Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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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.

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



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What Makes A Book A Classic?

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

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

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

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

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

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

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

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





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

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

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

Age

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

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



Literary Merit

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

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

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

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

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



Historical Record and Influence

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

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

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

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





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

How To Read More Classic Books

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

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

“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classic Books and Where to Find Them

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

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


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

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

Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature

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

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

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

Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Four: Start Reading!

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

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

Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Best Fathers in Literature

Literature is littered with examples of poor parenting, particularly when it comes to fathers. All too often, fathers are dead (as was the case with the Reverend in Jane Eyre), or otherwise absent (like Chaplain March in Little Women). Sometimes they’re completely ineffectual (like Emma’s Mr Woodhouse), and other times they outright suck at the fatherhood gig (see Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), to the point of being dangerous and extremely damaging (who could forget Lolita’s Humbert Humbert?). It all makes for pretty depressing reading, but you know what? Father’s Day is coming up, and it’s time that we spread a little joy to counteract all this misery. Let’s take a look at some of the often-overlooked best fathers in literature.

The Best Fathers In Literature - Black Text Above Image of Man Holding Child on Jetty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

My love for Dickens knows no bounds, but even I can acknowledge that he didn’t write a whole lot of present, supportive father figures. That makes A Christmas Carol’s Bob Cratchit all the more special! Bob is hardly flawless – he’s a little earnest, and a bit of a martyr – but dammit, he saves Christmas! And he provides the perfect counterpoint to Ebenezer Scrooge’s misanthropy. Bob Cratchit will make you believe in fatherly love again, so pick this one up when you’re losing faith.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

Family isn’t always about blood. Hans Hubermann is a forster father to Liesel in The Book Thief, her biological parents having been persecuted for being communists in Nazi Germany. While it would have been easy for a lesser man to simply ignore Liesel (given everything else he had going on), or punish her for stealing books, Hans instead teaches her to read at night by candlelight, and role models the kind of empathy and compassion that saves lives in such dire circumstances. Make no mistake, he can dole out the tough love when it’s needed (Liesel makes the potentially deadly mistake of saying she hates Hitler in public, and Hans smacks her down), but it always comes from a place of genuine fatherly love. If only all fictional displaced children had a man like Hans to care for them…

Thomas Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Thomas actually dies before the story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even begins, a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. And yet, the reader is immediately and abundantly aware of his love for his son. The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Oskar, as he chases clues to his father’s secret all over New York City. Their father-son bond is well and truly alive, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close serves as a great reminder that good parenting transcends mortality.

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

It would seem that there’s a certain controversy involved in calling Mr Bennet one of the best fathers in literature. He is, after all, a bit weak-willed and bewildered (especially when it comes to financial planning). But in fairness, five daughters (especially ones that live for the drama, like the Bennet girls) and a high-strung wife is a lot to cope with, and one can hardly blame the man for backing down from a fight now and then.

What is not up for debate is his love and support for all of the girls, especially the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, his darling Lizzy. He refuses to entertain the notion of a marriage to a man he sees as undeserving of her (even though it would have been a financially savvy match), but he backs Lizzy 100% when she tells him she loves Mr Darcy. “I could not have parted with you, my LIzzy,” he says, “to anyone less worthy”. Recognising the intelligence and agency of his daughters made him a man ahead of his time, and – in my opinion – well-worthy of inclusion in this list of the best fathers in literature.

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

And, finally, we come to Atticus – arguably the best father in literature, the numero uno, the grand poobah of fatherhood… (as long as you don’t count the ugliness that came to light with the release of Go Set A Watchman). In truth, any list of the best fathers in literature is woefully incomplete without mention of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He is a widower, raising two children alone against a backdrop of Southern poverty and racism. And yet, he upholds the values of acceptance, gratitude, empathy, and respect like no other literary icon has before or since. His influence is so great that it inspired the foundation of The Atticus Finch Society, a real-life organisation founded to serve the very population that the fictional Atticus sought to defend. Plus, if his bravery and moral fortitude in the face of an unfair world weren’t enough, the man is endlessly quotable:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And you can read my complete love letter to Atticus Finch here (yes, believe it or not, I’ve got more to say).



And there we have it: a collection of the best fathers in literature you can read to celebrate this Father’s Day. Have you got a favourite that I’ve missed? Make sure you let me know in the comments below (or give them a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

And don’t forget, I’ve covered the other side, too: check out my list of the best mothers in literature here!

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