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Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

Now and then you get a random cluster of super-successful people, all from the same family. There’s multiple household names on these particular family trees, recognisable the world over. In the ’80s, it was all about the Jacksons. The ’90s and ’00s had the Baldwins and the Wayans and the Arquettes. Today, you’ve probably got a favourite Hemsworth or Gyllenhaal or Franco. But back in the 19th century, they had the Brontës.

Who Was The Best Bronte? Text Box Overlaid on Green Pattern and Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the Brontë story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick Brontë) met and married the love of his life, Maria. They rapidly produced six offspring: Maria (born 1814), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). (OK, maybe there was a bit of sex… unprotected sex, apparently.)

To accommodate the expanding brood, Patrick moved his family to the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Even though the town’s population had grown exponentially, there was no sewerage or sanitary systems. The water supply was constantly contaminated by the rotting corpses in the cemetery up the hill (D-minus for the town planner). Food was scarce, and everyone survived (barely) on a steady diet of porridge and potatoes. Life expectancy for residents was around 25 years, and infant mortality was nearly half, so getting all of the Brontës up past knee height was a pretty significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, even though the kids held up alright, their mother didn’t fare so well, and she died the following year. Her sister moved in with Patrick shortly after to help with running the house, but he needed a bit of peace and quiet (or a better education for the rugrats, or both). He found the kids places at a reputable charitable school not far away. Of course, even “reputable” charitable schools in those days had pupils so malnourished that they lost their eyesight, and rats would gnaw on their extremities at night, so it’s all relative.

Sure enough, the Brontës started dropping like flies. By 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth (the two eldest) were dead from illnesses contracted at school. Patrick got fed up with his kids dying, so he brought the remaining ones back home pronto.

Having suffered stoically through all this death and porridge, now finding themselves quite alone in the middle of nowhere, the remaining Brontë sprogs – Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne – took to making up stories for their own entertainment. They created the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal, writing stories and poems and feeding off one another’s creativity. In fact, they wrote more as children than any of them managed as adults. Just goes to show what lengths kids would go to keep from getting bored when they don’t have iPads.

In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a collection of poems published under their pen names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Branwell was making a pest of himself (more on that in a second), and contributed very little to their literary efforts from that point onward. Their isolation meant that the Brontës created their own kind of literary tradition – relatively untouched by the influence of others that came before, and one that could not be replicated by others that came after. Their creative output was, of course, cut short by their untimely deaths (Emily and Branwell bit the dust in 1848, Anne kicked the year after that, and Charlotte made it all the way to 1854). Still, their reputations continued to grow after their deaths. They are now considered to be one of the most influential literary families of all time, and their home in Haworth is a pilgrimage site (the Brontë Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the Brontës bore any children, so any genetic genius died out with paper Patrick; sadly, he outlived all of his children, dying in 1861.

Parents are probably supposed to say that they don’t have a favourite kid, and Patrick undoubtedly loved them all, but we are under no such obligation! Debate has raged for over a century now: who was the best Brontë? Let’s take a look at the contenders…

Emily Brontë 

Emily gets pretty much all of the love nowadays. She only wrote one novel – Wuthering Heights – which I once described as a bad-boy’s decade-long over getting friendzoned. It’s a pretty spooky read, full of hauntings and moors and incestuous marriages and stuff. I suppose it’s also a pretty good “eternal love” story, if you’re into that kind of thing. Critics have been analysing Wuthering Heights for decades (I gave it a shot, too), and I’d bet they’re not even halfway done – there’s enough layers of metaphor to keep them at it for a while yet. It’s definitely the most iconic Brontë novel (but could we really say that it’s the “best”? hmmm…)

As for the woman herself, Emily was a bit of a character. She had a bit of trouble holding down a job – mostly because all of the jobs for unmarried women her age at the time involved looking after kids, and she didn’t like that. In fact, she once told the pupils at the school where she taught that she preferred the school dog over all of them (same, girl, same). That teaching gig was the only one she ever had. She shrugged off the pressure to become a governess like her sisters, and focused intensely on her writing. She was the determined, hard-working, creative, childless-by-choice one. The media would probably call her a “nasty woman” if she were around today.

Charlotte Brontë 

I must say I’m very biased here, because Charlotte’s magnum opus – Jane Eyre – is one of my favourite books of all time. Charlotte was the “first historian of the private consciousness”, writing a story where all of the action is told through the eyes and experiences of the central character. She pretty much invented first-person narration as we understand it today. Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who survives a shitty childhood (complete with evil stepmother, and a boarding school that violates every health code ever), only to fall in love with her boss (who happens to be keeping his mad wife locked in his attic). It was a deeply feminist book, very progressive for its time, and so much more accessible and readable than Wuthering Heights! A highly recommended read from Keeping Up With The Penguins – be sure to check out my full review here.

Anyway, Charlotte was the pretty, popular one. Case in point: she received a pretty steady stream of marriage proposals throughout her life. One bloke, Reverend Henry Nussey, wrote her a letter asking for her hand – she turned him down because she just wasn’t that into him, and she thought (probably rightly) that being married to a clergyman would be boring as fuck. Another reverend – David Pryce – met her once (once!) at a tea party before he popped the question. She turned him down as well, figuring (once again, probably rightly) that he was bonkers. She did finally marry a curate (Arthur Bell Nicholls) – but even he had to propose twice before she finally conceded. No man was gonna hold Charlotte down!

Turns out, getting married was probably a bad call on her part anyway: Charlotte died less than a year after the ceremony, and it would seem that it was extreme morning sickness that done her in. Her death certificate listed “phthisis” (acute tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but today’s medicine points to an evil foetus as the more likely cause. Still, Charlotte did manage to out-live all of her siblings, and she was certainly more prolific than any of them. That’s a pretty strong case for her being the Best Brontë Of All Time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best Brontë, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” Brontë sister. People seem to really sympathise with poor little Anne, younger sister to two of the greatest female writers of all time. They do have a point: Emily and Charlotte would have been tough acts to follow.

Still, I’m not sure Anne is as “forgotten” as everyone says. Her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is certainly having a resurgence at the moment. It’s the story of a woman living in (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall; she really wants some alone-time, but drunk fuckboys keep coming at her from all directions. Anne basically used this book to sub-tweet all of her siblings. She sent up Charlotte and Emily, who wrote angry hard-drinking men as irresistibly attractive love interests, and her brother Branwell, who was himself an angry hard-drinking man in life. All of her writing had pretty strong moral messages, and her female characters were Strong Independent WomenTM, which was pretty controversial for the time.

Charlotte certainly wasn’t a fan of her younger sister’s work. She actually prevented The Tenant of Wildfell; Hall being republished after Anne’s death, saying “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” She sounds mad jelly, doesn’t she?

Anne has historically been a dark horse for the title of the best Brontë, but judging by how much love she’s got on the internet over recent years, she’s probably the frontrunner now.

Branwell Brontë 

If you want to talk about the real forgotten Brontë, spare a thought for poor drunk Branwell. Popular opinion would have it that Anne is the one who got shafted, but I’m sure you have never read anything by Branwell – in fact, you probably didn’t even know there was a Brontë brother until now. Right?

In his younger years, Branwell’s father and sister thought he was an absolute genius – he was the darling of the family, intelligent and talented and driven. But, like so many white male boy-wonders before and since, his life quickly descended into a spiral of debt and addiction. Anne took pity on him and got him a job, but mad-dog Branwell got himself fired for having an affair with his boss’s wife (!). He frittered away the money he borrowed from his father (and, reportedly, stole from his employer), drinking and partying in establishments of ill-repute. He’d have been a fun guy to have along on a night out, but you probably wouldn’t have trusted him with your wallet.

As far as his writing goes, he and Charlotte actually co-wrote a book called Juvenilia when they were children. He followed that up with assorted pieces of poetry and prose. Things looked promising for Branwell when he got a few articles published in local newspapers… but he was ultimately waylaid by his love for opium. Branwell’s work is difficult to find today, and he’s barely a blip on the literary critique radar. He lives eternally in the shadow of his sisters, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d unironically call him the best Brontë.

So, who was the best Brontë?

Well, obviously, my vote is with Charlotte (and I give an honourable mention to Branwell, for being such a hot mess). But the true winner is up to you! Cast your vote by commenting below (or telling us your favourite over at KUWTP on Facebook), and subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins to be the first to know when we decide the winner 😉

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the Brontë sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily Brontë (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the Brontë sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.




Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte Brontë is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see Brontë really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of Brontë’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria Brontë both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.


The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. Brontë doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte Brontë, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte Brontë’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

 

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!


I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?


The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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If all you knew about Wuthering Heights before you read this review was drawn from the Kate Bush song, don’t worry – you’re not alone! Check out more songs inspired by classic literature here.

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand (And My Best Tips To Track Them Down!)

Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books on The List. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy them all brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it all a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand - Book Covers and Text - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

When my hunt for books on The List first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.

Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.

Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…

Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.

Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend

I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…

Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.

Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!

Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.

Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review coming soon!), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)

Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!

Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).

Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).

Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

The Best Books I’ve Read… So Far!

Ohhhh, we’re half-way there! (And if you’re half the eighties rock fan I am, you sang that line in your head.) I am officially halfway through my reading list: 55 books down, 54 books to go. It seems incredible to me that what started as a half-hearted joke with my husband about how much literature I was missing out on has become this huge project, and I’ve managed to make it halfway through (relatively) unscathed. What’s a girl to do but write a celebratory list post of the highlights? Here are the best books I’ve read so far, at this point, halfway to my ultimate goal of Keeping Up With The Penguins.

The Best Books I've Read... So Far! - Book Covers in Collage and Text in Black and Red - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The First Book I Loved: David Copperfield (Charles Dickens)

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I always knew Charles Dickens was the Grand Poobah of English literature, but I had no idea I was going to discover a book I loved so much, so early in this project. I was only a few books in, and this one bowled me right the fuck over. You can read my full review here, but suffice to say that I devoured David Copperfield like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion is beautifully rendered. Critics have hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what they call “supermarket” writing; novels were the primary source of family entertainment back then (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to weave a bit of everything into his stories to keep the everyone happy. Critics be damned, I think it’s precisely this “just chuck it all in the pot and give it a stir” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book. Buy it here.

The Best Non-Fiction Book I’ve Read: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I realise that, given the creative liberties that Truman Capote took with the story of the Clutter murders, calling In Cold Blood “non-fiction” might be a bit rich… but I stand by it. I’ve read some great pop-science books, of course (Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything gets an honourable mention), but In Cold Blood was definitely the most beautiful and readable non-fiction offering from The List. I hate the term “page-turner”, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I was fucking gripped, with white knuckles, the whole way through. Read my full review here, and buy Capote’s magnum opus here.

The Most Underrated Book I’ve Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m still not over my shock that I hadn’t heard of (let alone read) this incredible book before I began Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a travesty, I tell you – a criminal oversight of the book-loving community. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is also one of the very, very few books that gets an actual spoiler warning in my review, which should be testament enough to the strength of the plot-twist. If you ask me for a book recommendation these days, it’s almost inevitable that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be top of my list; even if you tell me you’ve already read it, I’ll tell you to read it again. Buy it here, if you haven’t already (and read it before you read my review!).

The Best Classic Book I’ve Read: Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bearing in mind that I usually define a classic as a book that has lasted over a hundred years and maintained a level of popularity and interest, my favourite so far has to have been Jane Eyre. In fact, I clutched this book to my chest and smiled so often I started to look like a woman in a bad infomercial. I know Wuthering Heights gets most of the love and attention, but to me Jane Eyre is clearly superior (and it’s on that basis that I declared Charlotte to be the best Brontë). I’ve crammed my review full of fun facts about Charlotte and this book, and you can learn even more from the introduction to this fantastic Penguin Classics edition.

The Most Fun Book To Read: The Adventures of Sherlock Homes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

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

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes isn’t typically billed as a “funny” book, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: it was just really fun to read! Sherlock’s adventures are presented as a series of short stories, and I was blown away by Doyle’s economy of language – how he managed to cram so much into so few words is still beyond me (it takes me longer to describe what happens in one of the cases than it does for Doyle to tell the whole story). It’s good, clean fun, too, which is not usually my kind of thing, but it’s great for anyone looking for a classic that the whole family can enjoy. Read my full review here, and buy the collection here.

The Book That Lived Up To The Hype: To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know it’s super-weird that I hadn’t read this one prior to Keeping Up With The Penguins, given that it’s a staple of high-school required reading lists… but somehow I squirmed out of that particular rite of passage. So, I came to it later in life, cynical enough to think there was no way that Harper Lee’s only true novel could live up to the hype. Imagine my surprise when it did! In fact, it exceeded it. To Kill A Mockingbird is a stunning read, no matter when you come to it. It’s not without its issues, of course (which I address, very briefly, in my review), and the release of Go Set A Watchman was controversial at best (and a disgusting violation at worst), but I hate to think that any of that detracts from our appreciation of Lee’s masterful writing. If you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet, there’s no shame, just get a copy here – right now!

The Most Beautifully Written Book: My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend is so wonderful, I was actually nervous about posting my review; I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s beautiful writing justice. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read in my entire life. Of course, credit doesn’t go only to Ferrante – there’s also her translator, Ann Goldstein, who somehow retained the beautiful rolling lyricism of the original Italian without the slightest hint that the work was not originally written in English. Luckily, My Brilliant Friend is just the first in the series of Neapolitan novels, so there’s plenty more Ferrante to sustain you once you’re done – get them all here.

The Biggest Surprise: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Crime and Punishment ended up on The List almost as a joke: my husband suggested it, never believing for a second that I would actually read it. In fact, I didn’t even believe that I would actually read it! I thought this Russian classic was for pretentious losers who name-drop at parties and wear fedoras inside. And then I had to eat my fucking words, because I did read it and I loved it! Raskolnikov is (and I know I probably shouldn’t say this about a literal axe-murderer, but whatever) so damn relatable, a bundle of nerves slowly unravelling in 19th century St Petersburg, and it’s so readable I would have totally believed it was a contemporary historical novel. I said as much in my review. Don’t believe me? Get it and see for yourself.


And there we have it! Of course, many thanks go to all of you who have stuck with me for the last year and a bit; I can’t wait to see what adventures we go on as we cruise through to the finish 😉 And my question for all of you today: what have been YOUR favourites so far in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

Romantic Reads For Valentine’s Day (That Won’t Make You Throw Up In Your Mouth)

Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Valentine’s Day. Don’t bother rushing to the comments to remind me that it’s a capitalist conspiracy to make us spend our hard-earned pineapples on chocolates and cards and flowers once a year – I am well aware. Be all that as it may, I think it’s as good a time as any to dig out a few romantic reads.

I didn’t realise until I started trying to put this post together how few “romantic” books I actually read. I don’t have any kind of deep-seated opposition to them or anything; there just aren’t that many of them on The List or on my bookshelves. I think it’s because perhaps I’m a bit too cynical to put up with any schmaltzy crap in literature. So, this is a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day… that won’t make you throw up in your mouth.

Romantic Reads For Valentines Day - White Words in Love Heart Overlaid on Collage of Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue – Mackenzi Lee

Valentine’s Day is for everyone, of all ages, so let’s start with a young adult book that can be enjoyed by teenagers and adult-adults alike: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. It ticks every box: hedonism, adventure, history, wealth, and (most importantly) romance. It’s fast-paced, it’s witty, and it touches on a bunch of really topical issues (including racism, sexuality, mental health, class, and more). A fun read!

Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic Of Cancer is considerably more “adult” – in fact, it’s not even that romantic, just very smutty. If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, this is the perfect erotic tome to get your motor running. That said, Miller’s brand of literotica is not to everyone’s tastes; if you prefer your smut with a more lady-like bent, try some Anaïs Nin instead. I reviewed Tropic of Cancer for KWUTP just this week – it’s a cracker!

Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

Speaking of smut: Call Me By Your Name has a scene with a peach that… well, you’ll have to read it for yourself 😉 but that’s not all there is to be found in these pages! Aciman has written a beautiful romantic story of the budding relationship between 17-year-old Elio Perlman and a 24-year-old scholar named Oliver, both Jewish men trying to find their place in the world. Call Me By Your Name follows their romance and the subsequent decades, all against a beautiful Italian backdrop.

Emma – Jane Austen

It wouldn’t feel right to make a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day without including any Austen. I refuse to indulge the Elizabeth Bennet/Mr Darcy fandom (as we all know, Pride and Prejudice has been a tough row for me to hoe – review coming soon!), so I’ve gone with a slightly less traditional choice: Emma. It took me a little while to understand its understated brilliance, but this tale of a wealthy, beautiful, self-indulgent match-maker is a great Valentine’s Day read (as long as you don’t need your stories to be action-packed to hold your interest). Check out my full review of Emma here.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

While we’re in the 19th century, we should also consider Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Now, maybe it will make you throw up in your mouth, just a little bit, but bear with me. It’s definitely a problematic love story, what with the whole wife-locked-in-the-attic thing… but I loved it anyway! And that’s what makes me think it will warm the cockles of even the most hardened cynic this Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect combination of romance, mystery, and coming-of-age, with a bad-ass female protagonist at its heart. I highly recommend it!

Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez

The romance is right there in the title: this is the story of Love In The Time Of Cholera. Now, don’t be scared off by Márquez’s reputation! It’s actually an extremely readable story, with that classic South American magical realism we associate with our favourite romantic reads. It’s passionate, it’s lusty, and it examines the way we understand love and what keeps it alive across generations. It’s long, but stick with it: it’s worth it in the end (if nothing else, proud singletons will find it keeps them distracted and helps them work on their patience in this trying time of Valentine’s propaganda!).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

Now, to something a little more fun! To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a terrifying, but compelling, premise: what if everyone you’d ever admired from afar found out how you felt about them? What if they all found out at the exact same time? Yikes! That’s what happens to protagonist Lara Jean Song, whose secret love letters to her teenage crushes are mysteriously mailed to their recipients. I think that’s enough to instill fear in the heart of anyone who was once a teenage girl…

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Don’t you roll your eyes at me! If you approach Little Women with the right perspective, it makes for a damn find romantic read on Valentine’s Day. Alcott has an unfair reputation for being “sentimental” and “girly”, but I pulled that shit to shreds in my review. The story of Little Women seems a lot more brave and adventurous when you understand more about Alcott’s politics and her motivations for writing. As to the romance, I know Alcott was pilloried by her publishers and her fans for the “unromantic” ending: headstrong Jo March turns down Prince Charming’s proposal, and instead chooses to marry the poor (old!) Professor Bhaer… but I loved it! It was realistic, which makes it lovely. I challenge you to give this American classic another go and see what you find this Valentine’s Day!

Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

And while we’re on romantic endings that aren’t exactly “happy”, if that’s your thing you’re really going to want to read Margaret Mitchell’s sweeping American epic Gone With The Wind. Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara connives and conspires her way through the Civil War, falling in and out of love with both the charming Rhett Butler and her best friend’s husband (sometimes at the same time). Sure, there’s also some gross romanticisation of slavery in the South, but it’s worth a read this Valentine’s Day nonetheless.

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch

Changing tack once again: you didn’t think this list was going to be all classic love stories and historical fiction, did you? Believe it or not, there are alternatives that are still Valentine’s-y! Take Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch – a “mind-blowing sci-fi romance thriller”. What a genre-bending combination! It’s a love story, at its heart, about a husband’s unbreakable bond with his wife – but it’s wrapped up in a truly compelling sci-fi premise. A great one to pick up if you’re in the mood for something different this Valentine’s Day…

Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined To Meet

It’s not a list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day without at least a little cutesy shit. So, here’s my offer: Meet Cute is a concept-based collection of short stories from some of today’s most accomplished Young Adult authors, all zooming in on the rom-com trope. Don’t be fooled, though, this is hardly a compilation of bouncy blonde manic-pixie-dream-girls meeting brooding bad boys: diversity is the order of the day! The anthology tackles everything from gender identity to family dynamics, and in every story are the seeds of a great romance. If you’re getting over a break-up (the worst time of year for it, big virtual hugs to you!) this collection will give you hope that new love is just around the corner.

One Day – David Nicholls

If the “concept” appeals to you, try this one on for size: One Day tells the story of two college friends, through the tiny window of a certain day in their lives. Through that one day (see what he did there?), Nicholas explores the importance of timing, the changing nature of relationships, and – much like Márquez in Love In The Time Of Cholera – the need for patience when it comes to love. It may make you a little nauseated at times, but hopefully Nicholls’s humour and mastery of the craft will keep the vomit where it belongs.

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

We’ve covered nearly every genre on this list of romantic reads for Valentine’s Day… except non-fiction. So here it is! I know there’s a legion of people out there who scoff at the juggernaut that was Eat Pray Love, but even if you’re one of them, you’ll find something very different in Liz Gilbert’s Committed. It picks up where her story ended in her bestselling memoir, her relationship with Felipe forced to progress under the auspices of the American immigration office. Throughout Committed, Gilbert works through her fears and anxieties about love and marriage, and how our traditions contribute to our understanding of fidelity, companionship, and commitment. A great one for engaged couples this Valentine’s Day, especially if you can feel your feet getting a little chilly…

The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis

In the alternative, maybe a literary giant’s personal reflections on love might be more your speed. C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his children’s books (The Chronicles of Narnia), but he was also quite the smarty-pants. In this book, The Four Loves, he looks at four (duh) specific types of love: romantic love, love between friends, love for family, and love born of charity and religion. He reaches a trite conclusion that, sickly sweet as it may be, seems apt in this season: love makes all things possible. Awwww….

Love: A History – Simon May

If memoir and personal essays really aren’t your thing, maybe a more straightforward non-fiction look at love is what you’re after. Love: A History gives us an in-depth and critical perspective on the very notion of romantic love, through the lenses of culture, philosophy, literature, religion, modernity, and more. How has our understanding of love changed over time, and (more importantly) why does it change? May turns over every stone to get you some answers for Valentine’s Day.


And there you have it: surely, every type of lover can find a romantic read for Valentine’s Day on this broad and varied list (if I do say so myself). What will you be reading? Do you have any more suggestions? Let me know in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

More Of The Best Opening Lines In Literature

This time last year, Keeping Up With The Penguins launched with a best-of list: the best opening lines in literature. It was an auspicious start, and it seems so long ago now! So, to celebrate KUWTP’s first anniversary, I’m going back to the beginning and bringing you another list: more of the best opening lines in literature.

More of The Best Opening Lines In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Book Open In Front of Beach Horizon - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Innumerable questions are raised by this opening line: why is the Colonel facing the firing squad? What does he mean by “discovering ice”? Why is that the memory that comes to mind, given his circumstances? The only way to find out is to read One Hundred Years Of Solitude (damn clever).

2. The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

This is the perfect introduction to The Catcher In The Rye’s whiney teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield, and his stream-of-consciousness style. You can read my full review of Salinger’s magnum opus here (and my review of David Copperfield here, too, come to that).

3. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler – Italo Calvino

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

Nope, I didn’t pull up the first line of the foreword by accident: that’s how If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler starts. This opening line is a baptism by fire into the truly odd and brilliant perspective of Calvino’s novel.

4. The Outsider – Albert Camus

“Mother died today.”

BAM. Cop that! It’s a straight-shooting opener, one of the best. Think of all the different ways Camus (or, more accurately, Camus’s translator) could have phrased it: “My mother died today”, or “Mummy died today”, or “Mother passed away today”. In fact, there’s a lot of debate about the choice of these particular words in the translation of The Outsider (you can get the full story from The New Yorker here).

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

It’s a beautiful metaphor, one that reads more like an idiom than an opening line, and one that stands strong with no context at all… but be that as it may, it’s well worth reading the rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God, there’s plenty more brilliance to be found in those pages.

6. Alphabetical Africa – Walter Abish

“Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement… anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.”

This one is just so damn clever, it makes me angry. And Walter Abish keeps it up the whole time: each chapter of Alphabetical Africa contains only words beginning with a subsequent letter of the alphabet (first chapter is A, second chapter is B, third chapter is C, and so on). If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will.

7. The Luck Of The Bodkins – P.G, Wodehouse

“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

Well, it’s hilarious, and that alone justifies the inclusion of The Luck Of The Bodkins‘ opening line in this list. But I also love the way it covers everything – setting, character, conflict – and, without actually describing any specific features of the face, Wodehouse manages to conjure in the mind of the reader the exact expression to which he is referring. That, people, is fucking mastery.

8. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

Kafka is the king of starting a story in the middle, as all the writing experts say you should, and the opening line of The Metamorphosis is probably his finest example of that.

9. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.”

OK, I’m probably biased (but it’s my blog and I’ll be biased if I want to), because I loved Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend so damn much… But come on! This line hooks you, right from the get go, and I think it’s mostly that final word: “gone”. Gone how?? Rino’s mother isn’t “dead”, she isn’t “missing”, she hasn’t “lost her mind” – she’s gone, and I found that so fascinating I had to devour the book as quickly as possible to piece together what happened. (You can read the rest of my love letter to My Brilliant Friend here, and reviews of the rest of the Neapolitan novels are coming soon!).

10. Opium – Colin Falconer

“Noelle thought she would have noticed him even if he hadn’t driven his Packard through the front bar of the Hotel Constellation.”

This is another opening line I love for its dry humour. It takes such a hard-left turn mid-way through the sentence, I can’t help but chuckle every time! And you can find much more of this comic timing throughout the rest of Colin Falconer’s Opium.

11. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

I had to include at least one childhood favourite, didn’t I? Fern’s question at the very beginning of Charlotte’s Web betrays such innocence, and in so doing effectively sets the stage for the rest of the novel.

Reading my way through The List this past year, I’ve learned a lot about opening lines, why they work, and why they don’t. For instance, I’m increasingly bored by opening lines that describe the weather (the only exceptions being 1984, and perhaps Jane Eyre). And it’s not just me: Elmore Leonard listed “never open a book with the weather” as his first piece of advice to writers. Most of the best opening lines in literature, I’ve noticed, rather than just “setting the scene” in a geographical sense, find clever ways to position both the reader and the narrator, using very few words. By the end of that very first sentence, you know exactly who you are, and who the narrator is, and the relationship between you. I particularly like it when the impact of the opening line doesn’t hit you until later, perhaps not until you’ve finished the book and meditated on it a little.

What do you think? What makes for a good opening line? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

How To Read More Classic Books

Have you ever found yourself zoning out, nodding along blankly, as the person you’re with chats away about their favourite classic book? Maybe you read it once in high school and hated it (don’t worry, enforced reading isn’t fun for anyone, no judgement). Maybe you’ve heard of it and figure you know enough to pretend you’ve read it, even though you really haven’t. But, seeing as you’ve ended up here, I’m guessing you’ve decided now is the time to get caught up and make your way through some of literature’s greatest hits. That makes me your new best friend, because I’ve put together another amazing Keeping Up With The Penguins guide: how to read more classic books.

How To Read More Classic Books - Words Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”

Say it with me, now: it depends who you ask.

Personally, I tend to consider the classics to be books that have endured over a hundred years with continued and ongoing resonance. That’s how I categorise them here on KUWTP. Italo Calvino once famously said that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”, and I think that’s spot-fucking-on. While I’m not alone in that opinion, a lot of people aren’t as hard-arse on the timeline, and consider books published much more recently to be “classics”, too. So, really, there are about as many answers to this question as there are readers of classic literature.

When we’re deciding which books “count” as classics, we can look at which books were “firsts” (to cross genre boundaries, for instance, or create a new tradition), or the books we used as yardsticks (the way, for example, we compare almost all vampire fiction to Dracula). We could take into consideration books that have taken readers by surprise and prompted social movements, or triggered significant change through controversial commentary. We’d be foolish to limit ourselves too strictly by time period, because, as I said, a “classic” book could be over 1,000 years old or released in the last decade depending whom you ask. It’s pretty reasonable to want or expect a classic book to stand the test of time, but it’s up to you how much time testing it really has to stand before it’s accepted behind the velvet rope.

Don’t forget that different genres also have different criteria for what constitutes a “classic”. Looking over a list of, say, sci-fi classics, you’ll see that they usually don’t have much in common with classic poetry, or the pre-war American canon. Heck, there are people who consider 50 Shades of Grey to be a classic of the romance genre, but you’d be hard pressed to find a literary fiction reader who’d use that book title and “classic” in the same sentence.

“Does a book have to be “good” to be a classic?”

You’d think the answer to that is obvious, but the problem is that what constitutes a “good” book is extremely subjective. Once again, it’s different for everyone. I think it’s generally fair to expect that books meet certain standards of “goodness” to be considered classic – they’re widely read and enjoyed, well-crafted, insightful, and interesting – but beyond that, there’s a wasteland of opinions and conjecture.

Now, let’s get something straight: you are under no obligation to read the classics, whether they’re “good” or not. You don’t have to agree with anyone else on what the “classics” are. You don’t have to read them in order to be a “real” or “serious” reader. So, if you’d rather poke your eye out with a rusty fork than pick up a classic book, you can quit right here. No one is holding you hostage, even if it feels like there’s a lot of pressure from classic-lovin’ bookworms, and there are plenty of contemporary and non-classic-y books out there that can’t wait to meet you. My advice from here on is strictly for those who are interested in reading the classics and expanding their world through the literary canon they haven’t yet explored – I’m not in the business of imposing literary elitism on anyone. 😉

Classic Books and Where to Find Them

I’ve lost count of how many times in the How To Read More series I’ve suggested checking out your local library, but I’m going to do it again here and now: check out your local library. Any library worth its salt will have a decent selection of classics across a variety of genres and time periods, and you can check them out (for free!) without any obligation. Heck yeah!

My advice doesn’t end there, though. One of the great things about getting into classic literature is that the copyright for a lot of these books and authors has lapsed, meaning that they are often (even usually) available for free in an eBook format, somewhere on the internet. Just look at the Amazon offering for Kindle – it’s bursting at the seams with literary classics, and so many are completely free! If you’re not an eBook reader, never fear: a lot of traditional publishers have capitalised on the opportunity that public domain work provides (to publish popular and enduring work without paying royalties, and no legal repercussions), releasing a bunch of very, very affordable versions in paperback.


And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout-out to Project Gutenberg, which – at last count – offers nearly 60,000 public domain books for free through their website. No eReader or smartphone required, you can read them right there in your browser if you want. It’ll be years before we fully understand the impact that the Project has had on global literacy, but for now you should take full advantage of the opportunity that it presents to you and say a silent prayer to the literature gods that it continues in perpetuity.

So, now you know where to find classic books, let’s lay out a plan to get you reading them.

Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature

Let’s start with a confession: I was scared of classic books for most of my life. I was convinced that I wasn’t smart enough to read them, or that I wasn’t educated enough to understand them. Even once I’d completed my degree, I figured I’d studied the “wrong thing” and classic books were reserved for the arts graduates that wore berets and pronounced Nietzsche correctly without even trying. This is the book-lover’s version of imposter syndrome; we convince ourselves that because we read a lot of YA, or we prefer prose to poetry, or we struggle with stilted language, that we “don’t belong” in the Classics section, and if we even try to read them everyone will find out we’re a big fat fraud.

So, let’s call bullshit on all of that right now. The classics are for everyone. A classic doesn’t become a classic without a lot of people reading it and loving it for a long time (see above), and statistically at least some of those people must have had the same tastes, education, and interests as you.

Bonus tip: make it easier on yourself. Start small. You wouldn’t start playing a video game on Level 20, would you? If you dive into the deep-end with Shakespeare’s collected works or The Odyssey, you’re setting yourself up to fail. There will be a bunch of unfamiliar references buried in a mountain of obscure language that goes right over your head, and you won’t have a hope of relating or engaging to the text. So, find a novel that will ease you in. Victorian classics are usually good choices, because the language isn’t all that different and you’ll be familiar enough with the cultural references already (and if you’re not, they’re usually easy enough to piece together anyway). Jane Eyre is one that I personally recommend, or David Copperfield – I read them early on in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, and they put me in great stead to build on my relationship with the classics. If I can do it, you can do it. Promise.

Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You

The most fundamental mistake you’ll make in your endeavour to read more classic books is picking one purely because it’s a “classic” that you’ve seen on lots of Buzzfeed lists or Pinterest graphics. There are better ways to go about it!

Take a look at the books you’ve enjoyed in the past, your preferred genres and formats, and try to find classics that are similar to those. Maybe the genres have advanced or changed over time, but you’ll be able to find something that feels a little familiar in terms of themes, characters, settings, and so on.

Here’s the easiest way to do it: chances are, you’ve already read an adaptation or two in your time (in fact, some would argue that all contemporary books owe a debt to the classics in one way or another). Consider going back to the original text, whatever it is. You’ll already have some familiarity with the story, which will make it easier to follow and enjoy. Make a list of all the books you’ve loved that are adapted from or related to classic literature. If you loved The Hours, for instance, go back and read Mrs Dalloway, or try Pride And Prejudice if you loved Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Step Three: Get Some Context For What You’re Reading

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s always a good idea to find an edition with a decent introduction. I know people don’t always read them, but if you’re just beginning your foray into the classics it’s well worth it. The introduction (well, a good one) will give you all the background information you need before reading your classic book: the life and inspiration of the author, the political context of their work, our contemporary understanding of what they were trying to say, the popularity of their work over time, how the work changed between editions, language quirks, and more.

To give you an idea of how important this is, check out my review of Little Women. Without reading the introduction first, I would have read the book completely differently. In fact, I probably would have written it off as sentimental, moralising guff – I would have disregarded it entirely – if I didn’t have that foundation of knowledge about Lousia May Alcott’s politics and motivations.

If an edition with a good introduction isn’t easily accessible (sometimes they’re difficult to find, sometimes they’re super expensive, sometimes the introductions are too academic and stuffy to be of any use), just do some research online. I mean, you have a device in your pocket – you’re probably looking at it right now! – that allows you to access the entire breadth and depth of human knowledge. So, chances are someone somewhere has written down what you need to know about the book you’re about to read. Check out the author’s Wikipedia page to get an idea of when and where they lived, and how their life circumstances influenced their work. Look at recent reviews and book blogger posts about the book, because they’re sure to have some interesting tid-bits about the nature of the work. Sure, you risk encountering some spoilers with this method, but honestly the benefit you’ll get out of a contextual understanding far outweighs the detriment of knowing that the baby-daddy dies in the end of The Scarlet Letter.

Step Four: Start Reading!

It’s as simple as picking up the book and getting down to business. For more suggestions on how to do it, check out the first installment of this series, which was packed with tips on how to carve time out of your day and stay focused on reading.

Bonus tip: take it slow! And don’t be concerned if you’re taking longer than usual to read. You might need extra time to look up antiquated language, or revisit chapter summaries and make sure you’re following everything that’s going on. Even if you’re not taking those additional breaks, your brain might just need a little longer to process what you’re taking in. That’s okay! It takes me a lot longer to read a Victorian or Russian classic than it does to read a dystopian YA best-seller, so you’re definitely not alone.

Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons

OK, once you’ve read a few classics – and enjoyed them! – you’re ready to level up. If you read last week’s post, you already know how important diversity in reading is to me (as it should be to everyone, to be honest). Because of the patriarchy and cultural imperialism and the way the damn world works, in the present and in the past, chances are good that the classic(s) you pick up were written by straight white men (or, in a pinch, straight white women, and even then probably only the wealthy ones). The sad fact is that these are the classics that have received the most attention over literary history… but that’s not to say that classics by people of colour or LGBTIQ+ writers or writers with disabilities don’t exist. They certainly do! Once you’ve started to get comfortable with reading classics, you’re ready to seek them out if you haven’t already, and add an extra dimension to your classics-reading life. Here’s an entree platter to get you started:

Bonus Tips: How To Read (Even More!) Classics

Have a go at re-reading the classics that you didn’t like initially, or gave up on long ago. You know, the ones you were forced to read in high-school, or the ones that you tried and abandoned in your early twenties. You’ll probably be reluctant to revisit them at first, but I’m in it with you: I’m walking the walk, and circling back around to try Pride and Prejudice again for Keeping Up With The Penguins (having started, and abandoned, it no fewer than half-a-dozen times in the past). One of my favourite sayings is “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”, and it holds true with the classics most of all. You change and grow over the years, and you never know: you might just change and grow into a person that loves your currently-most-hated classic book. 😉

Another great piece of advice is the one my husband gave to me when I was tackling Moby Dick: let go of the idea that you’re going to understand every single world, or fully comprehend the author’s meaning. In fact, let go of the idea that you’ll understand even most of it. Focus on getting into the flow of the book, and ride the author’s wave. You’ll get the gist, at least, and that will be enough for now. Save the in-depth understanding for future re-reads, because it takes the pressure off and lets you enjoy the book without tearing your hair out. (Fun fact: the only book for which this strategy hasn’t worked was The Golden Bowl, and that’s a pretty good strike rate given how many classics I’ve tackled for KUWTP!).

And, finally, if you pick up a book and you’re giving it a red-hot go and you’re trying to get into the flow but it’s just not working… give it up! The fact is there are dozens – probably hundreds – of other classic books out there that you will enjoy and relate to. Don’t be afraid to ditch one half-way through, or a quarter of the way through, or even less if it really sucks. Your time is better spent on classic books that enrich your world and bring you joy.


Are you going to commit to reading more classic books this year? Which classics are you looking forward to reading? Which ones are you nervous about? Let me know in the comments (or drop it in the comments over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature more generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He’s weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!


Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the every-man to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies. Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!


It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

This month, we are getting our butts in gear and reading more – actually reading more, not just resolving to do it because it’s a new year. You can check out part one of my How To Read More series here: it has a bunch of excuse-busting advice on everything, from making time to read to making it more affordable. This week, we’ll focus on something we all need from time to time: how to read more outside your comfort zone. More specifically, how to get out of the rut of your favourite genre, or time period, or author, or subject, or format. Given that the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project was created in service of this goal, I think I’m in a pretty good position to give you some hot tips. So, here we go!

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“But why do I have to get out of my reading comfort zone? It’s comfortable!”

There’s nothing wrong with having a favourite or preferred genre. I’m sure you also have a favourite food, and a favourite colour, and a favourite item of clothing. But if you eat nothing but hamburgers and paint your whole house pink and wear that one pair of jeans every single damn day… well, you’re going to end up malnourished and smelly in a house that looks like a unicorn fart. The same goes for reading.

Reading is the easiest (and cheapest) way to expand your world. You can travel to any geography, and any time period, without leaving that comfortable butt-groove on your couch. It forces you to walk in the shoes of people from different religions and cultural backgrounds, people who grew up without your privileges, people facing challenges you can’t even imagine, and people so unfamiliar to you they may as well be from a different planet (indeed, sometimes they are). Think of sampling new genres like you would trying a new cuisine, or painting your house a new colour, or buying a new pair of jeans. Sometimes change feels good, doesn’t it?

“But other genres are for losers!”

Admit it: there’s a tiny part of you that thinks romance novels are for saps, or sci-fi books are for nerds, or fiction books are for hippies. That’s okay! The stink of literary elitism sticks to all of us, even when we try our darnedest to get away from it. Somewhere along the way, some of it inevitably seeps in. The “literary fiction versus commercial fiction” divide is the classic example, and it’s been around since Gutenberg. (And there’s a great discussion of book snobbery from Girl With Her Head in a book here.)

I’ll make a confession here: I’m not perfect (*gasps from crowd*), and I’ve fallen into this trap a time or two myself. Poetry books are for people smarter than me, I thought. Romance books are for old women with no excitement in their lives. Young Adult novels are for people who never grew up. But guess what: the best thing about starting Keeping Up With The Penguins is that it forced me to overcome all of those prejudices and it levelled out my reading-playing field.

It turns out, I am smart enough to read and understand The Divine Comedy. The Dressmaker, which I thought was going to be a light rom-com best suited to ladies who would save their Singer sewing machine in a house fire, actually turned out to be a really gothic Australian story with a really twisted ending. There’s a lot of value to be found in The Book Thief, and The Hunger Games, and We Were Liars, even if you’re a decade older than the target market.

So, get off your high horse, like I had to, and you’ll be surprised what you find.

“But I won’t enjoy reading different genres, I know I won’t!”

You will.

Seriously, stop fighting me on this! Look what happened to me when I read Portnoy’s Complaint: I was very sure that there was no way a self-indulgent monologue from a privileged straight man in 20th century America could tickle my fancy. It was totally outside of my usual tastes, and I just knew I would find it annoying and frustrating and boring… except that I ended up laughing out loud dozens of times, and chewed through the book at the speed of light. It might be “off brand” for me, it might be problematic in a number of ways, but damn it: I had fun.

That’s the thing about having fun while reading: it sneaks up on you when you least expect. And, to be honest, if you’re a voracious enough reader to have a strong feeling about your favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever), you can stomach a book or two that doesn’t have you leaping for joy. It won’t kill you to suffer through a tome that you don’t love now and then. This is advice specifically for people who love to read one particular type of thing: if you’re struggling to read anything at all, by all means stick with your favourites until you’re back in your reading groove. But everyone else: stay with me!

Step One: Read A Book Recommended By A Friend Or Loved One

We’ve all got one: a book that a cousin or co-worker has been bugging us to read. We put them off because it just doesn’t sound like our kind of thing. We try to be polite about it, but we come up with every excuse under the sun: I’m not reading much right now, I’m in the middle of a series, my to-be-read pile is huge…

Well, stop it.

Give it a go! They’ll probably even loan you their copy, if you’re reluctant to shell out on one of you rown. The pressure of someone knowing that you’re reading their special favourite, and the risk of them asking you how its going, will be enough to push you out of your comfort zone and into a brand new book world.

Proof, meet pudding: this is actually how I discovered Harry Potter. A friend of mine from school had read it and loved it, and one night I was sleeping over at her house and she forced it into my hands. The rest is history!

Bonus tip: If you’re competitive (or really desperate), introduce a quid pro quo: tell them you’ll read their special favourite if they’ll read yours.

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

Let’s be real: there aren’t many books published nowadays that fit neatly into one genre or another. In fact, a lot of them end up in the miscellaneous grab-bag of “literary fiction”, which is applied so widely as to be pretty much meaningless. So, make like a mother that blends spinach into a kid’s hamburgers. Find a book that crosses a new genre with something that’s familiar to you.

If you’re normally a romance reader, try reading a sci-fi book with a love story. If you’re a true-crime junkie, look into detective classics like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Think of it as a half-way bet: you don’t need to jump completely in the deep end, but you’re dipping your toe in the shallows outside your comfort zone.

My real-life example: I’m not really a fantasy reader. I usually find it too hard to keep track of eight hundred different characters spread across four different made-up countries, especially because they all usually have practically the same unpronounceable name… but I am a politics junkie. So, A Game of Thrones was perfect for me! It has all of the political intrigue, plus the fantasy elements to keep it fresh.

If nothing else, undertaking this exercise will give you a better understanding of what it is specifically that you enjoy in books, and that will open you up to new and different books that feature those elements.

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

It’s not rocket surgery: for every one of your preferred genre that you read, you have to read something different.

This strategy is super-easy for people who fall firmly into either the Fiction or Non-Fiction camp. If you normally read all fiction, think about the subject of your last fictional read (WWII France, a dystopian future, whatever) and find a non-fiction book on that topic. This works in reverse, too – if you just read Wild, try reading The Call Of The Wild or another adventurous fiction story, for example.

If you need a little more inspiration, you could try joining a Goodreads challenge, or hooking up with a group that are doing some kind of book bingo (I love fellow book blogger Theresa Smith Writes for these!). There are also a bunch of book challenges and book checklists that you can “tick off” (virtually, or literally) over on Pinterest.

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

If you can’t quite bring yourself to peruse the Romance section, or wade through a sea of sci-fi/fantasy novels, you could try finding new authors that interest you instead. Commit to reading their books regardless of the subject or format.

Try searching for popular authors from a country that you’ve never read (bonus points if their books are in translation, like Elena Ferrante), or authors who are experts in a field that interests you (like Lisa Genova, the neuroscientist who wrote the best-seller Still Alice). This trick will work for almost any author that comes from a different walk of life to you, and it has the bonus side-effect of prompting you to read more diversely too!

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

  • If you’re not normally a biography/autobiography reader, try finding one written by or about someone you admire. That way, you get outside your comfort zone without feeling like you are (which is the best way to do it sometimes).
  • Take a look at the New and Noteworthy section of your local library, or independent bookstore – heck, you can even try the Amazon homepage. This is where you’ll often find debut novels from first-time authors, and other books that have a bit of a “buzz” about them.
  • Read a book about a place you’re going, or a place you’ve been. Nothing will get you excited for your upcoming trip to Spain more than a book set there, or nostalgic for your time road-tripping the U.S. than a book about those travels.
  • Find a book set in a time period you’ve never read before. Whether it’s 300 years ago or 300 years into the future, it’ll force you to look beyond your current bookshelf and further afield.
  • Look for a list of authors that inspired your favourites. You’d think this wouldn’t help at all, but you’ll be surprised! J.K. Rowling has said she is inspired by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Louisa May Alcott. Roxane Gay reaches for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when she needs inspiration. Ernest Hemingway loved Emily Brontë (among others). As you can see, this is a deep well!
  • If you really want to shake things up, force yourself to look outside your usual format, too! This move ain’t for beginners, but it’s damn effective. If you normally read novels, try picking up a play or a poetry collection. If you prefer short stories, give a graphic novel a go. This is probably the trickiest way to go about getting out of your reading comfort zone, because it can take you a little while to adjust, but if you stick with it you’ll reap a lot of benefits (and probably discover a few new favourites!).


In the end, there’s nothing wrong with having a favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever). If what you’ve got is working for you, by all means stick to it… but if, for whatever reason, you’re curious about broadening your horizons, give any one of these tips a go and see where it gets you (spoiler alert: it’ll be somewhere good!). Have you tried stepping outside of your reading comfort zone lately? Have any of these tips worked for you in the past? Let me know in the comments (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out the next installment of this series – How To Read More Diversely – here.

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