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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.

In Search Of Diverse Books: Why We Should All Have A Diverse Reading List

My main motivation for reviewing The Lake House this week was having spent weeks before that reading only books written by straight white men back-to-back. My inner bookworm was protesting, clambering for a book by or about a woman who wasn’t just put there to prop up a male ego. It’s a phenomenon I’ve encountered time and again as I read my way through the Keeping Up With The Penguins list, which is mostly books by and about straight white men (read my explanation of how that happened here). When I find myself feeling this way, it always prompts me to think about the importance of diversity in our reading lists. “Diversity” as an idea is usually associated with books for children or young adults, and books assigned as required reading in schools and universities. Today, I want to take a look at why it’s important for everyone – even adult recreational readers – to seek and find diversity in their reading lives.

In Search Of Diverse Books - Why We Need Diversity In Our Personal Reading Lists - Text Overlaid on Image of Book Stack - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Does It Mean To Read Diversely?

I’ve covered this before on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but here’s a recap: there are a lot of different opinions about what makes a reading list “diverse”, but my preferred definition is the inclusion of books by and about people who look and live differently to you.

For me, that means including books by people of colour, people with disabilities, people with diverse sexualities, and people with different gender identities in my reading life.

When I look back over the books I was assigned to read over the course of my education, I realise they were almost all written by (surprise, surprise) straight white cis-men. And most of those straight white cis-men did not have a disability, they lived comfortable middle-to-upper-class lives, and they held positions of relative privilege in their societies.

All too often, books by people who didn’t match that identity were relegated to “optional” or “background” reading. At best, there would be a token effort to include one woman or person of colour in a reading list. When it came to books I chose for myself, before I started this project, they were mostly books written by and about white women – people who looked like me. I think I did better than most at finding some diversity in books, but there was definitely much room for improvement.

Now and then, when there are calls to feminise or decolonise or queer an “official” reading list, it’s met with a backlash and hyperbolic accusations of “knocking Shakespeare off the syllabus” or “indoctrinating kids in political correctness instead of teaching them the classics”. So, let’s be clear: the focus is always (in my past experience, and here today) on inclusive diversity. No good will come from pushing new groups to the front and others to the back. There’s no need to necessarily exclude anything from your reading life, and reading diversely will in fact expand your options. Think of it like food: trying Thai cuisine or Indian curry doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy steak and chips.

Why Should We Read Diversely? Why Does It Matter?

I know I said I wanted to expand the conversation about diverse reading to include adult recreational readers outside the academic world, but unfortunately there’s not much research available on the effects of diversity in personal reading. Much of what we know comes from looking at children and teenagers and people in the educational system. That said, I think a lot of the research can be extrapolated to apply to everyone, so I’m going to give it a go…

If we don’t support diverse books, publishers won’t publish them

It shouldn’t come as any news to you that there needs to be a viable market for a product in order for it to be produced in the capitalist hellscape, and books are no exception. If more people purchase books written by marginalised authors, publishers will acknowledge that a demand for these books exist. They’ll seek to serve it (read: make money) by publishing more of those books, which, in turn, will offer us more choice and diversity in the books that are available to read. The power of the consumer dollar is one that is, ironically, often forgotten by those who hold it (us!).

Buying diverse books is honestly the easiest way to not only diversify our own reading, but to ensure that they keep getting published. And we desperately need to take action on that front! In 2013, out of 3,200 children’s books published in the U.S., only 93 of them featured African American characters. No, I didn’t miss a digit, that’s not a percentage: literally only 2.9% of them!

And what’s worse is that this rate actually represents a drop from the last study, in 1965, which had 6.7% of books featuring a black character. What this tells us is that, as recently as six years ago, the publishing industry considered diverse children’s books a losing bet.

Luckily, we’re seeing more and more focus on providing children with reading material that reflects the real world (which, despite what some would have us believe, is not straight, white, and male by default). If children grow up with diverse books, they’ll grow up to demand equivalent age-appropriate books as they become teenagers, and then adults. So, as much as we’ve struggled with this in the past, the future looks bright.

Mirror Books and Window Books

The idea of books being “windows” or “mirrors” comes from an amazing article by Dr Rudine Sims Bishop, back in 1990. Window books are those that allow you to see into another world that doesn’t look like your own, while in mirror books you see your own life and experiences reflected back at you. Ideally, a diverse reading list would contain a mix of both. Unfortunately, marginalised readers are usually provided with endless windows, while privileged readers see only mirrors. That ain’t good!

Looking at the world through only windows, or only mirrors, will give you a distorted perspective. If you can’t see the diverse world around you, you’ll struggle to connect with it or empathise with others in any meaningful way. You’ll miss out on opportunities to learn how to develop relationships with people who live differently to you, or how to manage tough topics that don’t affect you personally (such as racially-biased law enforcement). Reading diverse books gives you the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch would say, and discover just how much you actually have in common with “different” people.

Plus, by increasing the number of mirror books for marginalised groups (through the power of the consumer dollar, as I mentioned just before), we’ll actually increase rates of literacy and engagement with books. People are, naturally, more enthusiastic about reading when they see themselves and their lives reflected in at least some of the pages, and that’s a tendency that we see play out in children and adults alike.

Exercise for your thinking muscle

Learning to read, and the act of practicing that skill, literally changes the structure of your brain. Yes, I’m saying that reading is a physical activity, even if it feels like you’re just sitting on your bum staring at words on a page. The act of reading improves just about every measure of brain health we have: the strength of connections between different regions, how quickly parts of the brain communicate with one another, and so on.

Those physical transformations equate, in psychological terms, to improved overall cognitive and emotional health. Voracious readers, especially those who read varied and diverse books, demonstrate much higher levels of emotional health, empathy, and resilience. These are the buzzwords, people, I know you’ve all heard them, and I’m telling you that reading lots of books, particularly diverse books, is how they go from hypothetical nice-to-haves to actual real-world benefits for your career and personal life.

Think about it: wouldn’t you rather work with or live with the emotionally resilient person who shows great empathy (and can give you endless great book recommendations)? Thought so!

Countering Psychological Biases Through Reading

You may not realise it, but what you read affects the way your brain identifies patterns and makes associations in the real world. Even if you’re Woke(TM), changes are your reactions – if tested – would show what’s called “implicit bias”, meaning you’re more likely to behave in a certain way (in line with stereotypes) when confronted with a person or situation. The most common example of this is the shooter bias test, which shows that even people who score low on measures of prejudice are more likely to shoot at black men than white men in a computer game (black male subjects show this bias, too).

Another example is the “stereotype threat”, which you might be more familiar with as the concept of “you’ve got to see it to be it”. If, say, the stereotype of a doctor is a white non-disabled male, people who don’t fit that description are likely to underperform in medical school (because they subconsciously believe that they don’t fit the stereotype of what a doctor “should” be). Plus, their patients are more likely to anticipate under-performance from them. It hardly seems fair, eh?

The good news is that a diverse reading life helps counter both of these psychological biases, and many others. Books written about the experiences of people of colour, people with disabilities, people of diverse sexualities, and so on, all serve to counteract the stereotypes that lead to the development of these biases in the first place. Plus, the presence of diverse books on our shelves and on our reading lists sends a message to young marginalised writers: you belong here, and there’s room in the stereotype of “author” or “artist” for you.

Like it or not, in the 21st century, we are all global citizens and global participants. We should take responsibility for ensuring that we approach each encounter with someone who looks and lives differently to us in a way that is fair, just, and unbiased.

Read More, Read Better

This is one of my favourite ways that reading diversely, and thinking more about diversity in my reading life, has benefited me personally: it’s made me better at reading all those canonical straight-white-male books! Reading more diversely gives me new “lenses” through which I examine those texts, and ways of thinking about them that wouldn’t otherwise have crossed my mind.

Take, for instance, the way I experienced Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. On its face, it’s an early kind of monster/science-fiction story, which is fine… but I enjoyed it so much more when I considered a queer reading, looking at how the story could be a metaphor for life as a gay man in Victorian England. Cool, eh?

Reading diverse books fine-tunes your radar for looking at all books, including the classics. You’ll start to identify the stories that are silenced or misrepresented. You’ll think more critically about, say Mr Rochester’s decision to keep his Creole wife locked in the attic, or Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg and Ahab. Once you start diversifying your reading life, it will pretty much double (even triple) your catalogue of books, because you’ll start seeing all your old favourites in a whole new light.

My Favourite TED Talks on Diverse Reading and Storytelling

Did you just scroll down past that big block of text? I don’t blame you! It’s a lot to take in. Some people learn better by watching and listening, so check out two of my favourite TED talks on diverse reading and representative storytelling:

Ann Morgan: My year reading a book from every country in the world

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

Where To Start: A List of Diverse Books

So, now that (I’m sure) you’re convinced you should diversify your reading list, I’ve put together a few book recommendations to get you started. You’ll notice that there’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, because both of them have value in terms of learning and growing through diversity. That said, it’s important to note that taking a list like this one, and reading everything on it, shouldn’t end with you thinking “Yep, I’m done, I can check ‘reading diversely’ off my to-do list!”. This is just a primer to get you started on intentionally incorporating diversity into your reading life. Just like going to the gym a few times in January won’t turn you into a bodybuilder, reading a couple books by non-white or non-male authors and then scurrying right back to Hemingway won’t make you a diverse reader.

Authors of Colour

An Artist of the Floating World: A novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro, set in post-WWII Japan. An ageing painter, Masuji Ono, must come to terms with his past role in the war effort and the way it affects his family’s position in the world. Read my full review here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: The autobiography of American poet and writer Maya Angelou, who came of age in the U.S. in the ’30s and ’40s. Through this incredible book, she shows us how strength and love can combat racism and trauma.

The Kite Runner: The first novel from Afghan-American author Kahled Hosseini. It’s set in Kabul, and it follows the story of a young boy growing up through the Soviet military intervention and the rise of the Taliban.

Female, Trans, and Non-Binary Authors

The Bell Jar: A haunting (and largely autobiographical) novel, the only one written by Sylvia Plath. It depicts a young woman’s descent into mental illness, and her struggle to regain her health through treatment. Read my full review here.

Chelsea Girls: Eileen Myles‘ best-known work, an inventive and vivid novel about the hard realities of life as a young queer artist in ’70s and ’80s New York City.

The Trauma Cleaner: The compelling and fascinating real-life story of Sandra Pankhurst (written by Australian author Sarah Krasnostein), a trauma cleaner, gender-reassignment surgery recipient, and former sex worker living and working in Melbourne.

Authors With Disabilities

Sick: A Memoir: Porochista Khakpour‘s memoir about her life with chronic illness, and the colossal impact it has had on her body, her relationships, and her experiences.

Say Hello: Australian disability activist Carly Findlay‘s new memoir about life with a facial difference. In it, she challenges the ingrained idea that people who look different are “villains”.

Look Me In The Eye: A moving, dark, and sometimes funny true story of John Elder Robinson‘s life with Asperger’s, highlighting the challenges he faced before and after diagnosis.

Authors of Diverse Sexualities

The Picture Of Dorian Gray: One of the pillars of queer literature, Oscar Wilde‘s short novel tells the story of a young man who doesn’t age, but his portrait in the attic does… with startling new resonance in the age of Instagram narcissism. Read my full review here.

Less: Arthur Sean Greer‘s self-deprecating and hilarious epic, following the adventures of Arthur Less, a hapless author and “the only homosexual to ever grow old”. A Pulitzer Prize winner!

Her Body And Other Parties: An incredible short story collection from Carmen Maria Machado, that straddles the borders between genres. It contains elements of magical realism, science fiction, comedy, horror, and fantasy, with delightful twists on the tropes and stories you already know so well.

Ready For More Diverse Books?

One of the best resources on the internet is We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit grassroots organisation promoting diverse literature that represents all lived experiences. Their focus is primarily on children’s books, but their Where To Find Diverse Books page will also point you towards publishers of works marketed to adults and prizes for diverse literature for all ages.

I also wrote a post at the beginning of 2019 on How To Read More Diversely, as part of my How To Read More series. There’s more recommended reads in there, and if you drop a request in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!) I’ll do my best to find a book that’s right for you.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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

I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.


Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages



The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages



The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages



Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages



The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages



Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)



All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.



So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here we are, Keeper-Upperers: face-to-face with my reading challenge white whale. Anyone who’s been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while knows the story of how I’ve started and abandoned Pride And Prejudice no fewer than six times. Never again! I finally sat down with Austen’s romantic novel, one of the most popular books in English literature, and I’m pleased to say we’ve worked out our issues and reconciled. Woohoo!

Pride And Prejudice (original working title First Impressions) was first published on 28 January 1813. Since then, it’s sold over 20 million copies, and saturated our public consciousness to the point that it’s now considered the origin story for many common archetypes that we still see in fiction today. In 2003, nearly two centuries after its release, the BBC conducted a poll to determine the UK’s “best-loved book”, and Pride And Prejudice came in second (it lost out to Lord Of The Rings). More locally, a poll of over 15,000 Australian readers in 2008 saw them vote it into first place on a list of the 101 best books ever written. So, yeah, it’s still got some currency.

The introduction to this edition is long – over 40 pages! I considered skipping it, but I persevered. Some of it was interesting, some of it wasn’t, so I guess it all comes out in the wash. The highlights for me were learning that Charlotte Brontë wasn’t a fan of Austen’s work (good trivia!), and this little gem of a summary:

“It is indeed possible to call its relevance to the society of the time into question, for during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind.”

Introduction, Pride And Prejudice (page 7)

Also, I might be coming around to the idea of ignoring the footnotes. It pains me to admit it (because my husband is a strong advocate for skipping them, and I hate it when he’s right), but here we are. There are basically none in this edition of Pride And Prejudice, so I tried reading it without them and I felt like I didn’t miss anything I couldn’t pick up from context clues. Plus, the reading is all the more enjoyable for not having to flick back and forth all the time. Gosh, if only I’d come around to this way of thinking before now, maybe one of those earlier attempts might have worked out…



So, Pride And Prejudice begins with fuss-pot matriarch Mrs Bennet trying to persuade her husband to visit Mr Bingley, a rich and eligible bachelor who has just moved in up the road. Thus, the famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. After a bit of to-and-fro, Mr Bennet makes the visit, and it’s followed by an invitation for the family to attend a ball.

This family, one of the most famous in literature, consists of Mr & Mrs Bennet and their five daughters: Jane (the beauty), Lizzie (the smarty-pants), Mary (the plain loner), Kitty (the impressionable one), and Lydia (the… worldly one). They all trot off to this ball, as expected, and Mr Bingley is every bit as wonderful as they’d imagined. He takes a special interest in Jane, which sends everyone aflutter, and they start planning the wedding (that’s not as much of an exaggeration as you might think).

Mr Bingley’s wingman, Mr Darcy, is a whole other story. He’s twice as rich, but not half as nice. He negs Lizzie at this party, and then at another, and then again at another. Pride And Prejudice is basically the story of how a pick-up artist meets a feminist and falls in love. In fact, I think it might be the origin of the reformed-bad-boy trope, and by rights I should be rolling my eyes in disgust… but, like with Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the hidden sappy side of me took over for a minute and I let myself enjoy it.

(Also, spoiler alert: Darcy is the “proud” one, and Lizzie is the “prejudiced” one, but really neither of them are perfect in either regard.)



Anyway, some time later, Jane goes to visit Mr Bingley’s sister, under the guise of making new friends. In reality, she just wants to get a glimpse of her new man, pulling the old “Oh, I didn’t even know you’d be here!” trick. By her mother’s design, she gets caught in the rain and develops a rotten cold (why did all Victorian ladies have such terrible immune systems?), forcing her to stay a few days. At the Bingley’s, a whole lotta drama plays out: Lizzie visits, Darcy gets a boner, Miss Bingley gets jealous, and Jane drags out this convenient cold as long as she can to stay closer to the object of her affections.

Then Mr Collins (heir to the estate on which the Bennets live) pays a visit. The property is “entailed”, which I took to mean none of the Bennet girls could inherit unless one of them married this dude. And he’s well aware of their desperation (gross). He figures he can take his pick of the young ladies, and they won’t have a choice if they want to keep the family home (super-gross). He crosses Jane off the list, even though she’s the hot one, because he doesn’t want to cut Mr Bingley’s grass (yes, a man’s supposed ownership of a woman is to be respected more than her own autonomy, HELLO PATRIARCHY MY OLD FRIEND). Mr Collins sets his sights on Lizzie, and she (quite rightly) tells him to fuck off. He gets super butt-hurt, and runs away to marry someone else, which means as soon as Mr Bennet dies he can dump them all out on the street and take the house for himself. What a guy!

Anyway, while all this is going on, Lizzie makes a new friend in Mr Wickham. He’s dashing, and charming, but kind of a hound dog. He has a big ol’ cry about how Mr Darcy has caused him “hardship”, and Lizzie just falls for it hook, line, and sinker (yes, for the “smart one”, she can be surprisingly dumb). His pick-up-artistry be damned, she decides she doesn’t want a bar of Darcy anymore.



Then, out of the blue, the Bingleys skip town and Jane is devo. She tries following them to London, thinking she could reignite the spark and lure her lover back (bitch-don’t-chase-a-man!) but his sister snubs her and she’s cut off from them entirely. When Lizzie visits Mr Collins and his new wife, they shed some light on the situation: apparently, Mr Darcy convinced Mr Bingley not to marry Jane because her family was poor (and kind of bogan, or whatever the old-timey equivalent of bogan is). And, in another case of terrible timing, Mr Darcy picks this very moment to show up and declare his love for Lizzie. Of course, she tells him to fuck right off.

You’d think that’s a pretty irreparably damaged relationship right there, but Mr Darcy writes a letter with a Very Good Explanation for everything, and Lizzie’s all “Oh, okay then!”. The next time they meet, she’s all set to open her heart to love… but she’s promptly distracted by her younger sister, Lydia, running off with Mr Wickham, that dastardly hound-dog, and (wait for it) they’re not married! Clutch my pearls! There’s a lot of hand-wringing at the prospect of Lydia losing her virginity out of wedlock; Mr Collins literally said she’d be better off dead, which I thought was a bit much. But this piece of “terrible” news actually gave rise to my favourite line in all of Pride And Prejudice:

“On his quitting the room, she sat down, unable to support herself, and looking so miserably ill, that it was impossible for Darcy to leave her, or to refrain from saying, in a tone of gentleness and commiseration, ‘Let me call your maid. Is there nothing you could take, to give you present relief? – A glass of wine; – shall I get you one? – You are very ill!”

Pride And Prejudice (page 294)

I mean, bringing me a glass of wine is definitely the way to win me over, so I can see why Lizzie went for him.

Anyway, Lizzie figures that Lydia’s supposed-disgrace means she’ll never see Mr Darcy again. I mean, if having a poor family was enough to put him off the idea of a marriage, having a harlot for a little sister has got to be some kind of romance death knell. But, to everyone’s surprise, Darcy steps the fuck up! He convinces Wickham to marry Lydia, “saving” her reputation, and pays off all his outstanding debts. Consider the day saved!



Bingley and Darcy come back to the ‘hood. Bingley’s seen the light, he proposes to Jane, and there is much rejoicing. Then, Darcy’s rich aunt starts sticking her nose in, worried that her favourite nephew is going to do something silly like marry a poor girl as well. Lizzie – as is her habit, by now – tells her to fuck off. Darcy proposes, she accepts, and everyone’s married and rich by the end. Happily ever after!

So, what did I think? Well, many things. Based on her reputation, I’d kind of expected Lizzie Bennet to be a bit more like Emma: disinterested in boys and marriage, bookish, strong-willed, self-determining. She is all of those things, I suppose, or almost, but not to the degree that I’d expected. I think my favourite Bennet was actually Lydia: the young, loud-mouthed, boy-crazy one. I feel like she would have been a dynamite sex-positive feminist on Twitter these days.

I’m also coming to think that Austen was the master of hiding really heavy themes in plain sight, cloaking them in the social mores of her time. For instance, she presented all the parents as symbolically powerful but ultimately ineffectual (Emma’s Dad was a whiny hypochondriac, and Mr & Mrs Bennet were messy drama queens who played favourites with their offspring). She also poked holes in the idea that wealth and social standing were desirable qualities (Emma’s kindest and most wonderful friends were the poorest social outcasts; Collins and Wickham, despite their good reputations and prospects, were both revealed to be pretty rotten in the end). Plus, she carefully breaks down the social/economic complexities of courtship and marriage in a way that really impresses me. There’s very little in her books about romantic love, really, but a lot about politics, power, class, and community.



Her treatment of marriage is actually less gendered than I’d initially assumed it would be, too. Many of her men do, in fact, find themselves in want of a wife, and for the same reasons of poverty and disadvantage that led women to seek husbands. Look at how, say, Wickham needs to marry a woman of means and respectability to cover his own debts and excuse his past misdeeds. I mean, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that women’s financial security was wholly dependent on men at that time (most women didn’t have independent legal rights or access to the inheritance laws that had benefited only men until the end of the 19th century), but Austen found other ways to give women agency and power in her stories.

So, having written this intricate and complex novel, what did Austen do next? Well, she made some dumb decisions (not to be mean, but seriously). She sold the copyright to Thomas Egerton for £110. She wanted £150, but he bargained her down. This, as I said, was a dumb decision. In owning the copyright, Egerton owned all of the risk of publication (a notoriously money-losing venture) but he also owned all of the profit when Pride And Prejudice went gangbusters. Jan Fergus did some clever maths a few years back, and she worked out that Egerton raked in £450 from the first two editions alone, while Austen got not a penny. It seems incredible that one of the most recognisable authors in the English language earned so little from her most popular work, and I think it’s an important cautionary tale for all the incredible women writers out there – own your shit, ladies!



In my reviews, this is where I’d typically list any adaptations of note, but for Pride And Prejudice there are just too damn many! And there are more released every single year. The enduring popularity of this story knows no bounds. A couple of my favourites include Bridget Jones’s Diary, which places the story in contemporary London, and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which is an unbelievably popular Austen-zombie-cannibal-ninja-ultraviolence mash-up. And, not satisfied to let the creatives have all the fun, scientists have got in on some Pride And Prejudice homages too. In 2010, a pheromone found in mouse urine was named “darcin”, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females (what an honour… kind of). And in 2016, a whole article in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases was dedicated to speculating as to the possible medical reasons the Bennets didn’t have any male children.

On the whole, I’m extremely glad I persisted with this classic. I think it’s another fine example of needing a book to come to you at the right time. I ended up enjoying Pride And Prejudice far more than I thought I would, and it’s one I’ll definitely re-read and re-visit in the future. I never thought I’d see myself say that out loud, let alone in print, but there you have it: life isn’t always what you’d expect, and neither are books.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pride And Prejudice:

  • “Elizabeth Bennet is my spirit animal.” – Mary Hammond
  • “No thanks no review, this is stupid I don’t need to review a classic and I resent being held hostage to a review” – Jennifer Jones
  • “Y’all, errybody need to check out Lydia’s FINSTA. NSFW.” – Rebeca Reynolds
  • “Old nd good” – scott patterson
  • “Perfect gift for married co-worker” – KG
  • “Haven’t read it for 40 years, thought I’d try again. Still pretty good.” – Kindle Customer
  • “If you want to read a classic then this is for you but I wasn’t a fan. I’m not really big on romance and this seems heavy on romance a nd girl hates boy but then likes boy relationship centered.” – Mirashan Gregory
  • “This is the quintessential Day Time Soap Opera. 2 seasons or more neatly placed between the cover of a classic novel.” – Karen Marie review
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen rocks.” – Erin S.
  • “Pride and Prejudice is a very tiresome book. Much dialogue and very little action. Too much love and not enough Jesus.” – D
  • “Almost 400 pages of girls talking about which guy has more money and who they danced with. Not worth the paper it is written on.” – Amazon Customer
  • “A story of spoiled sisters and their attempts to be the bestest of the best in a time when how much money you had
matters more than love or morality.
 Seriously, the moral of the story seems to be, if a rich uncle comes calling, you best throw your daughters
at him until one sticks. Just a miserable, long story of some young women trying to find the right man to take care of them.” – JD Wohlever
  • “oh, this book is just awful. The author even insults her own people inside of this. There were several references to the British military that were insults back then; I forget what the are exactly. The characters themselves are never really developed in my opinion. The whole plot is this: girl sees rich guy and hates him because he is socially awKward. Rich guy actually loves girl and tries to tell her that. Girl mistreats the man because she’s blind to everything. Guy eventually has to spend money to get her to like him. They get married. End of story. This book is about a gold digger in all reality. It lacks anything that would make a book a classic. If you want to be driven insane, read this book.” – Not Trans Kieran

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life

Self-help books are a $10 billion industry. Yep, you read that right: $10 billion. Personally, I don’t read a lot of them (I’m just too cynical, and that much eye-rolling makes me tired), but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else a little comfort, or motivation, or whatever else they get out of them. Obviously, I’m in the minority, because that $10 billion doesn’t come from nowhere! I have occasion to wonder, though, whether some of these personal improvers have ever tried turning to other types of books for help.  There are very important lessons buried in the pages of the classics, best-sellers, even pop-science books – after all, storytelling traditions (which began with fiction) have given us the entire accumulation of human wisdom. So, before you pick up the latest manual from a self-help guru, maybe try checking out one of these ten books to help you sort out your mess of a life. (I’ve even highlighted what I consider to be the key lesson from each one, to make the selection process as easy as possible…)

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Reaching Out of Dark Water - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paulo Coelho’s famous allegorical tale is as close to a self-help/fiction hybrid as you can get. The Alchemist follows the story of an Andalusian shepherd as he pursues his dreams of finding buried treasure beneath the Egyptian pyramids. It’s a quick read, almost like a fairytale, and hippies the world over swear by it for teaching the power of manifestation and the path to true happiness. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Sometimes the universe conspires to give you exactly what you need, as our Andalusian shepherd finds time and time again. But you should also learn from his mistakes: sometimes you search the world over to find what’s waiting for you at home.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might not think it, but you can learn a lot from the self-involved social climbers of late 19th century New York. If you look closely, you’ll find Edith Wharton’s beautifully intricate book The Age Of Innocence is all about conformity, lost opportunity, and self-determination. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is so caught up in doing what is expected of him and saving face that he misses his chance to be truly happy. Even worse, when he gets a second chance later in life, he misses it, because he’s a big ol’ chicken. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Martyrdom gets you nowhere. You might think you’re winning the war by keeping everybody else happy, but you’re kidding yourself. Don’t be such a fraidy-cat!

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not sure that the key lessons of The Rosie Project come so much from its story as it does the way that Graeme Simsion tells it. He’s able to show very deftly, through characterisation and dialogue, how terrible humans are at correctly attributing the behaviours and decisions of others, and ourselves. Even if you don’t want to look at it that deeply, it’s a fun quirky story about finding love, even where you’re not expecting it. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Try looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective once in a while, and give other people the benefit of the doubt.

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another Australian bestseller, with another important life lesson for you: The Dressmaker is a dark, gothic story of a young woman’s return to the town and the townspeople that have haunted her all her life. Come for the fun fashion tips and the Aussie vernacular, stay for the cautionary tale about dealing with trauma and moving on with your life. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Revenge may taste good, but it’s destructive as hell, and the people who have loved and supported you will get caught in the crossfire. Focus on living well for yourself, and you’ll be surprised what you can move past.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if it turns out that The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared doesn’t help you sort out your mess of a life, I can guarantee it will at least give you a few belly laughs, and that can’t hurt! Allan Karlsson’s century of adventures takes him all over the world, he rubs shoulders with world leaders and household names, and he always manages to squeeze his way out of tight spots with a little help from his friends. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Never burn a bridge – you never know when you might need to cross it again. You’ll be surprised what political differences can be overcome when you share a few laughs and a bottle of vodka.

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Brain That Changes Itself is actually laid out quite similarly to a self-help book, and reads a lot like one, even though it’s focused on the science underpinning neuroplasticity. It’s not perfect – Doidge has a few puritanical hang-ups, and ignores a number of ethical dilemmas when it comes to animal testing – but he still has plenty to teach you about how your brain works, and how to use its capacity for change to your advantage. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Your brain isn’t set in stone. There are ways to tweak your wiring, so you can function better and lead a happier life. It’s all within your reach, even without a neurology degree or an endless supply of pharmaceuticals.

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Liane Moriarty is renowned for her ability to write complex, charming stories with seemingly impossible internal struggles, and The Husband’s Secret is no exception. A woman finds a note, written in her husband’s hand, and the envelope says she should only open it in the event of his death. What’s a girl to do? Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Pandora was right to open the damn box. Don’t let your secrets fester; they’ll infect your entire life, and it will all come out in the end, no matter how clever you think you are.

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anh Do is a study in overcoming adversity. His memoir, The Happiest Refugee, tells the story of his family’s harrowing escape from post-war Vietnam, and his life in Australia. He’s a comedian, yes, but the book isn’t all quick quips and punchlines; in parts, he’s heartbreakingly honest about times of anger, resentment, and loss. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Anh lays it out for you, pure and simple – work hard, smile, and show up at the right time.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before I picked up Wild, I’d pictured Cheryl Strayed as a bored mid-30s housewife who packed in her perfect life to “find herself”. And I was very, very wrong. When she undertook her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in her 20s, recovering from heroin addiction, had barely a dollar to her name, and she was still grieving the sudden loss of her young mother. Her memoir has lots of gory details about the trials and tribulations of her time on the trail, and it’ll touch you in ways you don’t expect. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: You can persist through just about anything (seriously, if Cheryl Strayed can hike hundreds of miles while blistering and bleeding in too-small boots, you can sort out your mess of a life). Also, hiking is not the same as walking, don’t kid yourself.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

This suggestion might seem like it’s coming out of left field, but stay with me: Crime And Punishment is more relatable than you’d expect. Raskolnikov makes a whole lotta bad choices, even though he started out with great intentions, and he’s crippled by anxiety and paranoia – who among us can’t relate to that, just a little? Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Chances are, you’re getting in your own way. Focusing on your worries and fears will probably be what makes them a reality. Also, don’t be an axe murderer. Even if you have really good reasons, just… don’t.


Honourable mentions go to Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both of which taught us whatever you hide in the attic will eventually come to bite you in the arse. What important lessons have you learned from classic books and best-sellers? Tell me in the comments (or share with us all over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Literary Heroes Who Are Actually Garbage People

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

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

Toad (The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame)

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë)

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Everyone (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

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

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

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

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

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

Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Smith)

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


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

What Makes A Book A Classic?

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

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

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

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

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

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

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

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





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

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

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

Age

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

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



Literary Merit

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

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

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

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

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



Historical Record and Influence

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

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

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

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





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

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