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The Golden Bowl – Henry James

Here it is, folks: the only time that I will review two books from The List by the same author, back-to-back. I had high hopes for The Golden Bowl, as it came very highly recommended by a friend. These hopes were tempered somewhat by The Turn of The Screw last week, but not completely lost. After all, Graham Greene once said that The Golden Bowl was one of James’s “three poetic masterpieces”, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Well, I only found out later that my friend was a fan of Henry James in general but had never actually read The Golden Bowl in particular, and thus began my nightmare…

This edition of The Golden Bowl came with an author’s preface written by James himself. By the end of the first page, I could tell that James liked to use 20 words (and as many commas) to say something that could be said in five… turns out, it wasn’t just a quirk of his storytelling exclusive to The Turn of the Screw. Red flag number one! Reading the preface was such torture that I ended up skipping half of it altogether, and jumped straight into the story (which I never do!). I’d hoped the story would be an improvement but (spoiler alert) NOPE! I literally came to dread even picking up The Golden Bowl before I’d reached the end of the first chapter.

If I’m being honest, plot-wise, it wasn’t that bad. It kicks off with an impoverished Italian prince (Amerigo) all set to marry Maggie Verver (the daughter of a wealthy American). On the eve of the wedding, his former lover (Charlotte) shows up out of the blue. He never married Charlotte because they were both too poor, but she was in effect “the one who got away”. He goes ahead and marries Maggie, but Charlotte just kind of hangs around.


A couple years later, Maggie becomes increasingly worried about her lonely old dad. She convinces him to marry her friend Charlotte (of all people), figuring it would get them both out of her hair. Papa Verver and Charlotte sure enough it it off and get hitched, but he and Maggie remain very close – often leaving Charlotte and the Prince to their own devices…

… so no prizes for guessing what happens next 😉 While Maggie and Mr Verver are off having special father-daughter time, Charlotte and the Prince start getting it on. Apparently, James was a visionary who recognised the market for stepmother-in-law porn way back in 1904.

Relationships in The Golden Bowl - Henry James - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is where the symbol/plot device of “the golden bowl” comes in. See, the Prince had gone shopping with Charlotte prior to his wedding, looking for a wedding gift for Maggie. They came up with bupkis, but while they were looking they shared A Moment over a golden bowl in a random shop in the city. Years later, Maggie enters that very same shop and buys that very same golden bowl (which doesn’t say much for their stock turnover). The shopkeeper follows her home, claiming that he “accidentally overcharged” her for it and wants to give her the change (this is laughably contrived, but it’s not even the most unbelievable part). While he’s in Maggie’s house, he spots a photo of Charlotte and the Prince. He miraculously remembers that he saw them together in his store years ago, and suggests to Maggie that they’re having an affair, before he disappears into the night. That’s how Maggie twigs what’s going on. Yeah, right!

Anyway, setting that stretch of logic aside, Maggie goes and confronts her husband (and he breaks down, confessing straight away, what a cuck!). She is mortified by the affair, and insists that no one should know that she knows. She deftly arranges a pretense under which her father and Charlotte are to return to America together, leaving Maggie and the Prince to salvage the smouldering remains of their dumpster-fire marriage. Sure enough, as soon as Charlotte is out of sight, the Prince goes back to whispering sweet nothings in Maggie’s ear, and promising her that he only has eyes for her. Pffft!

Just like in The Turn of the Screw (James found a formula that worked and stuck to it!), it seems like a simple enough plot. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the others I’ve encountered in Keeping Up With The Penguins. But, damn! It took me for-fucking-ever to read The Golden Bowl. James seems to be the master of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


I ended up having to look up chapter summaries online, to recap what I had just read and make sure I was following what was happening. In fact, I had to use almost every trick in my how-to-finish-a-book-you-hate arsenal. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the allure of a unique and complex style, but James’s was literally an impediment to my reading. I didn’t think I could possibly find a book more difficult to read than Mrs Dalloway, but here we are.

To say that James’s writing is dense would be the understatement of the century. His supporters argue that the writing is “beautiful”, that James captures the stresses of modern marriage and the “circuitous methods” one employs to overcome them (fancy language for fucking around, it seems)… but it’s all a long-winded way of saying that James wrote a bloated thesis on how to stand by your man. I mean, I get that he was trying to pit the adulterers (the Prince and Charlotte) against the self-involved narcissists (Maggie and Mr Verver), but should it really be that hard to communicate the notion that it takes two to tango?

The Golden Bowl ended up on The List because it was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 100 greatest books written in English. I say: boo to that! It bored and frustrated me in previously unimaginable ways. I think that James and I need to take some time apart… forever sounds good to me. I recommend reading The Golden Bowl if you’re participating in a competition to find the book with the most commas and/or run-on sentences. That’s about all it has to offer, as far as I can see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Golden Bowl:

  • “The worst novel I’ve tried to read is Hideaway, by Dean Koontz. The Golden Bowl is the worst novel I ever finished. It seems to take place on another planet, one where there is nothing to do but think about who is doing what to whom. The writing is beyond bad. Spare yourself.” – Larry the Lawyer
  • “…. Henry James is not my cup of tea. Tea being an appropriate metaphor, as Mr James could no doubt write fifty pages about how a woman holds her cup of tea with her pinkie finger extended just so, therefore indicating to the rest of the group her inner turmoils, her family history, and what she fed the dog for dinner….” – Elmore Hammes
  • “The language in this “novel” is so pretentious and convoluted as to be largely unreadable by the average reader. It seems that James has never met a comma he didn’t like, and uses them to imbed all sorts of modifiers and asides. Although the graduate students may attach some deeper meaning to this, I suspect he really didn’t have a clear idea of anything he wanted to say so he simply rambled on. At least with Faulkner there is a payoff….” – Stan Eissinger
  • “I found the lives of people who had nothing better to do but visit each other and gossip, woefully uninteresting.” – Ms Katharine L. Kane

Learn from my mistake: book recommendations from friends aren’t always the gold you’d hope they’d be! Check out the five mistakes you probably make when you’re picking your next read here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.

The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!

It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

Best Of: Keeping Up With The Penguins tl;dr Reviews

If there’s one thing I pride myself on here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, it’s my tl;dr reviews of classic and popular literature. I aim to tell you everything you need to know about a book in a single sentence, summing up the entire plot and my reaction to it. This past year, I’ve reviewed a stack of wonderful books, and I think it’s high time we revisit some of them – the tl;dr version 😉

P.S. If you’re feeling a little out of the loop, “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s frequently used across the internet to indicate a very brief summary of a very long preceding ramble…

tl;dr Reviews of Classic Literature - Text on Blue Background with Images of Book Covers - The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Turn Of The Screw

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. All the characters talk and act like self-indulgent teenagers – it’s basically an old-timey version of The OC.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.

Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommend it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.

Read my full review of Wild here.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

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 personal emotional turmoil going on, go for it.

Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is a good one to talk about at parties, but if it’s tl;dr, just picture an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

My tl;dr review: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family.

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

My tl;dr summary would be this: a barren, drunk, stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).

Read my full review of The Divine Comedy here.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

My tl;dr review of The Sun Also Rises would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging all the while and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

My tl;dr review: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Paper Towns – John Green

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. It’s great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Tl;dr? A governess goes bonkers and starts seeking ghosts (that may or may not be real, no one can figure it out), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense but told in the wordiest possible way.

Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

A tl;dr review of The Picture of Dorian Gray: imagine giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth, and and endless supply of drugs and alcohol.

Read my full review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

Can you give me a tl;dr summary of your favourite read this year? Drop it in the comments below (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a special place in my heart, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. See, I have a talent for stumbling upon amazing secondhand bookstores everywhere I go, and my honeymoon was no exception! While searching for cheap happy hours in Tel Aviv, my new husband and I discovered The Little Prince Bookstore & Cafe, where I picked up The Collins Collected Works of Oscar Wilde for just $20AUD (one of my best book bargains ever!). Every time I look at this book, I think back to that amazing trip. I decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray next because I’d read somewhere that Oscar Wilde was a big fan of Henry James, but I tried not to hold that against him. Plus, my new husband had read the entire collected works upon our return to Australia, and he promised me I’d love it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel, kind of along the same lines as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but cleverer and more subtle. It exists in several versions, and has one hell of a history. Basically, Oscar Wilde submitted the manuscript (his only novel) to Lippincott Monthly Magazine in 1890, and they agreed to publish it… but, unbeknownst to Wilde, the editor cut out about 500 words, worried that all the references to adultery and homosexuality would offend the delicate sensibilities of the British literary critics. They managed to get offended anyway, even with the offending passages removed, and thus began a year of barbs exchanged via the British press. Wilde published pieces defending the nature of his art, while the reviewers trolled him endlessly and basically accused him of trying to turn everybody gay. In 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a stand-alone book for the first time, and Wilde had made significant revisions (he threw in seven additional chapters, and a preface detailing his defence of the rights of the artist). This final version is the one included in the Collins collection.

So, what’s it all about? Well, the protagonist – Dorian Gray – is a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist, Basil Hallward, who falls head over heels in love with him (kinda – in this version, Basil is more into his art and sees Dorian as his “muse”, but in the original uncensored version it was all about the gay lust). Basil convinces Dorian to pose as the subject of a full-length oil portrait. While Dorian is posing, one of Basil’s friends drops by – one mister Lord Henry. Now, this is a deal-with-the-devil kind of story, and in this case Lord Henry = Devil, just so you know…


Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s hedonistic approach to life; he espouses indulging every whim and desire for beauty and sensuality. Basil finishes the portrait, and Dorian laments (out loud!) that he must grow old while the painting will remain young and beautiful forever. The magical wish-granting fairy overhears him (I assume – Wilde never really explains how this happens) and the portrait begins to age, while Dorian remains in his first blush of youth.

Dorian totally ghosts Basil (smh), and he chases after Lord Henry, living a life of immoral pleasures. Dorian has pretty much sold his soul but at least he sold it for a bunch of money and booze and drugs and sex – that’s worth it, surely! There’s no woo-y supernatural bullshit; it’s all presented as a completely normal and realistic turn of events that Dorian would remain young and beautiful while the portrait grows old and haggard, and you get totally lured into the story without needing to check your critical thinking skills at the door.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is packed with historical and literary references. I confess, I let them fly over my head for the most part – I didn’t even bother to check the footnotes most of the time (what a philistine!). You’ll probably get more out of the story if you look them up, but even if you don’t it’s abundantly clear that Mr Wilde was a very smart chap. This whole story is about aestheticism and the double-lives we all lead, and he picks it apart beautifully without once sounding like a snob. I bet he would have had some real shit to say about Instagram if he were alive today.




Wilde wasn’t just a clever cookie, he was also endlessly quotable! I felt like every page had some kind of zinger that I wanted to jot down. On page one(!), he says “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, which is just a damn good point. On page three, he points out that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. On and on it goes…

Wilde also had a deep emotional investment in his only novel. He once said:

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”

To his credit, this was a fun read! It probably doesn’t quite rise to the level of Recommended for Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I’m still in awe of it. My tl;dr summary would be this: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth and an endless supply of drugs and liquor. Imagine how that works out…


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • “Early it was moving ver slow. After Dorian killed the painter, it moved and finished. Finally it came to an end. End was good.” – Musari Sub
  • “It is a book. What is not to like” – JAC
  • “This book is creepy. I had to sleep with the lights on. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.” – Lavender Murray
  • “Just read the book I hate being alive it’s a good book everyone knows it just read it amazon sucks” – Alex
  • “I ordered this for my daughter. It was as described in the description.” – Dale LePrad
  • “The entire book can be paraphrased in two sentences and you will wish it had been.” – Nickalaus Luger

 

Got Beef? Five Famous Literary Feuds

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call authors of literary fiction “gangster” or “bad-ass”. Sure, some of them like a drink, and some of them have dabbled with hard drugs and guns, but for the most part they’re a retiring lot, content to sit at home alone with a cup of tea and a typewriter (and maybe a cat, for company). They wouldn’t dream of entering into public feuds, exchanging barbs in the media and in their work, calling out their contemporaries for getting back on their bullshit. Right? Wrong! If you look closely, you’ll find a long literary history of roasts, sassy comebacks, and petty revenge! Here’s a list of five famous literary feuds…

Five Famous Literary Feuds - text on a grey square overlaid on a black and white image of an arm-wrestle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell

On the face of it, you’d think that Huxley and Orwell should have been the best of friends. Each penned a novel that has forever changed the way we think about dystopian literature, not to mention the way we think about our own dumpster-fire world. Huxley was even one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton! Comparisons of their work by critics is to be expected, of course, but it turns out that Huxley and Orwell had a sparring match of their own going on…

It all started in 1946. Orwell hadn’t yet written 1984, but he had published a review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In his review, he claimed that:

“Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partially derived from [We]. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.”

George Orwell (1946)

OK, fine, by today’s standards it’s hardly a mic-drop, but this is basically the old-timey equivalent of calling out a rapper for using a ghost writer. Huxley, of course, emphatically denied the accusation of plagiarism, claiming not to have even heard of We until after he had completed Brave New World. Everyone let it go for a few years, until…

… in 1949, after the publication of 1984, Orwell received a letter from one Mr Aldous Huxley. Orwell was expecting yet another glowing review (after all, up until that point, he’d been receiving them from all over the world), and Huxley did begin the letter by praising the book as being “profoundly important”. Things then took a turn, though. Huxley’s position can be best summed up as: “Nice try, buddy, but my dystopian future is way more likely to actually happen than yours. Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer?”

“… whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”

Aldous Huxley (1949)

As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.

Who won? Well, I think we’ve got to call this one a draw. Orwell gets a point for finding (potential) evidence of shady behaviour, but Huxley at least had the balls to tell him off directly. (And by the way, you can read my review of Brave New World here, if you want to see what all the fuss was about…)

Henry James vs H.G. Wells

This is the first of many tales of great literary friendships gone awry. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a once-amiable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. That all fell to shit when they disagreed on the primary purpose of literature. Wells accused James of treating “like painting [as] an end”, while to him “literature like architecture is a means”. Oooh, snap!

In 1915, Wells published the satirical novel Boon, lambasting James’ writing style. Not many friendships can survive a parody of the other’s work. James accused Wells of producing “affluents turbid and unrestrained” (a stream of wordy shit, basically), and in response Wells called him a “painful hippopotamus” (which is a lot more pithy). The two traded nasty, wounded letters for a while, then their correspondence stopped altogether.

Who won? I’m calling this one for Wells: firstly, because “painful hippopotamus” is a fantastic roast, and secondly, because he kind of had a point. Wells also gets a bonus point for once referring to George Bernard Shaw (in a separate feud) as “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”.

Mark Twain vs Jane Austen

This wasn’t exactly a fair fight, because Jane Austen died several years before Mark Twain was born. However, he dissed her so brutally and so often that it’s surely one of the greatest literary feuds of our time. For instance, Twain once expressed wonder at the fact that Austen had died of natural causes, when – according to him – she should have faced execution for her “literary crimes”. And he didn’t stop there!

“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain

As if that wasn’t enough, he also said (a few times):

“Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

Mark Twain

And also possibly his most pithy insult about one of her novels:

“Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”

Mark Twain

Who won? Given Austen’s reputation for biting social satire, I’m sure she could have come up with a few retaliatory zingers of her own, had she lived to see what Twain thought of her. As it stands, though, I’ve got to give this one to him. He was brutal!

Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen

In the 1850s, Andersen was what we might now call a Dickens fan-boy (and it’s not hard to see why). Andersen wrote: “Dickens is one of the most amiable men that I know, and possesses as much heart as intellect”. Big talk, given that (at the time) he’d never actually met the man.

The love was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but before the poor guy even arrived, Dickens was slagging him off to all his mates: “He speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

Andersen’s stay at Casa de Dickens did not improve their relationship. He committed the cardinal sin of overstaying his welcome; Dickens had offered him the use of the guest room for a week, but he ultimately stayed for five. Upon his departure, Dickens was so pissed off that he taped up a note in the room that read:

“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”

Charles Dickens

Andersen was never invited back, and eventually Dickens just ghosted him altogether.

Who won? This wasn’t even a contest: Dickens won by KO.

Salman Rushdie vs The World

Salman Rushdie is basically the Kanye West of literature. He never forgets his enemies’ faces, and he has a never-ending supply of sass. He counts among his foes Cat Stevens (whom he called “stupid”), Kalam Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute (a “garden gnome”), broadcaster Mark Lawson (from whom he once stole a cab, the ultimate insult), and literary journalist James Wood (whom he once accused of having altered a review of his novel to appease his U.S. “paymasters”). He’s had so many feuds, I couldn’t possibly pick just one to cover here.

Salman Rushdie vs John Updike

In 2006, Updike reviewed Rushdie’s book Shalimar The Clown and asked the question: “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie… call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?”

In response, Rushdie is quoted as saying: “A name is just a name. ‘Why oh why?’ Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’.”

He piled on when talking about Updike’s own upcoming novel (Terrorist), calling it “beyond awful”, and suggesting that Updike “should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do”. He also referred to the majority of Updike’s work as “garbage”.

When Rushdie was asked to defend his pettiness, he answered the way we all wish we could sometimes: “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”

Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré

This fourteen-year feud began in 1997, with John le Carré having a big old whinge in the letters section of The Guardian. He complained that he had been unfairly attacked for alleged anti-Semitism.

Rushdie did not take kindly to this, and called him out on it:

“It would be easier to sympathise with [le Carré] if he had not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer. In 1989… le Carré wrote an article… in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.”

Salman Rushdie

But Johnny did not back down without a fight!

“Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

John le Carré

Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:

“I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”

Salman Rushdie

And he added, later:

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read… It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them… John le Carré appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”

Salman Rushdie

Thank God we got receipts for all of this!

The two publicly made-up in 2011, with Rushdie calling le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, and le Carré conceding that he, too, regretted the dispute. Something tells me that Rushdie may bury hatchets but he keeps maps of where he put them…

Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey

In Rushdie’s eyes, Peter Carey made a grave mistake when he pulled out of attending a gala hosted by the Pen American Centre in 2015. Carey stated publicly that he objected to Pen awarding a freedom of expression and courage award to the editor-in-chief and essayist of Charlie Hebdo (the satirical French magazine attacked by extremists after that year publishing cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed).

Rushdie saw the award as part of the “battle against fanatical Islam”, and said that Carey – along with the five other writers who withdrew their acceptances and refused to attend the event – had “made themselves fellow travellers of that project [fanatical Islam]”, a “very, very bad move”.

He also called them “pussies”.

Carey maintains to this day that Pen has a “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.

Chances are it’ll be another fourteen years before they make nice…

Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl

How anyone could feud with the author of The BFG is beyond me, but Kanye Rushdie managed it. In fairness, Roald Dahl was kind of a prick about the whole thing…

It all started when Dahl publicly denounced Rushdie in 1989, arguing that he basically deserved the fatwa that was placed upon him after publication of The Satanic Verses. Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”, and said that his “sensationalism” was a “cheap” way of making it to the top of a bestseller list.

“[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.”

Roald Dahl (1989)

It was big talk from Dahl, who was – incidentally – also once placed under police protection after death threats were made against him.

And yet, it would seem that the feud was (unusually, for Rushdie!) a bit one sided. Rushdie never responded publicly, and popular opinion seems to be that Dahl was simply jealous of Rushdie’s success, trying to bring him down a peg or two. This is somewhat substantiated by an (admittedly completely unverified) account I once heard of a journalist telling Dahl that he was off to interview Salman Rushdie for a column, and Dahl (allegedly) responded: “Oh, yes? Well, tell him he’s a shit!”

I don’t know if Rushdie ever got that message – he was probably too busy feuding with everybody else.

Bonus Literary Feuds!

I must also give an honourable mention to William Faulkner, who is quoted as saying that Ernest Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway responded by saying: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”. Hemingway might have won that round, but Vladimir Nabokov got the last word on Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

Vladimir Nabakov

And there concludes my argument that authors are the pettiest, sassiest people on the planet. Are you convinced? Have you heard of any other great literary feuds? Tell me all about them in the comments (or share the gossip over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was no slouch when it came to writing, as we’ve established, but perhaps his true talent actually lay in reading. He would read anywhere up to ten books at a time, plus squeezing in at least a few newspapers and journals every single day. He would travel with a huge bag full of books for reading on the journey. The dude was voracious, in more ways than one.

In 1934, aspiring writer Arnold Samuelson knocked on Hemingway’s door, and asked to pick his brain. It was a ballsy move, given that Hemingway had a reputation for (a) being grumpy, and (b) liking guns. And yet, Samuelson wound up becoming Hemingway’s only true protégé, working in his employ and following him around the world for nearly a year. During that time, Hemingway was kind enough to jot down a list of books that (according to him) all writers must read. Samuelson kept the list, and published it in his book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway told Samuelson not to bother with writers of the day, and focus on becoming better than his favourite dead white guys: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert.

Then, the following year (1935), Hemingway wrote a piece for Esquire magazine (Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter). Perhaps inspired by his list for Samuelson, he digressed from his point briefly to give us another list – the books he desperately wished he could read again for the first time. In fact, he put his money where his mouth is, and said that he would rather have another chance to read any one of them for the first time than have an income of a million per year. Big talk, eh? He lamented that there were “very few good new ones”, and that perhaps his days of enjoying previously-undiscovered literature were behind him (so dramatic).

Anyway, given that the guy clearly knew his shit, it might be high time we review a list of books recommended by Ernest Hemingway. (Pay extra-close attention if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s bound to be something in here for you…)

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway - Green and White Text overlaid on Greyscale Image of Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

I’ve mentioned before that I think Emma Bovary is one of the best “bad women” in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary follows the story of her attempts to escape the intolerable boredom of her provincial married life. She descends into a spiral of alcoholism, adultery, and debt, unraveling and undone by her unwieldy desires. It is a story exquisitely told, and the woman isn’t exactly painted in the best light – so it’s no surprise that it was right up Hemingway’s alley.

Dubliners – James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen stories, all centered around Joyce’s distaste for his ‘dear dirty Dublin’, exposing the corruption, vulgarity, and heartlessness of his city of birth. The collection was the first notable publication of 20th century realist literature coming from Ireland, and to this day it is celebrated for its artful depiction of the infamous Dublin accent. Dubliners doesn’t appear on The List (I’m tackling Ulysses instead), but Hemingway’s recommendation of this gritty, brutal read still counts for something.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Another one of my favourite bad women – are you sensing a theme in Hemingway’s favourites? Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the best love stories (indeed, one of the best novels) ever written, so hats off to Tolstoy. Anna, a beautiful but self-indulgent woman, seeks the love of Count Vronsky (who is definitely not her husband), and basically sets fire to her 19th century Russian life. Tolstoy’s writing is beautiful, passionate, and intense – not for the faint of heart, though undoubtedly easier to tackle than the doorstop-worthy War & Peace (which also featured on Hemingway’s lists).

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hemingway didn’t want to make it easy for us! Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment isn’t that tough to get through, but Papa recommended The Brothers Karamazov, a more complicated and controversial novel. The story kicks off with the murder of cruel and corrupt landowner Fyodor Karamazov, and follows the fallout in the lives of his three sons (well, four, if you count the illegitimate son posing as a manservant). It’s a detective story, in a way, but it’s no Sherlock Holmes – you’ll need your thinking cap on for this early post-modernist tome.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights definitely one of Hemingway’s more readable suggestions, so it might be best to start here if you’re new to the game. I once described Emily Brontë’s only novel in a single sentence thus: A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages. Yes, it’s a long sentence, but I still think it’s a fairly accurate summary. You can check out my full review here.

The American – Henry James

Hemingway was the archetypal American “ex-pat” (because we only call brown people “immigrants”). He spent a decent chunk of his life in France and Spain, shooting and fishing and running with bulls. So it’s no surprise that he was really into The American, a story of a wealthy American man trying to marry into the French aristocracy. James dissects the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans in a melodramatic, but ultimately kind of comedic, way. James is one of the only authors to appear twice on The List – check out my reviews of The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Hemingway is quoted as saying he considered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “the best book an American ever wrote”, and that it “marks the beginning of American literature” (kind of like Lennon saying that, before Elvis, there was nothing). It’s a big call, but I think we can all agree that Huck Finn is one of Twain’s most enduring and celebrated works, at least. It is the sequel to his previous (also renowned) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it explores the conflict between civilisation and nature – a lofty topic if there ever was one. My review of this one is also coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the end, you can be pretty confident that any book recommended by Ernest Hemingway is going to be a heavy read. Everything he loved explored the underbelly of humanity in some way, and it seems like they got bonus points if they did it in Europe, or featured bad women front and center. What do you think of Hemingway’s recommended reads? How many have you read? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Do You Read The Introduction First?

Pick up any classic book from a reputable publishing house, and you’re (almost) guaranteed to find in the front some combination of a foreword, preface, introduction, note on the text, chronological note, a further reading list… hell, Wuthering Heights even had a genealogical table, to help you keep track of all the characters who married their cousins. Ultimately, it’s all just commentary – sometimes written by the author themselves, sometimes written by editors or academics or experts – included to enhance your understanding of the book. (You’ll notice that usually these sections are numbered with numerals; page “1” of the book is the first page of the story itself. For simplicity, we’re going to call all of the Roman numerals stuff the “introduction” here.)

So, this leads me to the $64,000 question: do you read the introduction before you read the book?

Do You Read The Introduction FIrst - Black Text in White Box Overlaid on Image of Corner of an Open Book's Pages - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Case For Reading The Introduction

The main purpose of an introduction is to provide context for the story, but it can achieve that in a bunch of different ways. For instance, the introduction to my edition of The Scarlet Letter provides some background information about Hawthorne’s inspiration for the story, drawn from his very own family (check out my full review for the deets). Other introductions might provide context by giving you an idea of the time period in which the author lived, the education he or she received, the political situation where he or she lived, and so on. It might sound boring as all hell, but don’t underestimate how much better the story can be when you understand where it’s coming from.

An introduction can also point out aspects of the story that you might not otherwise notice. It might be the writer’s style, the way they use language, the unique ways they tweak grammar, what they do with their characters, how the setting they chose relates to the story… Sure, sometimes it can sound like a bunch of pretentious guff, but it can bring to light things you wouldn’t know to look for.

The people who write introductions are experts. They’ve probably studied the author – or sometimes even just that book in particular – for years. This can be both a pro and a con, I suppose. Sometimes it means that they talk a lot of smack that goes right over your head, and you end up either Googling or ignoring half of what they say. Still, even if that is the case, you can bet that they’ll provide some interesting tidbits that will come in handy later on. Some introductions (or parts of them) are written by the author themselves (as was the case with my edition of Brave New World, for instance); it can be really interesting to know how they feel about the work in retrospect, and what they want you to think about it. You don’t get that kind of insight anywhere else.

Ultimately, being handed a guide about what to expect makes me feel smarter as I’m reading, and who doesn’t want to feel smart? I know what to look out for, and which parts have special significance. Plus, if I reach a section that’s really confusing or seems out of place, coming armed with some context clues (courtesy of the introduction) helps me navigate my way out of it.

The Case Against Reading The Introduction

I always thought it was pretty self-explanatory that you should read the introduction first. I mean, it introduces the test, right? If you weren’t supposed to read it first, why would they put it there? It’s only recently I’ve learned that there are stacks of people who ignore this basic logic and just skip right ahead to the story. Why?

The most common reason against reading the introduction first is spoilers. If you’re the kind of person that likes being surprised by the twists and turns in a story, or figuring out for yourself how the story is going to end, the introduction is likely going to ruin all of that for you. Most of the introductions assume that the reader is already familiar with the book, or at the very least doesn’t mind knowing what is going to happen before they read it. Comments sections on bookseller websites are filled with complaints about spoiler-ridden introductions. Some publishing houses are nice enough to include a note before the introduction that says “this introduction discusses plot elements in detail”, or something like that – it’s essentially a fancy spoiler warning.

Even when the introduction falls short of outright spoiling the story, it can definitely colour your impressions as you read it. If, for instance, you learn in the introduction that the author has a reputation for being super wordy and long-winded (*cough*Henry James*cough*), you brain is going to be primed to look out for that as you read the book. If you hadn’t read the introduction, you might not have noticed at all, and maybe you would have enjoyed the book more.

Despite my brilliant logical deduction about the introduction coming first, it is really written as an afterthought, so I suppose that should be taken into account. Introductions are penned by people who have already read the book (many, many times over), and they’re well-familiar with the characters and the plot. If it’s the first (or even the second, or the third) time you’re reading it, you’re not on that level yet and the writer didn’t introduce the text with you in mind. In that sense, reading the introduction after you’ve finished the book seems the most logical thing to do.

So, what’s the answer?

Well-written and easy-to-understand introductions can be really valuable, but it’s basically up to you when you read them. Whether it’s before or after the book in question, you’ll hopefully get something out of it and it will help you enjoy the book all the more. Personally, I’m going to continue reading them before, perhaps you might get more value out of reading them after… Maybe you could get the best of both worlds by reading the first few chapters as a “test run” before deciding whether you want to read the introduction before you carry on. You could try skimming the pages of the introduction, just stopping for anything that catches your eye, before you dive in. There isn’t really a “best” way to do it, only what works best for you. Isn’t that nice? 😉

What about you? Do you read the introduction first? Has anything in this article changed your mind or inspired you to try it differently? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The List

By popular demand, here is the complete list of Books I’ve Never Read (But Really Should), all to be reviewed and discussed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Click through the links to check out my reviews as I knock them off, one by one…

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  4. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
  5. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  6. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
  9. A Game Of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  10. Divergent – Veronica Roth
  11. The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
  12. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
  13. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  14. Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  15. The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
  16. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
  17. The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  18. The Lake House – Kate Morton
  19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  20. The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
  21. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  22. The Maze Runner – James Dashner
  23. The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do
  24. Paper Towns – John Green
  25. The Martian – Andy Weir
  26. If I Stay – Gayle Forman
  27. The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
  28. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  29. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
  30. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
  31. A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  32. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  33. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
  34. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  35. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  36. Girl Online – Zoe Sugg
  37. A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
  38. The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
  39. American Sniper – Chris Kyle
  40. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  41. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
  42. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  43. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  44. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
  45. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
  46. Emma – Jane Austen
  47. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  48. Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
  49. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
  50. Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
  51. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  52. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  53. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  54. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  55. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  56. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  57. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  58. The Picture Of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
  59. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  60. Kim – Rudyard Kipling
  61. The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
  62. The Golden Bowl – Henry James
  63. The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  64. The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
  65. The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  66. Ulysses – James Joyce
  67. A Passage To India – EM Forster
  68. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
  69. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  70. Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend
  71. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  72. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
  73. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  74. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  75. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  76. Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos
  77. Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
  78. Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
  79. Murphy – Samuel Beckett
  80. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  81. Party Going – Henry Green
  82. The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  83. All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  84. The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
  85. The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene
  86. The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger
  87. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
  88. Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
  89. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  90. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  91. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
  92. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  93. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
  94. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  95. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  96. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  97. Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis
  98. An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
  99. Amongst Women – John McGahern
  100. True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
  101. She Came To Stay – Simone De Beauvoir
  102. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  103. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  104. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  105. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  106. The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
  107. The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  108. The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
  109. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

I’ll be reviewing these books in the order I read them, which is no particular order at all. If you think I’ve made a glaring omission, suggest a book for The Next List here.

Anything else on your mind? Get in touch and subscribe to my mailing list below to stay up to date!

How To Read More Classic Books

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

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

“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Books and Where to Find Them

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

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


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

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

Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature

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

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

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

Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Four: Start Reading!

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

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

Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons

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

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

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

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

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


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

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read

Picking which book you’re going to read next is a tricky business. I don’t know anyone with a 100% success rate. Even if you know exactly what you like, what you’re in the mood for, what gets your motor running, now and then you’re bound to fall victim to the same pitfalls as the rest of us. Still, forewarned is forearmed, and if you can recognise the mistake you’re about to make, you might just be able to squeeze your way around it. Here are the top five mistakes you make when picking your next read (and how to avoid them!).

5 Mistakes You Make When Picking Your Next Read (and how to avoid them!) - text overlaid on an image of library shelves stacked with books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1) Picking A Best-Seller

It’s human nature to find yourself swayed by the “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLER” text you see emblazoned across a cover in an airport bookstore. It’s the power of social proof: when you know that a whole bunch of other people really loved something, your brain tricks you into thinking that you’ll love it too. That’s why publishers assign so much weight to best-seller rankings, and exactly why you shouldn’t! Just because a book sold a bunch a copies in really short period of time, that doesn’t mean it’s worth your money and attention.

How to avoid this mistake? Well, firstly, you should check out my list of best-sellers to avoid 😉 Secondly, make a rule for yourself that you’ll check out the blurb and look up the author before you think about where it ranked. Hopefully, that should be enough to give your brain a healthy dose of skepticism that will steer you in the right direction.

2) Picking A Book Recommended By A Friend

I fell victim to this mistake myself, just this week! I read and reviewed The Golden Bowl; of course, it was on The List, so I was going to read it regardless, but I’d really hyped it up in my mind because a dear friend highly recommended it. Of course, it turned out to be an absolute stinker (in fact, I’d go as far as to say it was my least favourite of all the books I’ve read so far).

See, friends aren’t always the best gauge of what you’ll love when it comes to books. More often than not, you’ll find that they recommend books that they like, without much consideration as to what you’ll enjoy.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid this one at all. It might be a book that they’ve actually written, or one that’s moved them at a troubled time in their lives, and your obligation as a friend has to override your personal enjoyment of the book – fair enough. But otherwise, thank your friend politely, and tell them you’ll get to it someday; meanwhile, focus on book recommendations from people that you know share your tastes. That’s not always someone you know. It might be a book blogger (ahem!), or someone else that has tastes that align really closely with your own preferences. Either way, it’s a much better litmus test than what your coffee buddy recently read for their book club.

3) Picking Award Winners

Sure, literary awards can tell you a lot about the artistic merit of a book. I mean, a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer has a certain cachet, after all! But I’m going to say the thing that no one’s supposed to say: just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it.

I don’t know why we’re so afraid to admit this! Sometimes, a bunch of really smart people say a book is good, and we just don’t agree with them. Sometimes, an award winner just isn’t worth our time. That’s okay!

To avoid this mistake when picking your next read, try looking instead at books that have won awards for your preferred genre – there are sci-fi awards, and fantasy awards, and romance awards, and awards for just about every other genre you can imagine. That’s a much better indication of whether you’ll enjoy a book than a generic literary prize. Also maybe try looking for awards offered in formats that you know work for you (short stories, experimental fiction, etc.). You could also try looking at authors that have won multiple awards across their body of work. Better yet, you can chuck the nominee lists in the bin altogether, and just go with your instincts!

Picking Classics (Just Because They’re Classics)

I know, it’s kind of ironic that I’m calling this out as a mistake, given that I’ve created a whole blog project around reviewing the classics… however, I would argue that this makes me uniquely qualified to comment on this particular mistake you make when picking your next read. There are plenty of books that I’ve read for Keeping Up With The Penguins purely because I “should”, and I can tell you right now that it is a huge mistake to choose a book on that basis alone.

Much like winning an award, standing the test of time is no guarantee that a book is going to be one that you’ll enjoy, or even one that’s worth your time and money. I think it’s great to read the classics and everyone should give it a go, but try looking for one that will engage you! Look at the blurbs and reviews online, keep an eye out for ones that sound similar to contemporary reads that you’ve enjoyed, and maybe look out for characters, plots and time periods that interest you.

Picking A Book Because You Liked The Movie

At the risk of stating the obvious, I gotta say it: films and books are completely different formats. How you experience a story changes dramatically between the page and the screen, even if the plot and the characters are exactly the same. I know that the generally-accepted wisdom says to read the book before you see the movie, but sometimes it happens the other way around; surely it makes sense to go back and read the book anyway, right? Wrong!

Take, for instance, my own feelings about The Hunger Games. I quite enjoyed the films, but I felt kind of “meh” about the original book. This comes down to the narration, of all things. See, the Hunger Games books were narrated in the first person, with all the “oh, who do I love? woe is me!” internal monologue of the teenage girl protagonist. The movies, however, by their very nature, removed that element from the story, making it much more enjoyable and engaging for me.

The trick here is simply to reject all the pressure to “read the book” – you should free to enjoy the movie or television adaptation for what it is, safe in the knowledge that the book might just fall short of the high standard that’s been set. And I know this isn’t a popular opinion about booklovers, but sometimes the movie adaptations don’t suck!

Have you made any huge mistakes in picking your next read? Did you ever think you’d really like a book for one of these reasons, and end up hating it? Warn me off it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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