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The Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors

When we start talking about how our favourite writers write, I think all of us conjure up one of two mental pictures. We either imagine the disciplined, dedicated writer (like Stephen King) with his set schedule and his carefully-arranged study, or we think of the heavy-drinking night owl (see: Hunter S Thompson), who obliterates their body and mind but vomits out genius works of art at random. Authors certainly exist right across that spectrum, but it’s always more fun to read about the latter 😉 Here are some of the craziest writing methods of famous authors, the bizarre habits and creative processes that have produced amazing works of literature.

Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jack Kerouac & His Scroll

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jack Kerouac spent years scribbling down notes for On The Road in his various journals before he actually sat down at a typewriter and got on with it. He went from one extreme to another, though. He decided that having to stop for anything would be an unwelcome distraction in his creative process, so he procured a single 120-foot scroll of paper, and thus began typing his manuscript. His work poured forth, and he wrote the entire draft in what was effectively a single burst, barely stopping for food and water. When he was done, he just rolled it back up, and marched on down to his editor’s office. Of course, his sensible editor told Kerouac that he was out of his mind, and he’d need to type it up on normal pages in order for them to edit it – in response, Kerouac threw a tanty and stormed out.

Kerouac was also highly superstitious (about his writing, but also life in general). He tried out various rituals to get the creative juices flowing: writing only by candlelight, writing by a full moon, praying before sitting down to write, standing on his head (yes, really). Clearly, something worked, because he is now considered the darling of the Beat generation literary movement.

Maya Angelou & Her Hotel Room

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maya Angelou took Virginia Woolf’s maxim (that a woman needs a room of one’s own) to the next level. She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month, and used it as her “study”. At 6:30AM each morning, she would head over there and spend the morning writing. She specifically requested that management remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles; she believed her “Big Mind” would sort out problems in her work if she kept her “Little Mind” occupied with something else.

Of course, she never actually slept there. She would leave around 2:00PM, run her errands, and then review the pages she’d written that day at home after dinner. She is cited as saying she’d inevitably scrap most of them, but keep the process up until she had about fifty good pages that she was happy with. And that’s how her work was born.

Aaron Sorkin & His Broken Nose

Granted, Aaron Sorkin isn’t an “author” in the same sense as everyone else on this list – he’s actually a screenwriter, the mind behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The West Wing. Still, his process is definitely bonkers enough to warrant inclusion here!

“Writing never comes easy,” he once said. “The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”

In 2011, Sorkin arrived at an Emmy event with a broken nose. When pressed by the media, he confessed that the injury was incurred as part of his writing process. It turns out, Sorkin workshops his dialogue… with himself, reading his lines out loud into a mirror. While working on a script, he became so enraged with his character’s situation that he head-butted the glass! He was probably on to something good, but… sheesh.

Victor Hugo & His Bare Arse

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not being funny: Victor Hugo literally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude. He was working to an incredibly tight deadline in 1831, and found himself becoming distracted by, y’know, leaving the house all the time. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, the obvious: Hugo bought himself a big bottle of ink, and asked his valet to confiscate all of his clothes. You can’t go out and have a good time and miss your deadline if you’ve got nothing to wear! Hugo fought off the cold by wrapping himself in a huge grey shawl, and set about writing out the manuscript, all the while in his birthday suit.

It’s unconventional, but you’ve got to give it to Hugo: it’s genius!

Kazuo Ishiguro & His “Crash”

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

This is perhaps the grown-up’s version of Kerouac’s scroll. It was 1987 when Kazuo Ishiguro convinced his wife to let him try something a little weird. No, not that! He convinced her to take on all of his housework and emotional labour (like wives have done for centuries before, but I digress), he completely cleared his calendar, and planned an entirely new approach to his book. He did nothing but write from 9:00AM-10:30PM, six days a week. He allowed himself an hour each day for lunch, and two for dinner (what a slacker!). He didn’t answer the phone once in this time, or even look at a piece of mail. His plan was to reach a mental state in which his “fictional world was more real to him than the actual one”. Apparently it worked, because this process produced The Remains of the Day. The first draft took him four weeks, writing free-hand on his writing slope.

In fact, Ishiguro still writes all of his first drafts on that writing slope. When the time comes to type them up, he uses a computer that dates back to 1996 – it’s not connected to the Internet. Neither of these habits are particularly kooky. What really disturbed me was reading Ishiguro quoted in an interview as saying that, while he was working on The Buried Giant, he didn’t watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, he wanted to remain focused on his own fictional world, and he was worried that taking an hour to watch an HBO series once a week would “tamper with the world that he set up”. It’s all well and good to sacrifice for your art, but surely there are limits to what a human being can endure! 😉

James Joyce & His Crayons

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For anyone who has read James Joyce’s work, it won’t come as any surprise to see him included in this list. He wrote one of the most notoriously unreadable novels in the history of English literature (Finnegans Wake); it took him seventeen years to complete, and every sentence is so oblique that most people need a companion guide to read alongside it. (I’m not game enough to take it on just yet – Ulysses is on my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, but I’m so apprehensive that I’ll probably leave it until last.)

Why seventeen years? Well, firstly, Joyce considered hammering out two whole sentences to be a “good day’s work”, so he wasn’t the most prolific guy. Secondly, he was working at a pretty serious disadvantage: he was almost blind. He was horribly near-sighted, and ended up developing iritis (a painful eye condition, the result of rheumatic fever). He had twenty-five eye surgeries in an attempt to improve his condition, with no luck. So, he took to writing with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat.

It sounds nuts, but there was actually method to his madness! The colourful writing implements were big enough and bright enough to help him see what he was writing. He also believed that the white coat reflected more light onto the page in front of him. As for laying on his stomach in bed, well: there probably aren’t many more comfortable ways to get your eyes as close to the page as possible. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy after all!

Friedrich Schiller & His Rotting Apples

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Friedrich Schiller’s mate, Goethe, has dobbed him in as having probably the craziest writing method of all time. See, Goethe stopped by Schiller’s house one night, and – finding that his friend was out and about – decided to wait, and have a snoop around.

He noticed a strange smell emanating from the bottom drawer of a desk, in the study where Schiller would work. Goethe leaned down, opened it, and found… a pile of rotting apples.

No joke: Schiller had deliberately stored a bunch in a drawer, and waited patiently for them to go off. He told his wife that the odor was “inspiring”, and he “could not live or work without it”. That woman deserves an actual medal, because what the actual fuck?! According to Goethe, the smell was so overpowering that it was enough to make you lightheaded. I’m not one to judge, but… Schiller was off his rocker.



Writers are hardly known for being well-adjusted and sensible, but this lot really take the cake. Have you heard about any other crazy writing methods of famous authors? Are you inspired to develop one of your own? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

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

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

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

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

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

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Dubliners – James Joyce

Dubliners - James Joyce - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The American – Henry James

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

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

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


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

A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on my to-be-read list, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

The Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide To Really Old Poems - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Written Page - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.

The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.

The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allow a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.

Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and on to texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.

The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. Then they hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up to Earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them to the curb, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.

Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

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Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could throw your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

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Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype of doppelgänger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become an English idiom, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for just about anything you want! Bonus points if you reference my favourite analysis: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its original title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

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

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War.”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s works (see my review here for details), but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to his poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead. Either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are present in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman à clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

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Don’t say: “That’s the long one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

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Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, and focus primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round and change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

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Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.


If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

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What’s Your Desert Island Book?

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’m tackling one of those dinner party questions that haunts every bookworm: what’s your desert island book? I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (Wild, I reviewed it this week); she trekked over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying with her Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (which she described as her “religion”), and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which, incidentally, I also recently reviewed), among others. It led me to think long and hard about what book I’d want with me if I were lost in the wilderness. I asked KUWTP readers this very question a couple of weeks ago (by the way, are you keeping up on Facebook and Instagram?), and got some fascinating responses!

It’s tough enough to imagine a situation where you’re stuck on a desert island indefinitely, with just a single book – but there are many factors to consider. Do you take your favourite book? Do you take a really heavy read, one that you’ve been putting off, so that you can capitalise on all that uninterrupted reading time? Maybe you want to choose a really light and funny book that will take your mind off your troubles. Of course, you could think laterally, and take a really thick book with lots of pages, so you can pull out as many as you need to use as kindling for a fire. The KUWTP community came up with a bunch of options for each, so let’s take a look at the definitive KUWTP Desert Island Book List.

What's Your Desrt Island Book? - black text in a square speech bubble overlaid on an image of palm trees, sand and sea - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ulysses – James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one was my idea, mostly because I suspect that being trapped alone on a desert island, with no other entertainment, might be the only circumstance under which I could motivate myself to finish the notoriously unreadable Ulysses. Unfortunately for me, it ended up on my reading list, but I’m putting it off as long as I can (I’ll let you know as soon as the review is up, wish me luck!). Still, I wasn’t the only one to nominate Joyce’s seminal work as my desert island book for that reason, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

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

Don Quixote was the most popular choice, which took me by surprise! A whole bunch of readers chose this weighty 17th century tome (most editions run to almost 1,000 pages), out of the blue as best I could tell. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though – I later learned that Don Quixote is the best-selling single-volume book of all time. With over 500 million copies in circulation, it seems inevitable that at least a few would end up on desert islands… (More fun facts in my review here.)

Collected Works – William Shakespeare

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There were a few creative “cheat” choices (among them the Harry Potter series, and the collected works of Charles Dickens), but I think this one technically passes free and clear because it can frequently be found in a single volume (indeed, I own two of them). The Collected Works of William Shakespeare would certainly keep you going for a while, and it covers all manner of genres and storylines, so you can pick whatever you’re in the mood for: comedy, history, tragedy, romance…

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved this suggestion, purely for the irony: stuck on a desert island, with nothing to read but a book about a bunch of boys stuck on a desert island (that ends pretty badly to boot). Ha! I didn’t love this book, but if nothing else, Lord Of The Flies would make a good what-not-to-do manual. Fingers crossed the KUWTP readers that chose this for their desert island read wouldn’t take the story too literally (lest a few pigs meet unkind ends)…

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As one reader cleverly deduced, one of the most distressing parts of being stuck on a desert island would surely be the intolerable heat. Thus, ever so wisely, she named Wuthering Heights as her desert island book. A story full of chilly winter nights on sweeping moors, complete with howling winds and stiff breezes, would be the perfect antidote to scorching island sun. I almost considered taking this answer for my own, because I didn’t love Wuthering Heights the first time around, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it – deserted on an island would be the perfect opportunity!

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

This was, undoubtedly, the cutest choice for a desert island book! Charlotte’s Web would be the perfect cosy, feel-good read, full of childhood nostalgia, to comfort you in your lonely hours. Plus, if I had the chance to ask the desert-island-book-fairy for an audiobook, I’d definitely want the version read by E.B. White himself – could there be anything better?

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

Now, this one came out of left field, but the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. A dear friend of mine (who is also, of course, a dedicated KUWTP reader) said that she’d choose Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram – an Australian novel, published in 2003. It tells the story of a convicted bank robber and heroin addict, who manages to escape prison and flee to Mumbai, India. Coming in at some 900 pages, it’s another desert island book that would keep you entertained for quite a while, if the rescue boat is slow in getting to you. In the end, I had to concede, it’s an excellent call!

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I saved my favourite choice for last: Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comedy, Waiting For Godot. This play tells the story of two characters who are waiting for the arrival of a bloke named Godot (thus, the title – der). The ultimate joke is, of course, that he never turns up. Perhaps, if I were actually in the desert-island situation, a book that so closely mirrors my own experience of waiting for rescue without a happy ending wouldn’t be so great for my mental health… but as it stands, I think it’s a fucking hilarious answer, and I’m going to steal it for my own from now on.



So, what’s your desert island book? What do you think of the ones suggested here? Let me know in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf


Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was (coincidentally, ha!) founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, fuck the haters!

Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.

Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.


And holy smokes – “heavy” might not have been the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.

I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:

  • Mrs D is throwing a party
  • She feels old
  • She likes reading memoirs
  • She’s maybe a little bit queer…

That’s it.

There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.

Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe. And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉

If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…

I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mrs Dalloway:

  • “This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
  • “Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
  • “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen

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Yeah, Totally! 10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, we have a strict no-judgment policy. (Well, we can judge the books of course, but not each other. Kay?) That’s why you and I can be completely honest with each other: we all pretend to have read books that we really haven’t, right?

A new survey on this topic pops up every couple of years or so (usually when it’s a slow news day for the book blogs or morning television). The results always vary slightly, depending on which country is polled, where they find their participants and how many people they ask. I’ve read a stack of these listicles over the years, and I figured I’d boil them down into my own top ten. I’ve even included a couple that I’m very guilty of lying about myself. Let’s take a look…

10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read - Text on Background Grid of Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. 1984 – George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This one appears on every list I’ve read, and I can’t understand why! Compared to some of the others, it’s a really easy read, so if you’re putting it off and fibbing about it, consider THIS the motivation that you need!

1984 is the prototypical dystopian novel, published back in 1949 (before we knew how bad things would actually get), and yet its relevance in the era of alternative facts increases day-by-day. It gave us “Newspeak”, and “Doublethink”, and – of course – “Big Brother”. It’s probably our familiarity with these concepts that makes us feel comfortable enough to lie about having read Orwell’s masterpiece. I strongly recommend giving it a go anyway – you’ll be pleasantly surprised, I swear!

2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

I am guilty as charged. I have lied about reading Pride and Prejudice on more than one occasion. In truth, I’ve started – and abandoned – it, no fewer than six times. I abandoned it so hard that I actually lost my copy of it altogether, and had to pick up a new one when I made my reading list for this project. And how did I go when I finally stuck with it? Read my full review here.

3. Ulysses – James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve lied about having read Ulysses, I don’t blame you. In fact, I take no issue with you carrying on lying about having read it until you die (or someone catches you out, whichever comes first). It’s a notoriously difficult read. Plus, everyone I know who has read it is incredibly smug about having done so. It’s on my reading list too, but believe me, I’ll be leaving it ’til last!

4. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

War And Peace - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I believed for a long time that everyone lied about having read War And Peace – surely no one actually made it all the way through that behemoth! That was until I watched my husband do it. It took him months, cramming in a few pages every spare moment (on trains, during meal breaks, before bed…). He insists that it’s fantastic and well worth a read, but I’d want to be absolutely sure before making a commitment. Maybe we should try another (shorter!) Tolstoy classic first, like Anna Karenina

5. Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

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I was shocked to see Fifty Shades of Grey appear on any of these lists, and yet it keeps cropping up. Surely more people lie and say they haven’t read it?

Fifty Shades of Grey has been widely decried as one of the worst things to happen to popular fiction in the 21st century, but I’ll admit I picked up a copy in a desperate moment (stuck in an airport waiting on a delayed flight, when options in English were limited). If you’re tempted to lie about having read it (when you really haven’t), I wouldn’t bother. Be up front and tell them you get your literary smut elsewhere 😉

6. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

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

Ah, another book that spawned a cultural catchphrase that has lasted generations. I’d wager there’s plenty of folks out there that are well familiar with the concept of a Catch-22, but aren’t even aware that the phrase was born from a book of the same name. I’m also guilty of having chuckled along meekly when my better-read friends made jokes about this book… but not any more! Read my full review it here.

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m just going to say it up front: listening to the Kate Bush song doesn’t count!

Brontë’s super-creepy semi-incestuous gothic romance isn’t for everyone, but I’m not sure it pays to fib about having read it. Wuthering Heights is so multi-layered and chock-full of metaphor that you might not know what you’re agreeing (or disagreeing) with. Read my full review here.

8. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

Here we are: another concept that a lot of us are already familiar with, and yet we all lie and say we’ve read the book (when we really haven’t). Are you sensing a pattern?

I can guarantee you that The Scarlet Letter is not what you’d expect. I thought it would be a full-on treatise about the oppression of female sexuality, with some dirty bits thrown in for good measure, but it was something else entirely. Read my full review here.

9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

I can completely understand the temptation not to bother reading the original Arthur Conan Doyle books, because the BBC’s Sherlock series is just so damn good! Still, given that the television program shifts the story to the present day (and likely takes a few other liberties), surely we’re missing out on something if we don’t give the original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a once-over ourselves. Read my full review here.

10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

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

I thought I’d end on a surprise! Not only is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland one of the most unexpected entries, but it actually came up as the top result in one survey of the British reading public! Doesn’t that seem odd? A children’s book (a very easy read, it goes without saying) beats out War And Peace! My best guess is that everyone is emotionally attached to the Disney film they grew up with, and they figure it’s just as good. Far be it for me to dissuade them, but I’ve got to say I think they’re missing out! Carroll’s true brilliance and cleverness and wordplay can only be seen on the page… Read my full review here.


So, these are the books you’ve most likely pretended to have read – was I right? Or do you have some other secret shame? Let me know in the comments below! (Or join the conversation with KUWTP on Facebook!)

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The List

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

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

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

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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





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

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

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





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

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

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





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

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

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

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


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