Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Features & Discussion (page 1 of 7)

8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature

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

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

Harry (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cather “Cath” Avery (Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell)

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

Guy Montag (Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury)

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

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

Pearl (The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne)

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

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

Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway)

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

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

Beatrice (The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri)

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

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


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

The Best Classics For Your Beach Bag

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

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

Like Romance? Try Pride And Prejudice (Jane Austen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Like Comedy? Try Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos)

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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), and include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

How To Read: The Psychology Of Reading

Have you ever really thought about what it takes to read a book? When you sit down and open that cover, you’re recalling millions of bits of information, activating the neural pathways in your brain that control the movements of your eyes, using the learned patterns of language, applying complex concepts of comprehension and assimilation, and that’s just for starters! It’s taken hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to get you right here, to this point, staring at ink printed on paper, a storytelling tradition older than time manifested into a physical form through the miracle of the written word. So, we’d best figure out how to make the most of it? Here’s my best advice on how to read, calling upon the psychology of the very act itself.

How To Read - The Psychology Of Reading - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Reading - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Why think about how to read?

Statistically, reading is a dying art. The Pew Research Centre recently found that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a book – in any format – in the past year. We’re spending less and less on books (just ask any publisher!). And perhaps a big part of the reason for that is that we stop learning how to read, and thinking about how to do it better, at a very young age – most of us before we even reach high school.

Simultaneously – and I’m well aware of the inherent contradiction, but stick with me – we’re reading more than ever before. A 2009 study found that the average adult was exposed to over 100,000 words each day, and that was long before we all carried smart-phones as a matter of course. You’re actually reading more than you think you are; at that rate, you could knock over Crime and Punishment in just two days!

It’s one thing to learn how to recognise and interpret the written word; it’s another thing entirely to learn how to read in a way that engages you and enriches your life. Most people who have standard levels of literacy read passively, focusing only on the words on the page. Passionate readers, life-long bookworms, often find ways to read actively; they invest time and energy in the act of reading, thinking inquisitively about what they’re taking in and engage in a focused practice of applying what they’ve read. People who read in this way generally have thicker cortices, better withstand neurological injuries, score better on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence, and are better protected against degenerative diseases of the brain. Think of active reading as interval training for your thinking muscle.



But, I already know how to read!

Maybe you do, but that’s not to say there’s no room for improvement. Reading requires multiple comprehension strategies to take place simultaneously. You need to monitor your own understanding, use inference to fill in the gaps, visualise the images evoked by the text, adjust your application of skills as required by what you’re reading… are you sure you’re scoring 10/10 on all fronts?

Step One: Read More

I know, I know: it’s hardly a surprise that I’d recommend reading more, is it? But it’s really the best first step. The more you practice reading, the better you’ll get at it, and the most important thing is that you start right now!

The bookworms that everyone picked on in school, the ones who read books even when the teacher didn’t make them? Yeah, they’re running the world now. Children who read independently and for fun are better at it than their less-enthusiastic peers, and they see the most benefit over the course of their lives (across the whole triad, too, of intellectual, emotional, and physical health).

The good news is that the tiniest effort will snowball: the more you read, the better you get at it, and the more benefit you reap. And it’s not all that difficult to make it happen! Whatever your age or inclination, you’re more likely to do something if the tools are readily available – or, put another way, humans are lazy by nature. So, if you surround yourself with books, keep them on your nightstand and in your handbag and in your line of sight, you’re far more likely to reach for them. That one small change adds up to a whole lotta benefit long-term. Heck, you can even go multi-media with it: load your phone up with audiobooks, install the Kindle app on your iPad, and make use of that new-fandangled technology that syncs your progress across all those platforms. If you’re never more than a meter or two away from a book, you’ll inevitably find yourself reading more.



Step Two: Build On Your Knowledge Base

The more you learn about the world through reading, the better you’re able to comprehend other stuff you read. Take, for instance, my experiences learning about the British Raj through A Passage To India; I was much better prepared, and much better able to understand, the subcontinent when it came time to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Your knowledge about the world, in terms of both quantity and variety, is one of the key pillars underpinning how you reap benefit from reading. It’s not all that hard to imagine how your brain finds it easier, and more effective, to build upon existing knowledge than it does to start from scratch.

So, stretch yourself! Find books that link what you already know to what you don’t yet know, and build upon the familiar. It means thinking more strategically about how you pick your next read, which isn’t much fun (I know), but it will make a world of difference in a relatively short period of time. Plus, it’ll help you remember what you read through the power of association!



Step Three: Choose The Right Time To Read

I’m no purist: I say any time spent reading is better than no time at all. That’s why this isn’t my first tip in the list. I hate to think that some time-starved full-time-working single parent beats themselves up for reading at the “wrong” time just because I say it’s not necessarily optimal psychologically. So, fuck that: read whenever you can!

But if you have the luxury of being a bit more flexible with your time, there’s some science behind choosing the optimal time of day to read.

On the one hand, there’s a long tradition of reading before bed at night, and in some ways that can be beneficial. Sleep is like a de-frag for the brain, and it helps you consolidate and retain what you’ve read for future use. Plus, at the end of the day, we’ve (hopefully) crossed all those niggling items off our to-do lists, so our brains are able to properly relax and focus on what’s in front of us (instead of drifting back to those invoices we haven’t paid or those dishes we haven’t done). And reading helps you relax even more, which is just what you need at that time of day. As little as six minutes with a book is enough to reduce the physiological symptoms of stress.

On the other hand, by tucking in at night with a book, you’re conditioning your brain to associate reading with sleep. That’s great news for insomniacs – it’s certainly cheaper than sleeping pills, and there are fewer side effects! – but not so great for everyone else. Plus, the dim light of the evening isn’t the best for your eyes. It makes it more difficult for your eyes to focus, which makes them fatigue more quickly and you’ll feel compelled to rest your eyes by – you guessed it – closing them. The phenomenon is unlikely to cause permanent damage, according to optometrists, but installing a 100-watt lamp – or, better yet, reading in natural daylight – is the best way to avoid short-term problems.

So, how to choose? Well, maybe you don’t have to. There’s a lot of evidence in favour of reading in “sprints”. As alluring as a whole day reading might sound to a bookworm, your brain will actually perform more efficiently if you read in 20-minute bursts (giving you a chance to condense and consolidate in between). Your eyes and your brain both benefit from a break between reading sessions. That’s how to get the best of both worlds: sprints throughout the day, and one before bed, will stop your brain from associating reading only with sleep while still letting you exploit its relaxation qualities and other benefits. Plus, you’ll end up reading more into the bargain (and that was Step One, remember?).



Step Four: Design Your Dream Reading Nook

OK, you don’t have to emulate those fantastic rooms you see on Pinterest, but you can still set yourself up with an optimal distraction-free reading environment to make sure you’re getting the most out of your books. The lowest hanging fruit is to read in a room without a television – and without a computer, if you can manage it! That might mean reading in the bath, or in the back-yard, or something else a little creative, but escaping those distractions-by-design is a big step forward.

If you can, put your phone on silent or aeroplane mode while you’re busy with a book. Better yet, leave it in the living room with the TV while you’re off reading elsewhere. Of course, that’s not realistic or even possible for everyone, but if you can go without your device while you’ve got your nose in a book, you’ll find it surprisingly effective in helping you focus.

Don’t believe the hype: music in the background won’t help you. Even if it’s calming, even if it’s classical, even if it’s soft – it’s still an additional cognitive processing load that will compete for the attention of your brain. Some people swear by background music, and they’re sure it works for them – I’m not here to yuck their yums… but I am saying that the science doesn’t back them up.

You want your reading nook – wherever it is – to have daylight-like conditions, plenty of fresh air, a pleasant cool temperature, and snacks nearby. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs won’t let you focus on what you’re reading if you’re hungry, but you don’t want to be stuffed either! A heavy meal will trigger the production of leptin, the sleepy post-meal hormone that makes you want to nap.



Step Five: Choose And Use Your Reading Materials Wisely

I really hope I don’t trigger the ire of eReader converts, but there’s some evidence to suggest that paper books are best. HOLD THOSE ROTTEN TOMATOES! Like I said earlier, any time spent reading is better than no time spent reading, and if eBooks are the most accessible and affordable option for you, have at ’em! I certainly won’t deny you the pleasure. That said, this post is about finding the optimal way to read books, and I can’t deny that the weight of evidence falls slightly – slightly! – in favour of the old fashioned variety.

As nice as it is to see that percentage bar move along, readers actually feel a better sense of progress when they’re physically flipping pages (and – don’t ask me how exactly, but I promise the science backs this up! – that feeling actually helps with memory retention). Paperback readers better remember what they read, are less likely to be distracted while reading (because their books aren’t connected to WiFi), and generally feel better about what they read than eBook readers.

And even though the technology to mark-up, highlight, and review texts in electronic formats has progressed considerably in recent years, nothing really compares to the good ol’ pen and paper. Most people still find it easier to flick through a paper book for a high-level overview, mark down notes for review, and flag passages for future reference in the traditional format. That said, nothing quite compares to the ability to look up a word in an eBook immediately, with the tap of a finger, without even lifting your eyes from the screen. So, it’s up to you which you find easiest and which benefit is of the most importance to you personally.

If you really want to stay with the times and use your eReader, make sure you get one with proper lighting. Adapted iPads and electronic blue-light “filters” aren’t sufficient to avoid altering your brain’s neurochemical balance in a way that can seriously fuck with your sleep functions. E-ink readers, such as the Kindle, are specifically designed to glow, rather than shine, which your brain interprets as lamp light glowing off a paper page rather than the sun shining into your eyes.



Step Six: Don’t Bother With Speed Reading Programs

I know I’ve been singing from the Read More hymn book, but speed-reading programs that promise to turn you into a 1000-words-per-minute wonder overnight are a waste of your money and time. You might think that these are a recent development, borne of the age of apps and life-hacking, but actually speed reading programs have been around since the 1950s. They promise full comprehension, but – surprise, surprise! – that’s complete baloney.

They often promise to “eliminate bad habits” like subvocalisation and eye movement regressions, but increasingly evidence is showing that those habits are actually crucial to our deriving benefit from reading to begin with. A lot of their claims, about reading entire lines of text with peripheral vision for instance, are biologically impossible and completely bogus. We’re constrained by the capacity of our anatomy and the ways in which our brains process information – no program can change that. At best, these programs teach you to skim more effectively, which is a skill that you can learn by (you guessed it!) simply reading more, at your regular speed, without handing over any of your hard-earned money for a program.

And don’t think you can game the system by simply listening to audiobooks at 2x or 2.5x speed. The science is still emerging on the effectiveness of this strategy, but I think it’s safe to say that chewing through an audiobook at twice the speed of regular speech is going to mean you miss a thing or two along the way. Plus, audiobook readers are prone to multitasking, and – as with listening to music while reading – the additional cognitive load on your brain as you cook dinner while listening, or answer emails, is going to detract from your ability to process what you’re hearing.





If you need a real-life example: I took a reading speed test online as I was preparing this post, and learned that I average about 590 words per minute. That’s on the high side, but it’s not off the charts. It’s a far cry from the 2000+ WPM world records, but I still manage to read more than most people, and my retention rate is streets ahead of those record-holders (who manage only about 30%). We readers are not limited by the speed at which our eyes can detect information, but the speed at which our brains can process its meaning – and the latter is, of course, the most important part of reading to begin with.

In the end, I could go on and on about how to read optimally and how to ensure you derive the maximum benefit… but do we really want to treat reading as just another books to be ticked, alongside eating our greens and doing our laundry? My hope is that, instead of taking from this post a list of “rules” for how to read, you take away a suggestion or two that helps you in the long term. Maybe you put a brighter bulb in your bedside lamp to avoid eye strain, or maybe you stop throwing your money down the drain of a speed reading program subscription – and maybe you do nothing at all. The most important thing is that you read, in a way that feels good and natural to you. What’s your best tip on how to read? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


The Best Mothers In Literature

Last year, I did a post on the best fathers in literature, and I think it’s high time the ladies got a look in. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism! William Ross Wallace, U.S. lawyer and poet, said back in the 19th century that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, and it’s just as true today, but don’t be fooled! The best mothers in literature aren’t all gentle, maternal wallflowers. Here’s a list of my favourites…

The Best Mothers In Literature - Text Overlaid on Image of Mother and Son - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Marmee (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

I figured we’d get the obvious pick out of the way straight up: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of the best mothers in literature that doesn’t feature Marmee, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everyone comes for the all-American-girl archetypes of the March sisters, but Marmee is the real star of the show. She runs a huge household on the smell of an oily rag, with her husband off at war, all the while still prioritising generosity and charity, and yet she doesn’t seem to be a martyr. Marmee has an incredible sense for exactly what each of her daughters need, be it tough love or gentle comfort, and she dishes it out accordingly. Imagine if she and Atticus Finch got together, they’d probably fix the world…

Úrsula Iguarán (One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez)

If life-span were the criterion by which we judged the best mothers in literature, Úrsula from One Hundred Years Of Solitude would surely get the gong. She lives to be over 150 years old, all the while caring for three subsequent generations of her family. And that’s not all! She rolls up her sleeves and renovates her whole house herself (more than once!), runs a business, and keeps all the plates spinning with enviable aplomb. She keeps the whole family in check, and acts as a touchstone for rationality and practicality in Márquez’s whirlwind multi-generational epic.

Catelyn Stark (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

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I know the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but Catelyn Stark, in my mind, is a damn lioness. She’s fiercely protective: just try looking at one of her kids a bit funny, and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of some serious wrath! Catelyn shows us that being a good mother doesn’t always mean being warm and gentle – or even present. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is storm off across the country and raise hell on their behalf. And before you say it, I can forgive her for being a bit rough on Jon Snow; it can’t have been easy raising the kid you believe is the living, breathing evidence of your otherwise-wonderful husband’s infidelity…

Sunyan Woo (The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan)

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The Joy Luck Club‘s founder, Sunyan Woo, isn’t one to wallow. Instead of getting rightfully depressed about her very shitty life circumstances, she cops on with it, basically manifesting the happiness she so desperately wishes for her family. She makes some heartbreaking sacrifices, even knowing all the while that her daughters will never truly understand the choices she makes, but believing firmly in what is best for them. We usually think of “good” mothers as giving their kids everything they want, and the kids smiling and thanking them endlessly, but there’s another side to it in real life. Sunyan Woo is a wonderful example of that type of good motherhood.

Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner)

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OK, I’m well aware that this is a controversial inclusion in a list of the best mothers in literature, but I stand by it. Addie dies pretty early on in As I Lay Dying – hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but heck, the title is a pretty big clue – and there’s really only one chapter written from her perspective. And yet, Faulkner still manages to tell us so much about her! I feel like I know her personally. Through her reflections, and those of her family, we know that Addie did pretty well to plan the hand she was dealt in life… but she reveals to us that she didn’t lose touch with who she truly was, someone who didn’t wish to be a mother, and didn’t relish the job, despite all the social pressure to feel differently. She cared deeply for her family, but she was also movingly honest about not quite fitting the mould her life had cut for her. I found it refreshing and incredibly endearing.

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

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Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is the Marmee for this generation. Sure, everyone goes ga-ga over Lily Potter’s big “sacrifice”, but in our heart of hearts we all know we’d rather be mothered by the hard-arse matriarch of the Weasley family. She cares deeply and tenderly for all of her children, taking in Harry and Hermione as her own as well, but she’s never a soft touch and she doesn’t hesitate to dole out the discipline as required (which, given that she raised two identical-twin pranksters, is pretty often). I challenge you to read her immortal line – “Not my daughter, you bitch!” – and tell me to my face you don’t get chills.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)

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Another American classic, another incredible matriarch – what is it in the water on that side of the world that helps them write the best mothers in literature? Ma Joad is the true hero of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on if you want to argue the point. She whips up meals out of thin air, miraculously keeping starvation at bay for the whole family. She shields the still-warm corpse of her own mother from the rest of them to ensure they reach California safely. She calms the nerves of her pregnant daughter, and delivers the baby herself when the time comes. I could give a hundred other examples, but I’m sure by now you’re as convinced as I am that she is the backbone of the Joad family.

Miss Honey (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

Miss Honey is proof that motherhood is not to be found only in blood or biology. Matilda‘s birth parents are all kinds of awful (Dahl did have a real knack for writing shitty guardians), but in Miss Honey this young girl finds the love and support she needs. Like any other mother, Miss Honey sees Matilda’s special talents and incredible intelligence, and goes above and beyond to protect and nurture her. In each other, Matilda and Miss Honey find their real family, and it’s so touching – far more than you’d expect from a children’s book!

Helen Graham (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë)

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The best mothers in literature haven’t always been recognised as such. In fact, Helen Graham – the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall – was so shocking, so controversial, so blatantly feminist that Charlotte Brontë forbid the book’s republication after Anne’s death. The notion that a woman(!) would think for herself, and escape her philandering drunk of a husband to start a new life with her adored son instead of just, y’know, putting up with it, was not only confronting to rigid Victorian sensibilities – it was literally illegal. Thankfully, we can now recognise Helen Graham as the brave feminist icon she is, and admire her incredible commitment to taking care of her child, flying in the face of all social expectations.

Who do you think are the best mothers in literature? I would love some more examples of wonderful WOC and LGBTIQ+ mothers – they’ve historically been so underrepresented in books, and we need to redress that balance! Drop some suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Quick Reads For Busy People: 11 Books You Can Read Fast

Look, reading Don Quixote is a great feather in your cap and all, but let’s be real: most people are very busy, and not everyone has time for a 1000+ page classic. There’s no shame in that! A quick read is always better than no read at all, and sometimes it’s even better than struggling with a doorstop tome that you come to resent. But where to find these quick reads for busy people? That’s why I’m here! I’ve put together a list of 11 books you can read fast.

Now, please bear in mind that a quick read and a short book are not necessarily the same thing. The Great Gatsby and Mrs Dalloway both have fewer pages than some of the books listed here, but I wouldn’t call either of them a “quick” read. The books listed here might be a little thicker, but they’re far easier to digest, and I promise you’ll power through them in no time at all. I have, of course, included the page counts for your reference, but they’ll differ between editions (especially for translated works), and as I said, they don’t really mean all that much.

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The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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I was amazed at how quickly I burned through this hippie favourite; I was done in literally just an hour or so. The Alchemist reads a lot like a childhood fairytale or a fable, and I think that’s by design. The language is kept very simple to give the allegorical story maximum impact. It’s about a young Andalusian shepherd who follows his dream of finding buried treasure beneath the pyramids of Egypt. It’ll teach you a lot about the universe and faith and manifesting and stuff (as long as you’re not a cynical snot like me). Page Count: 163 pp

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

Short story collections are great when you need something you can dip in and out of, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is one of the classics! It’s twelve fun adventures, but they’re not told chronologically, and the only characters they all have in common are Holmes and Watson, so you don’t need to worry about losing track of character arcs. I don’t think any of the stories are longer than 20 pages or so (from memory), and yet Doyle manages to pack so much into them – his economy of language is masterful! This collection is a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Page Count: 307 pp

Honourable mention: the most popular Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is another good quick read for busy people. Clocking just 128 pages, it follows the story of an attempted murder inspired by the legend of a supernatural doggo.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

It’s lucky that we get to read this one at all, given that it was out of print for nearly 30 years… but Zora Neale Hurston’s story returned to our shelves in 1978, and we should all take the chance to dive in. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a tragic Southern love story, with a lot of wit and a strong female protagonist. It’s also one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the African-American literary canon. Page Count: 264 pp

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

If you’re skipping past this one, rolling your eyes, because you think science-fiction novels are too long and complicated for a busy person like you, STOP RIGHT NOW! The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is more like sci-fi as performed by a British comedy improv troupe, and it’ll take you by surprise. The slim volume is packed with hilarious satire, as it follows the story of Arthur Dent, the only man rescued from Earth’s destruction, and his alien saviour. Plus, there are four sequels in the deliberately-misnamed “trilogy”, so if you find yourself wanting more… Page Count: 180 pp

Animal Farm – George Orwell

All long-time Keeper-Upperers know that I’m a huge fan of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but that’s not a quick read by any stretch. So, here’s the next best thing: Animal Farm, his second best-known novel, which is a little easier on the noggin. You might have heard that it’s an allegory for the Russian Revolution, which is technically true, but makes it sound like a heavier read than it is. In reality, it’s a political satire, a fun one, with farmyard animals and a heaping serve of bitter wisdom. Page Count: 154 pp

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

Well, technically, this one is a single long-short story, and it’s usually found in a larger collection of Kafka’s works, but there are ways to get your hands on it as a stand-alone volume, so I say it counts! The Metamorphosis tells the story of a man who wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant bug; how compelling is that?! Both terrifying and funny, you’ll burn through this quick read in no time at all (maybe even a single commute!). Page Count: 55 pp

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Rumour has it that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while under the influence of a considerable quantity of cocaine, so that should give you a good idea of the pace of this classic novel. It’s basically a fantasy thriller, depicting the struggle of two opposing personalities (one coded as “good”, the other “evil”). There are, of course, a hundred different deeply academic interpretations of this story, but even a quick read of the surface story is great fun! (And you’ll finally know what you mean when you describe someone as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character.) Page Count: 64 pp

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

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I suppose it’s kind of ironic that I’m choosing a play about an interminable wait as one of my quick reads for busy people, but here we are. (It’s the same brand of irony that led me to nominate it as my desert island read.) Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett, is about two mates waiting for the arrival of (you guessed it) Godot, and the conversations they have while they wait. I promise it will move far more quickly for you than it does for them! Page Count: 128 pp

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

OK, I’ll admit, if you’re really under pressure time-wise, this is probably not as quick a read as the others… but it’s so good, I couldn’t help but include it! The Bluest Eye confronts questions of race, class, and gender, through the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who desperately wishes for the blonde hair and blue eyes of her friends. You’ll find it hard to believe that this was Morrison’s debut novel (and her follow-up, Sula, is another one to consider adding to your list, too!). Page Count: 224 pp

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

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If you can follow a James Bond movie while simultaneously scrolling through Instagram, this early 20th century spy novel will be a walk in the park. The Thirty-Nine Steps is told from the perspective of Richard Hannay, an ordinary British bloke who finds himself drawn into a German plot to steal crucial military intelligence. It’s like a much, much shorter Don Quixote for this lifetime, and very episodic in form (so, much like a short story collection, it’s easy to pick up and put down). Page Count: 100 pp

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

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The Guardian called this book “a sublime miracle of wit and brevity”, and a masterclass in “the art of less is more” (i.e., it’s short and it’s fucking good). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie follows the story of a group of young girls taken under the wing of their controversial teacher, the titular Miss Brodie, who remains defiantly in her prime… even as she ages and one of her chosen few betray her. Page Count: 160 pp


As you can see, a quick read doesn’t have to mean a fluffy one, by any means! (Not that I’m opposed to a little fluff now and then…) The few pages you cram in on your commute, or when you’ve got five quiet minutes with a coffee (or a wine!), can still have the literary chops. What’s your favourite quick read to recommend to busy people? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature: Answered!

One of the occupational hazards of being a book reviewer and blogger is that all your friends assume that you are a literary expert, and you’ll be able to handle all the bookish questions at pub trivia. Don’t get me wrong: I normally do pretty well, but I’ll never forget the soul-crushing shame of totally blanking on the question “Who wrote the American classic Gone With The Wind?” (it was Margaret Mitchell, by the way – I’ll never forget again!). To save you all the same embarrassment, I thought I’d put together a list of some common and interesting trivia questions about books and literature, alongside the correct answers (although, as you’ll soon see, “correct” is a relative concept and it almost always depends who you ask…).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature Answered - Text Overlaid on Image of Pub Wall and Booths - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firsts

What was the first novel ever written?

The Tale of Genji is, as far as we know, the world’s first full-length novel. It was written in 1008 by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu.

What was the first book published by movable type?

Johann Gutenberg, who invented movable type in 1440, printed the first book, a Latin Bible (now called the Gutenberg Bible) in 1445.

What was Stephen King’s first published novel?

Carrie. Although it wasn’t technically the first book he wrote, it was the first one picked up and published (by Doubleday, in 1974).

When was the New York Review Of Books first published?

1 February 1963. The Review, which begot the New York Times Best Seller List, sold out of its first print run (100,000 copies), and its editors received over 1,000 letters from readers asking that they continue.

When was the first Harry Potter book published?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. on 26 June 1997.

 Biggests and Bests

What is the most expensive book in the world?

This depends who you ask, what measure you use, and how you define… well, “book”.

Most recently, in 2017, the printer’s manuscript of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon sold for $35 million. That’s a fair chunk of change, but purists will debate whether a printer’s manuscript counts as a “book”.

Likewise, in 1994, Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester, the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (the original, and the only copy) for $30.8 million, which adjusted to today’s money comes to about $50.9 million – an even bigger chunk of change. But, once again, people will argue that a hand-written notebook doesn’t really count as a “book” by today’s standards.

There are a handful of other religious and hand-written texts that are “books” by some measure and have sold for similar amounts. However, the most widely accepted answer to this trivia question is The Birds Of America by John James Audubon. One of only 119 printed and bound copies known to exist sold at auction in 2010 for $11.5 million (which comes to about $12.9 million now).

What is the best-selling book of all time?

Once again, it depends on how you define “book”, how fastidious you are about the accuracy of calculations, and whether you want to take into account the time period over which the total number of books were sold (as most best-seller lists today do).

Typically, the Holy Bible is considered to be the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold since 1815 (and 2,200 language and dialect translations to boot). However, as I’m sure you can imagine, the records of sales over that length of time are patchy at best, many copies of the Bible are distributed for free (as opposed to “sold” in the traditional sense), and as such the estimation of total sales is very rough.

The Lord Of The Rings is the next most common answer, though some people dispute its inclusion for consideration as it is a series (rather than an individual “book”). It’s estimated to have sold approximately 150 million copies since it was first published in 1954, and those figures are comparatively very accurate. The Hobbit, too, has sold some 100 million copies in its own right.

The biggest total sales figure I could find for an individual, stand-alone book (that no one could dispute), with the most accurate numbers possible, is that of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), first published in French in 1943. It has sold 140 million copies since then. However, the most recognisable answer (and the one your quizmaster would likely be looking for at pub trivia) is Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, which has sold 120 million copies since 1997 (meaning it has sold far better over a much shorter period of time, which is usually a factor in the calculation of best-sellers).

Who is the best-selling fiction author of all time?

Are you sick of me saying “it depends” yet? 😉

The most commonly accepted answer is Agatha Christie; she personally authored 85 novels, and has sold well over 2 billion of them (and those figures are relatively reliable). However, William Shakespeare is estimated to have sold approximately the same number of copies across his 42 published plays and poems, though the figures are a little more sketchy and over a much longer time period – it’s up to you whether he “counts”.

J.K. Rowling is the worlds richest author (having claimed the title from James Patterson a few years ago), so she’s considered the “best selling” in terms of profit from her creation.

There are also a number of extremely popular authors (including Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, and Arthur Conan Doyle) for whom no accurate figures on book sales can be found, so theoretically it could also be any of them.

In the end, this question is pretty much unanswerable, so you’ll just have to take a stab as to which answer you think the quizmaster is after, as opposed to which one is technically “correct”.

What is the best-selling children’s book of all time?

Ah, now we’re back on solid ground! Publisher’s Weekly ran a very helpful study of this topic back in 2000, and they determined that the best-selling hard-cover children’s book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy, and the best-selling paperback children’s book of all time is Charlotte’s Web.

Now, we could start to quibble about what counts as a “children’s book” and how PW reached their conclusions, but why make things harder on ourselves?

What is the biggest/longest book of all time?

There are two primary ways to determine the size or length of a book: word count, and page count. The latter is a bit controversial, because it’s so dependent on formatting, but it’s also a lot easier to calculate.

The winner on both fronts, technically, is Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, published in the 17th century. It comes in at a whopping 13,095 pages (published over ten volumes, because obviously), or 1,954,300 words.

However, the “official” Guinness World Record holder (and thus the most commonly accepted answer) is À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. It boasts 3,031 pages over seven volumes, or 1,267,069 words.

Whichever answer you prefer, it’s clear that the French are the wordiest writers!

Literary Awards

What year were the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded?

1917. The awards were established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher, thus their focus on journalism.

Which British prime minister was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Winston Churchill. He got the gong in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Which American science-fiction and fantasy writer has won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel three years running (2016, 2017, 2018)?

N.K. Jemisin. She won for The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, respectively in each year.

When did the Booker Prize change its name to the Man Booker Prize, and why?

This award was called the Booker Prize from 1969 to 2001. In 2002, the Man Group PLC came on board as a sponsor, and that year the name was changed accordingly. But earlier this year, the Man Group announced they would no longer be providing sponsorship; a charitable foundation called Crankstart has taken the reins now, but the name will revert to simply the Booker Prize (which I think is a shame, because the Crankstart-Booker has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?).

Bonus points: Yann Martel was the first winner of the newly re-named Man Booker Prize in 2002, for his book Life Of Pi.

What is the main criterion for the Miles Franklin Award?

The Miles Franklin Award winner each year must be “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

Titles And Text

Opening lines make for really popular trivia questions, because they’re easy to write and score. Check out my list of great opening lines in literature here, and my list of even more great opening lines in literature here.

Where does the book Fahrenheit 451 get its name?

The book’s tagline explains its title: “Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”.

Bonus points: Bradbury chose the title after asking an expert regarding the temperature at which book paper will burn, but he may have been slightly misinformed. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the auto-ignition point of paper, the temperature at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame, and even that number varies depending on the experimental conditions under which it is tested.

Fill in the blanks of this Shakespeare quote: “All the world’s a stage, And all the ___ and _____ merely _______.”

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Bonus points: The line is taken from As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).

True or false: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes never actually used the now-famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

True. Holmes would, now and then, refer to things as being “elementary”, and he did also call his sidekick “my dear Watson”, but he never once used the two together. He did, however, say “Exactly, my dear fellow” relatively often.

What title did Jane Austen originally give to the book that was eventually published as Pride and Prejudice?

First Impressions.

Which American classic was published in Swedish with the translated title “A Man Without Scruples” (“En Man Utan Skrupler”)?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bonus points: Fitzgerald actually considered multiple alternate titles for his most-famous work, his favourite reportedly being “Under The Red, White, and Blue” (which his wife, Zelda, hated).

Characters

What names did Charles Dickens consider for his character in A Christmas Carol before settling on “Tiny Tim”?

“Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” – they both sound ridiculous, but I swear I’m not making it up!

Which fictional book character has featured as a major character in more films than any other?

Sherlock Holmes – the fictional detective has featured in 223 movies.

Bonus points: second place goes to Dracula, who has featured in 217.

What is the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings?

22 September. The two central characters were  born on the same day, but in different years: Bilbo in the year of 2890, and Frodo in the year 2968, of the Third Age.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which superstition does Huck attribute most of his bad luck?

Touching a rattlesnake skin. He was warned not to do so by his travelling companion, Jim the runaway slave, but disregarded his advice.

Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy formed a love triangle with the titular character of which 1996 British best-seller?

Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

Bonus points: the book is actually a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Daniel Cleaver bearing some resemblance to Mr Wickham, Mark Darcy to Mr Darcy (duh), and Bridget Jones to Elizabeth Bennet.

Plots

Which classic book chronicles the history of the French invasion of Russia through the stories of five aristocratic families?

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy).

Which book is set in Airstrip One, a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance?

1984 (George Orwell).

Bonus points: Airstrip One is the new name given to Britain in Orwell’s dystopia.

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, what was the enchanted dessert that the White Witch gave to Edmund?

Turkish Delight.

Early in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks down to a very small size and then has to swim through a river of what?

Her own tears.

What is the name of the virtual utopia that teenager Wade Watts explores in Ernest Cline’s novel futuristic novel, Ready Player One?

OASIS.

Authors

Jim Grant was born in England in 1954, and has published many popular crime thrillers. By which pen name is he better known?

Lee Child.

Which author, best known for his books for children, is credited with popularising the words “gremlin” and “scrumdiddlyumptious”?

Roald Dahl.

Name the four Jane Austen novels that were published during her lifetime.

Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815).

Bonus points: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Lady Susan were all published posthumously. The Watsons and Sandition were unfinished manuscripts.

By which names are Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell now better known?

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. They chose androgynous pen names because they suspected (quite rightly, as it turns out) that books by women would not be given fair treatment by publishers and the public.

Who Am I? I was born in Australia in 1966. I worked in advertising and marketing at a legal publishing company, and published my first book in 2003. My fifth book, The Husband’s Secret, was published in 2013 and garnered worldwide attention. My next book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, making me the first Australian author to do so. It has since been adapted into a television series by HBO, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Liane Moriarty.


Of course, there are thousands of potential questions in each of these categories: bookish trivia is the gift that keeps on giving! What’s your favourite book trivia question? Ask us in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

I don’t think that funny books get enough attention. We give awards to sweeping epics about wars, we send books about children in mortal peril straight to the top of the best-seller list, and we spend decades critiquing classics about dysfunctional families and ghosts. Meanwhile, books that make you laugh – and books about sex, too, but that’s a matter for another day – tend to be shrugged off. They’re not considered Serious Books For Grown Ups(TM), and I think that’s a real shame! The world is depressing enough; sometimes, curling up with a book that will make you chuckle is just the thing you need to take your mind off it. So this week I’m giving you full permission to indulge your desire to giggle: here are eight books that will make you laugh out loud.

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman in White Shirt and Red Pants Laughing - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

When I told my mother the title of this book, she literally snorted, so I think that’s a pretty good sign. The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is written in a dead-pan, nonchalant style that only becomes more and more hilarious as the circumstances of the old man in question become more and more ridiculous. The stark contrast between the matter-of-fact storytelling and the multiple murders and car-jackings will definitely tickle your funny bone. I hope it’s equally as funny in the original Swedish… (and, I’m sorry, but the movie was nowhere near as funny. Stick to the book if you’re after a chuckle!)

The Martian – Andy Weir

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A situation this dire – a man abandoned, trapped, alone on the red planet, dozens of years and thousands of miles away from any hope of help – shouldn’t be funny… but the voice that Weir creates for his hero, Mark Watney, in The Martian is so strong and so believable that you’re completely swept away in his unfailing sense of humour and optimism. He had me literally laughing out loud from the very first page. Plus, there are lots of swears (take that as a recommendation or warning, whatever your preference). And once again, the book is way funnier than the movie!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

I’m sure all long-time Keeper-Upperers are well and truly sick of me recommending this book at every opportunity, but people: I PROMISE, it’s THAT GOOD! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a “funny” novel in the sense that it’s actually a really heart-wrenching story, but I guess my sense of humour just aligns with the protagonist’s perfectly because I was laughing out loud the whole way through. Rosemary narrates a scene of a couple breaking up in a university cafeteria in the opening pages, and I was cracking up so hard my husband could hear me from the other end of the house.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can hear your skeptical groans: how could a popular science book be funny? Suspend your disbelief, people, because A Short History Of Nearly Everything totally is! Set aside your preconceived notions, forget all about trying to read A Brief History of Time and falling asleep: Bill Bryson has the chops as a comic writer, and manages to communicate all the science-y concepts and jargon with his trademark folksy style. And he’s not afraid to shy away from poo jokes, which is surely huge points in his column! If you’re not convinced, you can check out my full review here, or pick up any of his others and you’ll see what I mean – I also highly recommend his hilarious book Down Under, about his travels through Australia.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It really saddens me that Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t feature more often in lists of funny books, so I’m doing what I can to redress the balance here. I must stress that you shouldn’t read extracts from the book or passages in isolation, even if you really want to get a feel for it before you plunge in. The introduction to my edition included a few “funny bits”, and I was scratching my head; I seriously thought the writer must have broken her funny bone because they made no sense at all on their own. The humour of the book, and its brilliance, really comes from reading it in its entirety because a lot of the comedy relies on context. I really recommend this one if you’re already familiar with Austen or the Brontës or D.H. Lawrence and his cronies – really, any of the English lit classics of the early 19th and 20th centuries, because this book satirises the heck out of all of them, to great effect! Read my full review here.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know I was hanging shit on heavy, bleak military stories a minute ago, and Catch-22 forces me to admit that they can be funny… just not often. That said, I really don’t think you need to be into military fiction to enjoy Heller’s magnum opus: the humour of Catch-22 comes from the fact that it is so damn relatable for anyone who has any experience at all with bureaucracy (so, basically everyone). It’s a dark satire, sure, but it offers comic relief at its finest. Most of the jokes come within the first 200 pages or so, and Heller just pretty much repeats them from there on out (as I mentioned in my review), but they’re REALLY funny jokes so I think we can forgive him.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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Here’s another one that’s hilarious because it’s just so damn believable! Sure, not everyone can relate directly to the trials and tribulations of a Jewish boy growing up in mid-20th century America, but Roth’s characterisation is so superb that you would totally believe, if you hadn’t seen the cover, that Portnoy’s Complaint was just an alarmingly honest and frank memoir. Everyone – myself included – makes a meal of that one scene that features the narrator doing something unspeakable with a piece of liver that his mother then cooks for the family dinner, but the humour can be far more subtle and far-reaching than that. Plus, the salacious side of essentially listening in to a psychotherapy session about sex and mothers is just too good to resist!

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

So, I must admit, I’m including this sci-fi classic mostly because I feel like I would be subjected to a hailstorm of hate mail if I didn’t. People who love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy feel really passionately about it, even if they’re not usually sci-fi readers. The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a befuddled Englishman who finds himself rescued from Planet Earth’s destruction by a kind-hearted alien. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s light-hearted – I probably didn’t LOL as often as I did with some of the other books on this list, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a great comfort read, and most of the joy comes from knowing the punchlines before you read them.


Please join me in sharing the love for books that will make you laugh out loud! What books give you the giggles? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

9 Great Books That Haven’t Been Made Into Movies… Yet!

The book-to-film adaptation is pretty much standard for every best-seller nowadays. Sometimes, books are picked up by film production companies before they’re even released, because the buzz around them is so big. Film producers are pretty non-discriminatory: they’ll take on anything they think might be a money-maker. Heck, even the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes was given the treatment and became the immortal film Mean Girls (it is a vital and very important movie, don’t @ me). A lot of readers resent this constant churn, believing that movie-makers ruin their favourite stories in translation, but even the most cynical booklover can’t deny that movies get people more interested in the books that inspired them. The Lord Of The Rings movies triggered a massive surge in sales for the fantasy series, with over 25 million copies flying off the shelves worldwide after their release. All of this begs the question: why are there still a handful of good books that haven’t been made into movies… yet?

9 Great Books That Haven't Been Made Into Movies... Yet - Text Overlaid on Image of Unspooled Film - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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

I covered this off in my review of the hippie classic, but just in case you missed it: The Alchemist, a fable about chasing your dreams and self-belief, has never been made into a movie. There have been attempts, of course. Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but nothing really came of that. Then Harvey Weinstein took them on, but he didn’t seem to be in any rush, because it took until 2015 for him to secure a director and a lead actor and then… well, Weinstein got what was coming to him. It’s looking unlikely that The Alchemist will be coming to cinemas any time soon.

Why hasn’t The Alchemist been made into a movie yet?

The delay seems to be mostly attributable to Coelho’s own reluctance to sell the rights in the first place. He has said that he believes “a book has a life of its own inside the reader’s mind”, and that movie adaptations rarely live up to them; basically, he’s worried that filmmakers will butcher his life’s work, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that could well be the case. Weinstein got the closest of anyone so far, but I don’t think I need to explain to you why that venture isn’t going to work out. I guess we’ll all just have to wait for another film mogul to convince Coelho that it’s worth doing right (and probably shove even bigger stacks of money his way). IMDB has a page suggesting the film is “in development”, but that means sweet fuck-all…

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d think that this one would be a walk-up start, because all the elements are there! Donna Tartt’s The Secret History tells the story of a cabal of Classics students (yes, even pretentious nerds can have cults) at an Ivy League university who try to get away with murdering one of their own. It’s got mystery! It’s got suspense! It’s got intrigue! And given that Tartt’s equally popular book, The Goldfinch, is set to be released as a film very soon, it seems strange that this one hasn’t been picked up.

Why hasn’t The Secret History been made into a movie yet?

It’s not for lack of trying! Alan J Paukla was the first to realise its potential; he picked it up, and roped in Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. Sadly, Paukla was killed in a car accident in 1998, and the project died with him. Gwenyth Paltrow later showed some interest, and picked up the rights with her brother. They agreed to develop the film with Miramax, but then, again sadly, their father passed away and they were understandably distracted. Now the rights have reverted back to the author, and she has refused to sell them on again as yet; perhaps she suspects that the project is cursed and wants to avoid any more tragedies…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

It’s been well over fifty years since One Hundred Years Of Solitude was published, and yet there have never been any real attempts (that we know of) to turn it into a movie. The book checks a bunch of boxes: an idyllic setting (a town in beautiful Central America), social currency (with its critique of capitalism and everything), a colourful family (the Buendias, seven generations of them!), and classic magical realism (a la Amelie or Chocolat). So, where the heck is our movie?

Why hasn’t One Hundred Years Of Solitude been made into a movie yet?

Well, if I’m being honest, it’s largely because Márquez was a real stick in the mud. He famously refused to sell the rights to his beautiful book, knocking back all comers, regardless of what they offered him. Giuseppe Tornatore got the closest, but Márquez literally told him that he would only sell the rights if the director agreed to “film the entire book, but only release one chapter – two minutes long – each year for a hundred years”. That would be an artistic triumph, to be sure, but probably not the most practical project to get off the ground. Plus, the book is rumoured to be “unfilmable”, with a bunch of characters all sharing the same name, and tricky bits that would probably require massive amounts of hallucinogens to properly envisage, so… maybe the producers didn’t try that hard to get Márquez’s blessing. Netflix announced last month that they’ve purchased the rights (now that Márquez isn’t around to give them a hard time), and his sons will serve as executive producers. So, maybe soon…?

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, pulling together a script (and a film) about a woman who lives her life over and over again, dozens of times, with those lives taking her all around Europe over the course of the 20th century, probably wouldn’t be easy… but heck, if Kate Atkinson can make it work as a book (and I think she did!), it can be done. Life After Life is high-concept, but no more so than other time travel and speculative fiction films, so what’s the hold-up?

Why hasn’t Life After Life been made into a movie yet?

Beats me! Lionsgate announced in 2014 that they had acquired the rights to an adaptation, and even went as far as to secure Semi Chellas (of Mad Men) and Esta Spalding (of The Bridge) as screenwriters. They’re the same production company responsible for Twilight and The Hunger Games, so we know they can do it! But they’ve been alarmingly quiet about the project since then; even Kate Atkinson’s website doesn’t say any more than that. I’ll be keeping an eye on the IMDB page, but no news doesn’t seem like good news…

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, we all remember this one! Most of us read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but I didn’t – I covered it last year in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It was the OG young adult novel, before young adult was even a thing, and it’s especially resonant now with our increased awareness around mental health issues in teenagers. Plus, it’s set in New York, an iconic visual setting that’s incredibly popular with filmmakers.

Why hasn’t The Catcher In The Rye been made into a movie yet?

J.D. Salinger famously swore, up and down, no two ways about it, that The Catcher In The Rye would never be made into a film. He thought that the first-person narration would sound “cheesy” if it were ever to be adapted. Even since his passing back in 2010, his estate has stayed firm in adhering to his wishes; he went so far as to write them into his will. All of Hollywood’s best and brightest have tried to wear them down: John Cusack once said he deeply regretted never having the opportunity to play Holden Caulfield, Marlon Brando wanted to have a go at getting up on screen, as did Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. But Salinger was so firm in his insistence that his agents didn’t even bother showing him offers from the heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg. So, don’t hold your breath, people!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We’ve had more than ample time to get this project off the ground: Don Quixote was first published in 1605, before movies were even in the realm of imagination (so de Cervantes could hardly object to the adaptation of his work). It’s a hilarious story of misadventure and mishap, there are clearly no copyright issues or existing contracts to get in the way, and historical movies of that time period were all the rage for a time… and yet, no dice!

Why hasn’t Don Quixote been made into a movie yet?

Pick your poison. It’s too long, they say: the epic novel runs to well over 1,000 pages and follows dozens of different storylines along the way. Plus, it’s cursed! Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, tried to film his version (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), but a series of calamities shut down production indefinitely, and all of his attempts to revive it so far have been unsuccessful. There have long been rumours of Disney versions coming – one animated, one live-action – but they’ve never materialised, and no one quite knows why. In fact, Don Quixote is so notoriously unfilmable that Gilliam’s failure became the subject of a documentary that did actually get released, Lost In La Mancha – that might be as close as we ever get!

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might be a little premature to include All The Light We Cannot See on this list, seeing as it was only released a few years ago, in 2014. The entwined stories of a young blind girl in Occupied France and a German boy plucked from an orphanage to join the Nazis as a radio technician captivated the world, and Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s why I included it my List of books to read for this project, and I reviewed it in full here. Still, in the age of instant gratification, five years seems an awfully long wait for a film that would be so hotly-anticipated… don’t you think?

Why hasn’t All The Light We Cannot See been made into a movie yet?

Who bloody knows? The rights were instantly acquired by 20th Century Fox upon release, so all signs looked good. Then there was a Netflix announcement last month about a mini-series a la Big Little Lies on HBO. But there’s been no news since then – as far as we know, there’s no director, producers, or actors on board. So, I guess it’s a case of hurry up and wait!

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another WWII-era novel screaming out for a film adaptation: this time, from Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. His story focuses on retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono, who is forced to confront the role he played in the war and its impact on his reputation as he struggles to secure happy marriages for his daughters. An Artist Of The Floating World is a little nutty in the timeline (I’ll tell you more about it in my review coming soon), but there’s no flashy magical realism or any of the other logistical problems that could gum up the works in producing a film. Plus, two of Ishiguro’s other books – The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go – have been adapted by Hollywood, so clearly he doesn’t object to the idea.

Why hasn’t An Artist Of The Floating World been made into a movie yet?

I have searched high or low, all over the internet, and I cannot find a single of the film rights even being sought, let alone acquired or acted on. In fact, aside from a few bloggers and commentators expressing concern that a future film adaptation might white-wash the story (as, unfortunately, has happened with so many other Asian books and films), no one seems to be talking about this potentially award-winning film at all. Maybe I should look into it myself, eh? 😉

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, so, technically this dystopian classic has been made into two for-TV movies, and there have been a bunch of other types of adaptations as well, but I’ve decided they don’t count. I want to see Brave New World, with all its sex and drugs and open rebellion against the World State, in full technicolour on a huge screen with surround sound, please! This story couldn’t be more topical, with the masses separated into castes and numbed to their outrage with government provision of various sedatives, so the world is well and truly primed for this movie done properly. (I reviewed the book in full here, by the way, if that description has you wanting more!)

Why hasn’t Brave New World been made into a movie yet?

Because everyone’s too hell-bent on putting it on TV again! The production companies have signed on Spielberg, for pity’s sake, and they’ve got one heck of a budget, but it looks like the next version is going to be filmed as a miniseries to air on the Syfy channel, instead of a big-screen blockbuster. Boo, I say! Leonardo DiCaprio has made noise about adapting Brave New World to film before, though, so I’m hoping he’ll keep fighting the good fight, especially if the miniseries does well and reignites some interest…


Writing up this list might have been a bit silly on my part, because now I’m desperate to see all of these films and none of them exist yet! Wahhhh! What book do you think deserves a big-screen adaptation? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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