie fans the flames, encouraging her to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War on the nationalist side. Of course, Joyce Emily follows the suggestion… and is promptly killed en route. Yikes!





Sandy has become Miss Brodie’s confidante, so she gets all the inside scoop on this turn of events, all the while still fucking the teacher that paints his lover’s heads on students bodies (I’m sorry, I can’t get over that, it’s just so icky, and NONE OF THEM SEEM TO CARE! WHY?!). Sandy’s interest in Teddy wanes over time, but her Swimfan-y obsession with Miss Brodie reaches boiling point. She winds up approaching the headmistress, giving her all the dirt she has on Miss Brodie, which (it turns out) is enough to get her fired. Then the little betrayer converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun, Miss Brodie dies never knowing that Sandy ratted her out, the end.

Now, maybe I’ve been at this reading-and-reviewing-the-classics game a little too long, but I couldn’t help reading this as a religious allegory. I mean, I don’t know dick about religion, so I could be way off-base, but hear me out: Miss Jean Brodie is Jesus (right?), and she gathers all these disciples (students) around her, and goes about preaching an alternate worldview, until Judas (Sandy) betrays her. That’s about right, isn’t it?

Even if it isn’t, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is ultimately a story about loyalty. You can tell, because Sandy keeps on repeating “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due”, which is an interesting moral philosophy in and of itself. It’s also a funny book, in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma was funny: I didn’t laugh out loud, but I appreciated how it was witty and clever. And damn, Spark manages to cram a whole lotta story into very few words: this review is about as long as the book!





If you haven’t already had your fill of creepy for the day, here’s the final serve: Miss Jean Brodie is based on a real person! Christina Kay was Spark’s teacher for two years at James Gillespie’s School For Girls, and Spark credited her with encouraging her burgeoning talent for writing. Spark, like Sandy, also later converted to Catholicism. No word on whether the perverted painting and underhanded betrayal parts are true-to-life, but they do say “write what you know”…

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie will give you a lot to chew on; don’t be fooled by how short it is! It’s definitely worth a read. It’s unlikely to become your special all-time favourite, but it will stick with you for a while. I’m selfishly hoping you’ll all read it and be creeped out as I am, if for no other reason than to validate my feelings! It can’t just be me… right?

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie:

  • “Good story no real purpose though. Well written.” – Courtney McFeters
  • “Muriel Spark, to me, is one of the greatest writers of her time. Each book is a gem, but of course, this one really sparkles.” – Sally
  • “I consider myself a fairly inteligent high school student who is eager to be challenged mentally. The problems with this book are several fold. It jumps around like a five-year on a jolt cola bender. The characters are unimpressive and serve somehow or another to emulate each other and form some sort of omni-character – which i dont care to figure out. The plot is about as unsubstantial and insignificant as an ant taking a dump. [note: the reason i am so profane is due to my hating the book and having to analyze the non-existent humor in it for my AP literature class, apologies around] THIS BOOK IS THE ATTEMPT BY MURIEL SPARK TO ACADEMICLLY POSTURE HERSELF INTO A POSITION OF PSEUDO-INTELLECTUAL AUTHORITY AND DISPLAY HER COMPLEX AND INSIGNIFICANT FICTION FORMAT. MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS BOOK IS ONE PRETENSTIOUS(sic) PAGE AFTER ANOTHER.
a mad millburn lit student (2002-2003)” – nozama woleb
  • “I just wanted to say that this book made me wish that theyd legalise hand guns in the UK. It is the kind of book that makes little children cry. I have read more interesting stuff on the bake of crisp packets. In conclusion 9/10 phycopathic maniacs recomend reading The Pride of MJB before going on a random killing spree.” – Mr Cook’s Favourite Pupil


The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag

Picture this: you’re relaxing on a beach, in the sunshine, sipping something delicious, the scent of salt and sunscreen in the air. You reach over to your beach bag to pull out a good book. Is it a classic? Probably not. Most people don’t associate the classics with light vacation reading. I think these books get a bad rap for being too heavy, too dense, too difficult – but don’t fall victim to it! Sure, some of them aren’t ever going to be quick reads, but some of them would suit a lazy beach holiday better than you’d think. Plus, there’s hundreds of years of back-catalogue to choose from, so you can be sure there’s something for everyone! Here’s my definitive list of the best classics for your beach bag.

The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag - Text Overlaid on Image of Red Bag on a Beach - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Romance? Try Pride And Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s not exactly a bodice-ripper, but Pride And Prejudice has all of the sexual tension and happily-ever-afters a romance reader could hope for. Austen’s classic novel follows the lives and loves of the Bennet sisters, with more than one inheritance hanging in the balance. There’s scandal, there’s snogging, there’s love letters, and there’s longing. I was skeptical at first, and it took me a few goes to get on board with P&P, but I’m so glad I persisted! Plus, if nothing else, it’ll feel good to tick this classic off your list and put the days of pretending to have read it behind you.

Like Mystery? Try The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you need something that you can dip in and out of without losing track, short story collections are just what you need. And this one is a classic! Light, funny, and with just enough spooky mystery, a summer holiday is the perfect time to re-acquaint yourself with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Always accompanied by his trusty side-kick Dr Watson, this world-famous detective battles everything from jealous husbands to the Ku Klux Klan. And Doyle’s economy of language is truly masterful; it’ll take you longer to describe one of the stories to someone than it does for you to read them!

Like Children’s Books? Try Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you think you can tick this one off your list because you saw the Disney movie, think again! So much of the comedy and cleverness of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland comes from Carroll’s brilliant wordplay, and the only way to fully appreciate it is to read it for yourself. Plus, if you’re looking to steer clear of anything too dark or emotional, you can’t do better than this absurdist children’s tale. Down the rabbit hole you go!


Like Adventure? Try The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan)

The Thirty Nine Steps - John Buchan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This slim tome will fit in even the most crammed of beach bags – so that’s a good start! The Thirty-Nine Steps is the definitive spy thriller; you’ll recognise its archetypes from every action movie you’ve ever seen. The hero, Richard Hannay, has a miraculous ability to squeeze out of tight spots, and you’ll be gripping the pages trying to figure out how he’ll manage it next!

Like Comedy? Try Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Forget The Great Gatsby: this is the best book to transport you back to the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes alternates laugh-out-loud observational comedy with biting social commentary, all told from the journals of fictional socialite Lorelei Lee. Follow her across the world, as she and her best friend make fools of the wealthy men who think they’re in control.

Honourable mention: if the heat is getting to you, try Cold Comfort Farm instead. Another classic often overlooked for its male-authored contemporaries, this charming satire is set in chilly England, the perfect antidote to heatstroke in summer. Read my full review here.

Like True Crime? Try In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can’t call yourself a true crime aficionado without having read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book that revolutionised the genre. He might have skipped a couple of journalistic integrity lessons, but this novelistic re-telling of the Clutter family’s murder is as enthralling as it is beautifully told. It’s hardly a light read, given the subject matter, but it’s a highly recommended read here on KUWTP nonetheless. This is one of the best classics for your beach bag when you’ve got the day to yourself and you crave something that’ll get your cogs turning.




What classic will you be putting in your beach bag this summer? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

Normally, when I read a book from The List, I come to it with completely fresh eyes, knowing nothing at all about its contents. Not so for The Thirty-Nine Steps – I saw the play when I was a teenager. That said, I really had only the vaguest memories of it, so I wasn’t that far from a blank slate. In fact, reading the book had me confused as all heck, because the only part I remembered was the ending… and it was completely different! I guess that makes it all a wash. Anyway, this edition of John Buchan’s best-known novel (billed on the front cover as a “world-famous spy thriller”) was published in 1965, so it looks charmingly retro. The first editions were published fifty years before that, and it’s still in circulation; it’s pretty damn popular by all accounts, having been named in the BBC’S Big Read poll as one of the UK’s “best loved novels” as recently as 2003.

Guess what inspired John Buchan to write The Thirty-Nine Steps? A duodenal ulcer, and his daughter’s ability to count. I’m not even kidding! Buchan was pretty crook with the whole ulcer thingy, and while he was convalescing at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, he sleepily watched his daughter count the stairs. That gave him the title of the book, and he set about writing what he called a “shocker”: an unlikely adventure that keeps the reader right on the precipice of not believing that the series of events could actually happen. It’s also the first appearance of his every-man all-action hero, Richard Hannay, who went on to star in several more of Buchan’s works. Hannay is renowned for two things: his stiff-upper-lip, and his miraculous ability to get out of a tight squeeze.

The story kicks off with Richard living in London, and bored out of his mind (old people are wild – how could you be bored living in London?!), until a stranger shows up on his doorstep and asks to be let in. Turns out, he’s the weird upstairs neighbour, who has faked his own death to escape the Illuminati (or something). Richard’s been really bored, so he’s all “Why not? Come on in!”, just happily ignoring all of those alarm bells. They have a grand old time hanging out together for about twelve hours… until Richard goes to wake his new roommate, and finds him dead. Stabbed right through the heart. Ouch.

What’s an all-action everyman hero to do? Freak the fuck out, of course!



Richard figures that either the killers will come after him, or the police will – either way, it doesn’t look good. So, he does a runner. As he heads up into Scotland, he starts to piece together what’s going on. Turns out, the dead guy was a freelance spy who knew about an imminent plot to destabilise Europe, starting with an assassination of the Premier of Greece. Having nothing better to do, Richard takes on the dead guy’s crusade to foil the evil plot. He puts his thinking hat on, and manages to decipher the crazy encrypted notes in a book he took from the dead guy, managing to stay one step ahead of both the police and the anarchist plotters all the while.

Richard, through a strange combination of luck and nous, manages to save the day in the end (duh)… but the Greek guy still bites it. Pity.

It ain’t all beer and skittles, though. It never is! I detected more than a few hints of anti-Semitism and some gross racial profiling throughout The Thirty-Nine Steps; heck, it was the early 20th century, Buchan could hardly be expected to know any better, but his writing might still offend some sensibilities today if not forewarned. Also, there’s some clumsy dialect in the Scottish parts, but it wasn’t too bad. Look at it this way: if you can keep up with Scottish Twitter, you’ll be fine.



As I’m sure you can tell by now, The Thirty-Nine Steps has become the prototype for the “spy-on-the-run” thriller. Buchan’s archetypes have been used in almost every movie of the genre ever since. All the elements are there: escaping the grips of ignoramus authorities, narrowly dodging the “bad guys”, an ordinary bloke who has greatness thrust upon him and chucks his whole life in the bin to go save the world. You can see Buchan’s influence everywhere, even in recent best-sellers like The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared.

The Thirty-Nine Steps has been adapted for the stage and screen a bunch of times, but nearly all of these versions depart substantially from the text – and boy, was I grateful to hear that! Turns out, my memory isn’t failing me, and my confusion about the ending isn’t a symptom of some rare type of late-twenties dementia. The play that I saw years ago was actually based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film version, rather than the book, and that explains the different ending than I remember. Phew!

I’d throw this one in the same category as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: a good book to read when you need something light and just a little bit ridiculous. The soldiers in the First World War loved it for that very reason. One wrote to Buchan that “the story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing”. So, if it can cure the misery of trench life, it can probably do wonders for your crappy day-job and lazy housemates.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Thirty-Nine Steps:

  • “Hilarious in a stuffy British way. BUt things haven’t changed that much. Take some friends on a canoe trip and see.” – Lewis F. Murphy
  • “loved it bill” – bill
  • “Gives good reading but many portions are boring. Can say not racy.” – G SUNDAR
  • “excellant fun, hand no problems, wish i needed another and had the money. or maybe i do but i only need one. hi” – Leeroy151


7 Literary Heroes Who Are Actually Garbage People

Have you every really thought hard about some of our literary heroes? When you look closely at their behaviour, they’re often not the loveable salt-of-the-earth types we like to think they are. I’ve written before about unlikeable narrators, but I don’t think that being “unlikeable” necessarily makes you a garbage person, nor does being a garbage person ipso facto make you “unlikeable”. In fact, some of the ones I include on this list are downright endearing and charming. I’m very aware that this post might be controversial as fuck, because our literary heroes are beloved by readers and coded well by authors to hide their true colours – but when has that ever stopped me? Let’s take off the rose-coloured glasses, people! Here are seven literary “heroes” who are actually garbage people.

7 Literary Heroes Who Are Actually Garbage People - Text Overlaid on Image of Superhero Wall Mural - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Toad (The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame)

The Wind In The Willows - Kenneth Grahame - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Toad is a jovial kind of guy, great fun to have at a party, but damn! In the real world, he’d be Elon Musk. He loves his friends, and they do the best they can to help him, but it’s all to no avail: he’s too stubborn and arrogant to listen to them. There’s also the little matter of Toad’s grand theft auto. By the end of The Wind In The Willows, he’s an escaped felon, and he cons his friends to harbour him – a fugitive! – making them criminals as well. Worst of all, he never faces any consequences for his actions. Garbage behaviour all-round from this lovable rogue…

Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tom’s only an adolescent in Mark Twain’s adventure stories, but he’s well on his way to becoming a career criminal – possibly even a charismatic cult leader. He’s so caught up in his youthful folly, inspired by the adventure stories he’s read himself, that he can’t see past the end of his nose in the real world. Huck Finn would’ve done just fine rescuing Jim, the runaway slave, if Tom hadn’t tripped him up every step of the way trying to make things “proper”. Plus, he’s a fuckboy of the first order.

Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, even I (of the cold dead heart) get sucked in to the love story of Jane Eyre, so I don’t begrudge anyone getting a little twinkle in their eye when they read about the “dark, strong, and stern” Mr Rochester. But we have to face facts, Keeper-Upperers: he literally locked his goddamn wife in the motherfucking attic. I don’t care that he was “tricked” into marrying her; he needs to take some stinkin’ responsibility. Not to mention he negged Jane at every opportunity and basically only made himself emotionally available to her when his life fell apart and he needed her to put it back together. Boo!

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of the Brontës: Heathcliff is the quintessential literary hero who was actually a garbage person. I know he had a rough trot being orphaned and everything, but heck! So did Cinderella, and she made herself useful, cleaning the house and caring for animals and stuff, instead of getting all butt-hurt about the girl next door marrying someone else and ruining everyone’s lives in revenge. Look at the plot of Wuthering Heights: the whole thing is basically Heathcliff’s fault! He’s an abusive a-hole, he screwed up his family for generations, and – not satisfied with that! – he continues to freak people out after he shuffles off the mortal coil, joining Cathy in a moor-haunting creepy ghost double-act.

Everyone (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fine, this one is kind of a gimme: Thackeray literally called Vanity Fair “the novel without a hero”, but they were all just so garbage I couldn’t help but include them. George Osbourne, for starters, was so up-himself he couldn’t touch his toes, and he had to be talked into marrying Amelia after her family went bankrupt. He went through with the wedding, because “honour” (what a guy!), but just kept shagging her friends on the side until he got himself killed at war. Next up, there was William Dobbin, who sulked for years about Amelia’s shitty taste in men, and ultimately harangued her into marrying him too. Throughout it all, Amelia just wouldn’t. stop. whining. and she did very little to take control of her own destiny, or even just make her own choices. Plus, her kid was a right pain, and she thought the sun shined out his wazoo. Blegh!

Arthur Dent (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams)

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know that the Brits are super-proud of their stiff upper lip thing, but Arthur Dent takes it to the next level. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy begins with the actual destruction of the entire Planet Earth, but Dent doesn’t shed a single tear. He doesn’t grieve for the loss of the entire human race, not one bit. How self-centered do you have to be that you don’t find a minute to mourn the passing of an entire population? He just goes on belly-aching, with nary a thought for those poor perished souls. Smh.

Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Smith)

If you only read the first couple parts of Gulliver’s Travels, while he’s gallivanting around Lilliput, you’d think he was alright. A bit slow on the uptake, maybe, given that he keeps taking all these voyages that end in disaster, but not an actual garbage person. That is, until, you reach the end: you’ll realise what a twat the man actually was. He abandons his wife and family time and time again for these ridiculous “adventures” (that always end with someone trying to kill him, and a botched escape). When he finally comes home for good, he decides he finds Mrs Gulliver “disgusting” and treats her like absolute shit for the rest of their lives. Garbage person!


And an honourable mention has to go to Harry Potter: there were so many wonderful characters in that book, and yet the main character was an angsty, arrogant emo-kid who was told repeatedly throughout his entire adolescence that the whole world revolved around him, so (of course) he believed it. Can you think of any others? Don’t hold back, Keeper-Upperers! Tell me about them in the comments (or vent over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Keeper-Upperers, I made a whoopsy! Back when I reviewed Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, I mistakenly labelled it as the only children’s book on The List – I forgot entirely about this bad boy! The Wind In The Willows is a children’s story written by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. Set in a rural part of Edwardian England, it follows the adventures (or misadventures, as it were) of four anthropomorphised animals: Mole, Rat, Badger, and (be still my beating heart) Toad. Having not been totally Disney-fied, it hasn’t quite reached the pervasive popularity of Alice, but I’d say it’s about on par in terms of loveliness.

Now, oddly for such a delightful little tome, The Wind In The Willows was actually born of some pretty miserable circumstances. Kenneth Grahame had a pretty rough trot, on the whole. His mother died when he was five, and his father had a pretty hectic drinking problem, so the kids were dumped with their grandmother. It was all rather shitful, but Grahame made the most of it. His Grandma lived near the Thames and he loved exploring the area, mucking around, as kids do. He survived his rough start, and went on to score a pretty swanky secretary job at the Bank Of England. He married at the age of 40, and the following year his wife had their only child, a sickly boy named Alastair (nicknamed Mouse), born premature and blind in one eye.

Raising Alastair was tough, and a few years after his birth Grahame decided he was jack of the rat race. He resigned from his position at the bank and moved the whole family back to the country, where he felt most at home. He spent a lot of his time “simply messing about in boats”, and began expanding the bedtime stories he had made up for Alastair into a manuscript. The characters of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger had been fixtures in the Grahame household during Alastair’s childhood; even when Papa Kenneth went off on one of his boating trips, he would write letters home containing tales of their adventures for his son. So, The Wind In The Willows must’ve been a walk-up start, right? Kid tested, and approved?

Well, not really: a number of publishers rejected the manuscript outright. Everyone was expecting books more in the vein of his previous works (he’d already published The Golden Age, and Dream Days, by this point), and they were sorely disappointed. When he finally found a publisher willing to take a chance on his children’s story, the critics panned it… but the public loved it! Bookstores kept selling out, so multiple print-runs were required, in quick succession. Plus, it got a ringing endorsement from President Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to Grahame to say he had “read it and reread it, and [had] come to accept the characters as old friends”. That’s one heck of a blurb, eh?




I’m with Teddy: it’s a brilliant book. And it’s certainly not “just” a children’s story. There’s plenty in there for adults, like this gem:

“The best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”

Page 13, The Wind In The Willows

The story starts with Mole, who decides he can’t be fucked cleaning his messy house, so he abandons it altogether and goes to crash on a mate’s couch. HUGE respect, straight off – I feel that! He and his mate, Rat, have a wonderful time boating every day and living together (a more contemporary interpretation of this story offers a queer reading of their relationship, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day). They decide to visit their mate, Toad.

Now, Toad’s a real larrikin; he has a tendency to jump on every fad, and the latest is his growing obsession with motorcars. He’s kind of a garbage person, with his criminal tendencies and blatant fat-phobia and all, but he’s also debonair and charming in his over-the-top way, and anyone who says he isn’t their favourite character is lying.

Mole decides he would also like to meet the elusive Badger, but gets really lost trying to find his house. Rat rescues him from freezing to death in the woods, and on their way home they end up stumbling upon Badger’s abode anyway. He offers them shelter from the snowstorm outside, and winds up joining their growing posse.





Meanwhile, Toad’s obsession with motorcars quickly spirals out of control. While Badger, Ratty, and Mole are sitting around drinking tea like grown-ups, Toad steals and crashes several cars, winds up hospitalised on more than one occasion, and has to pay out big money in fines. The crew holds an intervention for him, but he escapes and steals a convertible for one last joyride (that, of course, lands him in jail). He eventually escapes, and has all kinds of mishaps and misadventures making his way home. When he rejoins his mates, he convinces them to gang up and banish the weasles and stoats that have been squatting in his home during his incarceration absence. Toad learns a few important lessons about humility and friendship, and they all live happily ever after.

I thought The Wind In The Willows was going to be a light, easy read, and it was… but not as light or as easy as I was expecting. It seemed to require a lot more focus than Alice, but (granted) I did have a nasty head cold at the time I was reading it and my brain felt like Swiss cheese, so it might not have been entirely Grahame’s fault. I didn’t have it as bad as some folks: a historian was found tortured and murdered in his home in 2016, because a thief had broken in, intent on finding the rare first edition hidden somewhere in the house. (Seriously, this actually happened!)

The Wind In The Willows would be a great one to read out loud to kids, but that’s not all it’s good for. It’s also a great pick for adults who need a little bit of a break from lofty literature (like I did after last week). And I’m glad Grahame managed to turn his shitty life circumstances into a wonderful and enduring story that has become such a major source of joy in so many childhoods – good on him!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Wind In The Willows:

  • “The plot was awful it was silly and profane. Don’t you dare waste your time on this book please heed me don’t download this horrible awful mean.nasty ugly book!!!!!!!!!!!!” – Shannon
  • “I have no idea how to read or write. Was disappointed when this wasn’t hentai.” – F.T.
  • “This is my very favorite book. Nice Kindle version. The illustrations look good on my iPad.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I am a young reader and I found NO interest in this book.
I think that this should have more drama.” – garcia


What Makes A Book A Classic?

What makes a book a classic? There are about as many answers to that question as there are booklovers. When I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, my goal was to catch up on all the classic books that everyone else seemed to have already read, even though I only had the most nebulous idea of what that actually meant. In categorising my reviews, I’ve used the rough guesstimation that books over 100 years old that are still in circulation must be classics, but over time I’ve come to realise that this might not be the only measure. So, let’s take a look at this eternal question and answer it for ourselves: what makes a book a classic? 

What Makes A Book A Classic? - Text Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Classic books are those we hold up as being exemplary or noteworthy in some fashion (more on that in a minute). Whether or not a book is considered a “classic” will change over time, between readers, and so forth. It’s a floating target, unlike related concepts like “the canon”.

The canon is more like a specific list of books that are considered “essential” in our understanding of a period, area, or group. That’s why you might hear reference to the “Western canon” (which would include books like David Copperfield, The Divine Comedy, and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), or the “African American canon” (which would include books like Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God). The canon is usually presented as a reading list, by a university or publisher. Consider it the cousin that comes to your classic books barbecue wearing an Armani suit.

Is every classic book written by a dead, white man?

Let’s address the big, hairy problem right up front: too often, when we talk about “classic” books, we’re talking about the ones written by dead white men. Straight men, non-disabled men, and men of wealth and power. There are exceptions, of course – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, or the works of the Brontë sisters – but for the most part, it’s privileged white dudes all the way down.

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that those men are the only ones who wrote books worthy of being designated as classics, so why are writers of other identities so often overlooked? Reasons abound, to be honest, and I could probably write a thesis on the topic. For now, suffice to say, I think it’s a combination of a few factors: historically, white men were the only ones who had the opportunity to write (by virtue of their wealth and power) and the networks to disseminate their stories; the stories they published reflected a prevailing worldview, which made them popular; and the ivory towers were mostly staffed by more white men, who felt most comfortable teaching their students books written by people who looked like them (meaning students of that particular identity were more likely to take up a pen, see-it-to-be-it and all). On and on the cycle goes…





So, we must do what we can to redress the balance. Make sure that the criteria you choose to judge for yourself what makes a book a “classic” isn’t exclusionary. When you find yourself perusing shelves of classics, look for the works by women, by people of colour, by people with disabilities, by LGBTIQ+ people – any work from a perspective that has been marginalised in the past. Request those books, review them, recommend them, and make sure they get the recognition they deserve. By the magic of the internet, these works are now reaching previously-unimaginable audiences, and the publishers and gatekeepers are hearing the demands of readers to expand their catalogue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

Let’s get to the fun stuff! How do we decide whether a book should be called a “classic”?

Age

This is the most common, and most obvious, criterion: age. Or, put another way, we can be fairly confident that a book that has endured for decades or centuries – that has “stood the test of time”, if you will – is a classic. It’s a great idea because it’s easily quantifiable; there’s nothing subjective about how many years a book has been around, which means fewer arguments. But how old does a book have to be to be a “classic”, exactly? I used the nice round figure of 100 years, for simplicity, but that (of course) shifts year-by-year, and it’s a little long in some people’s estimation. Some experts suggest “generations”, rather than an exact number of years, because books that endure past those who were alive when it was first published must have something good going on. It’s an idea.

Of course, either yardstick would exclude books that many booklovers consider to be classics regardless: think To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Grapes of Wrath. That’s why some have suggested the creation of a new category, the “modern classic”, for those books that aren’t quite old enough to be considered classics proper, but are well on their way.



Literary Merit

I think we can all agree that simply being old isn’t enough: what else makes a book a classic? The next most obvious criterion is whether or not it’s any good. An old book can hang around for lots of reasons, but in order for us to consider it a “classic” it should probably pass some test of merit. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic, though; gauging the quality of a book is deeply subjective (just ask anyone who’s been to a book club!).

A comprehensive discussion on how to determine literary merit is probably a bit beyond me and my scope here on my lil’ blog. What I will say is that I think it’s important to recognise that “good” doesn’t necessarily mean “readable”. For instance, I can acknowledge that The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a lot of literary merit, while also simultaneously believing that it sucked from a contemporary reader’s standpoint. A book’s literary merit and whether it is fun to read are two completely separate matters. And, failing a final ruling from an all-powerful dictator, it’s probably going to be up to each of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes “literary merit” and whether a book has it or not (for the time being).

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

Books don’t exist in a vacuum: they affect the world around them, and in turn take on new meanings when the world around them changes. Take, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His themes and imagery of surveillance, censorship, misinformation and government control are constantly evoked in political debates, and his work has taken on scary new resonance over the last few years. There are others, too, like Catch-22 or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that are so pervasive they actually become part of our cultural lexicon. We continue to read and reflect on these books because they’ve made such significant contributions to our world; they’ve become, in effect, household names.

Within literature itself, the significance and popularity of a book is often marked by its influence on other, subsequent works. Sometimes this as obvious as a direct adaptation (look at how many contemporary takes we have on Pride And Prejudice, for example, and Little Women). Often, though, it’s much more subtle, with recent works calling upon or emulating styles and themes of classic books. I think it’s only fair that we consider these kinds of literary and cultural contributions when deciding what makes a book a classic, as they make it possible for a book to a book to retain its popularity over time.



Historical Record and Influence

One of the most wonderful things about the written word is the way that it endures, and what it can tell us about the past. Even though, as we’ve acknowledged, perspectives on the past have all to often come from privileged white men with their own inherent biases, they still managed to record details that might have otherwise been lost, and we’re better able now than ever before to think critically about them as sources of historical record. Consider classic books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has taught us so much about the Middle Ages, or more recently the works of Dickens and the Brontës, which have given us a multi-layered understanding of the mores of Victorian England.

Some classic books take it one step further, and actually influence the course of history. The best example of that has to be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called The Great American Novel, and credited – by Abraham Lincoln, no less! – with prompting the American civil war and the crusade to end slavery. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but this kind of historical influence is surely at least part of what makes a book a classic.

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

Unsurprisingly, writers have thought a lot about this question (because, really, it concerns them most of all). Italo Calvino, a beautiful Italian author, wrote a whole book on the subject – Why Read The Classics? – and gave us a list of definitions that he felt, considered as a whole, would bring us closer to understanding what makes a book a classic. I’ve reproduced a few of my favourites here:

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”

“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

“‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

He concludes that a universal definition of a classic book is basically impossible, and “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.





So, what makes a book a classic? I’m with Calvino, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide for ourselves. That said, I think age, literary merit, cultural contribution, and historical influence are all good factors to consider. I think it’s also important that we do everything we can to ensure that we don’t end up lost in the cock forest (as Benjamin Law once so delightfully put it), and include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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