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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!).

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

A little while back, I conned my mate Andrew into visiting a secondhand bookstore with me (my friends know that I’m prone to this kind of maneuver). While were were there, another patron overheard me (loudly) bitching about how difficult it was to find a well-preserved copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. She tapped me on the shoulder, pulled this copy off the shelf, and handed it to me so sweetly I almost cried. Well, of course, all of this happened on the very day that I had no cash on me – so Andrew swooped in and bought it for me. What a champion!

I was eager to read more Hemingway. I first encountered his short story Hills Like White Elephants at uni, and I’ve re-read it a thousands times since; it was very formative for me. Other than that, my only real exposure to Hemingway was Kat’s succinct analysis in 10 Things I Hate About You (of course).

Kat on Hemingway - 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, was published in 1926. He actually pulled a sneaky trick to make sure he got the publisher that he wanted for it. While under contract to Boni & Liveright (with whom he was unhappy for some reason), he submitted a hastily-written satirical novella that he knew they would reject, effectively terminating his contract on the spot. This allowed him to submit The Sun Also Rises to Scribner’s, and the rest is history.

The story follows a group of American and British migrants who travel to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Of course, Hemingway was the king of “write what you know”, so the story is very closely based on his own trip to Spain in 1925. The characters were real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Apparently, he had originally intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but he decided that his experiences had given him plenty of content for a novel – and the result was The Sun Also Rises.

So, what’s it like? Well, it seems to confirm the worst of what people say about Hemingway. It’s all brooding white guys, drinking a lot, and butting bruised masculine egos. The women are either shrill harpies or desirable floozies. Nothing much seems to happen in the first part, and you’ve got to keep a weather eye out for the details that make the actual story. A boy likes an unattainable girl, who shags all of his rich friends but sticks him in the friendzone. The boy goes fishing with those friends, and the girl tags along. Everybody drinks.





The dialogue is so sparse and hard to follow that I almost missed what seems to be the focal point of the novel: Jake (the protagonist) is literally impotent, thanks to a nasty war wound. Once I cottoned onto that, I couldn’t decide whether it made The Sun Also Rises better or worse. I know that his injury symbolises the disillusionment and frustration of his entire cohort, not to mention Jake’s own metaphorical impotence in navigating friendships and politics in post-war Europe, but… it’s just a little obvious, isn’t it? A little too neat? I mean, a man gets his dick blown off and starts questioning the meaning of the world without his masculinity in it: pfft.

As much as Hemingway is the darling of the American literary canon, not everybody loved The Sun Also Rises, so I know I’m not alone here. A reviewer at the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote at the time that The Sun Also Rises “begins nowhere and ends in nothing”, which I thought was particularly pithy. Even Hemingway’s own mother wasn’t a fan: she hung shit on him for wasting his talents on such filth, writing to him “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ – every page fills me with a sick loathing”. You can’t please everyone…

Anyway, Jake’s love interest is Brett – and wherever she goes, trouble follows. Men fall over themselves for her: they drink too much, and fight one another. I liked Brett in so much as she was unashamed about enjoying sex and chasing good times – there’s not enough of that in female characters, even today – but I certainly didn’t idolise her the way that Grown Up Literary Critics seem to. To me, she was a mere receptacle for all of the projections, hopes and frustrations of men. She lacked any true independence or self-determination. It’s all well and good to commit yourself to the ho-life, but damn girl – have a sense of who you are!





Jake’s defective junk is the primary obstacle to their having a relationship – which seems kind of quaint and ridiculous to a post-Sexual Revolution reader. If Brett and Jake had heard of cunnilingus, The Sun Also Rises would have played out differently. Of course, that would depend on Hemingway opening his mind to the sexual agency of a woman. You can be damn sure that if the situation were reversed, and Brett had had her lady parts blown off in the war, Hemingway would have been writing a life of endless blow jobs for Jake – a “happy ending” as it were (ha!).

This is yet another book from The List that makes it abundantly clear to me how little humanity has changed over time (see also: Dante’s The Divine Comedy). Nearly a century after its publication, I still recognise Hemingway’s descriptions of pre-gaming for the fiesta (akin to skulling Vodka Cruisers at home before jumping in the Uber to the club). All the men around Brett are just bitching about how they’ve been “friendzoned”, the way that angry young men do on the internet today. Technology might progress exponentially, and the new cycle might move ever-faster, but those same base urges come forth one way or another.

I think I’ll need to give The Sun Also Rises another read or two before I write it off completely. Another friend (who loves it) asked me what I thought after I’d finished, and (very gently) pointed out all the ways in which I was wrong. It has been critiqued to death, along with all of Hemingway’s other works, and a spot of Googling reveals all kinds of readings that I overlooked. Spoilers actually save the day with this one – it’s actually better if you know the history and the themes going in. The Sun Also Rises should really be appreciated as art, moreso than as a story in and of itself.

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sun Also Rises:

  • “Of course I’m missing the point. Literary scholars be damned. This one was just a lot of drinking and yapping away about seemingly insignificant things. The title, I can only surmise, refers to those drinking nights that extend until, you guessed it, the sun rises.” – 3MAT3
  • “I tried to like it. I was in Pamplona and San Sebastian. 20 years ago, and 15 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 2 weeks ago, I started it. I couldn’t stand it. Nothing is worse than a writer penning a story about writing. The book is a cliche. And, Hemingway was a wimp. He drank wimpy drinks. Mojito? Bellini?” – Duff
  • “good writing, no use of pointless big words, not all of us went to harvard, hemingway gets that.” – Lucas Rascon
  • “Easy to read. Mostly pointless – but I guess that’s the point.” – Stanley Townsend
  • “It’s a masterpiece. If you can handle all the drinking, the bitch called Brett, and a pain in the as s named Cohn. But, it’s a classic and Hemingway will at least teach you how to drink absinthe, if you’re too scared to learn his powerful and dangerous approach to descriptive prose, which I highly recommend, as it beats bullfighting for a living, or looking for a male meal ticket, at which Brett excels. Five obligatory stars. If you hated it, you have no soul.” – Pyrata

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The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a detective mystery and wondering “but, wait, could that really happen to a reallife detective?”, The Maltese Falcon might be the book for you. Dashiell Hammett was an American writer, but before that he was an actual real-life detective. He’s now regarded as one of the masters of detective fiction, and The Maltese Falcon (first published in 1930) is perhaps his best-known work. He didn’t promise his readers that it would be a true-to-life story, but his background gives him a lot of credibility, don’t you think?

The first thing you need to know about The Maltese Falcon is that it is told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hammett doesn’t describe (or even hint at) any of the characters’ internal worlds, thoughts, or feelings. It’s up to the reader to guess for themselves each character’s motivations and secrets, based purely on his descriptions of what they say and do. Hammett took this style of writing to a new post-Hemingway extreme, and I know this next comment might be controversial, but I stand by it: Hammett does it way better than Papa ever did.

Plus, it’s a really clever approach to writing a detective fiction novel when you think about it. Without too much effort on Hammett’s part, he’s able to keep the reader guessing, and he doesn’t have to tie himself up in knots to keep a character’s internal monologue from giving away the ending.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to offer a boilerplate spoiler warning, too; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery novel, after all. I find it practically impossible to properly discuss or review a book without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out whodunnit.


There’s a lot of mini-mysteries within this book, a lot of red herrings and blind paths. Despite its paltry page count, it’s a rather intricate story of double- and triple-crossings. So, that makes it kind of hard to break down – I’ll do my darnedest!

The big dick is Sam Spade, a private detective working in San Francisco, with his business partner Miles Archer. And I do mean “big dick”, in every sense of the word; it’s the 1930s, he’s the boss, so it’s very old school with lots of calling secretaries in tight dresses “darling” and stuff like that.

Spade and Archer are going about their usual business when in comes one Miss Wonderly, and wants a guy followed. She says Floyd Thursby ran off with her sister, and she wants them to keep an eye on him. They take the job, and Archer takes the first shift on the guy’s tail.

Later that night, Archer is found dead, and shortly thereafter Thursby is found dead, too. Sam Spade becomes the prime suspect in both murders, as it turns out he was shagging Archer’s wife on the side, and Miss Wonderly wasn’t entirely honest about her reasons for wanting Thursby followed…

Miss Wonderly confesses that she’s using a fake name (no kidding). She’s actually an “acquisitive adventuress” by the name of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, She’s tied up in an international hunt for a treasure they call the Maltese Falcon (thus, the title).

Then, we get some back-story: in the 16th century, the knights of Malta made a statue of gold and jewels to present as a gift to the King of Spain, but it was intercepted and stolen by pirates. The statue passed from owner to owner over the years, and one of them covered it in black enamel to conceal its true value from would-be thieves. A man by the name of Casper Gutman had been tracing the history of the Maltese Falcon for years, and when he found out it was in the possession of a Russian exile living in Constantinople, he paid Brigid O’Shaughnessy to secure it for him.



Brigid worked with Thursby, and another bloke called Joel Cairo (who Hammett only ever describes as being Greek and gay, we don’t really learn anything else about him). They managed to get the falcon off the Russian, but Brigid’s no fool; she realised how much the thing was worth, and decided to cash in. She hid it on a ship that was setting sail for San Francisco, then she and Thursby went on ahead, planning to meet it there. Gutman, meanwhile, none too pleased with his prize being whipped out from under his nose like that, followed hot on their heels, and enlisted the services of a vicious gunman called Wilmer Cook.

It takes Sam Spade a while to piece this story together, especially seeing as he starts shagging Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s determined he find out as little as possible. Sex is a good way to stop a detective asking questions, I suppose, but it only works for so long. Plus, they’ve both got cops coming at them from all directions, because they know something smells funny with this whole deal (and there’s the unsolved murders of Thursby and Archer hanging over their heads).

The Maltese Falcon falls into Spade’s possession when a wounded ship captain stumbles into his office, hands it over, and promptly dies. It seems like a stroke of very good luck, and I think that’s the only way Hammett could think of to keep the story moving forward. Spade’s a real mensch, though, and he doesn’t seem at all tempted to keep the falcon for himself… but he’s not quite so high-and-mighty that he doesn’t use it to negotiate a good deal.

Spade outsmarts O’Shaughnessy, Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo at every turn. He ends up getting them to agree to pay him $10,000 for the falcon, and use Wilmer as the fall-guy into the bargain (seeing as, Spade explains, they’ll need someone to take the rap for all the murders, and Wilmer is a real arsehole so it might as well be him). Happy ending, right?



Wrong! The falcon, it turns out, is a fake! *Gasps*

Wilmer escapes, seeing no reason to hang around and take the fall for murders now. Gutman and Cairo decide to keep searching for the real falcon together, and off they trot. O’Shaughnessy starts planning a new life for herself with her new boyfriend Spade… only our big dick has put on his detective hat, and he’s worked out it was she who killed Archer and Thursby, back when this whole thing kicked off. He’s had a bloody gut-full of the lot of them, to be honest. He turns snitch, handing them all over to the cops, and wipes his hands clean. The story ends with Spade back in his office, back to normal, and Archer’s widow showing up to “talk”…

And there we have it: a twisty-turny detective mystery thriller, with a hint of the hunt for pirate treasure and a bare-bones love story to keep things interesting.

It’s a surprisingly Woke book (tight-dressed “darling” secretaries and reductive gay representation aside), given the time period in which it was written. The female characters were surprisingly complex, even if they were objectified at every turn. Hammett was a pretty cool dude, and he devoted much of his life to left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements. Those philosophies clearly seeped into his work, which is markedly absent the racism and brutal sexism of so many other books of that era.

Spade is an amalgamation of all those hard-nosed detective tropes we know and love: cold, detached, observant, ruthless, unsentimental, determined, with a keen sense of justice and a willingness to bend the rules to see it administered. There was endless speculation, upon release of The Maltese Falcon and a handful of lesser-known short stories also featuring the character, that Spade was based on a real-life detective that Hammett had encountered in his former work, but he vehemently denied it.

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

Dashiell hammett

I only realised later that this book was the basis of the 1941 film noir classic of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart, which is perfect casting – as I was reading, I kept picturing Spade as a Bogart-esque figure. There have been a few other film adaptations made since then as well, but that one remains the best, according to basically every film critic ever.

The Maltese Falcon is formulaic, by today’s standards, but it’s also fast and fun to read. It’s not particularly challenging, but you do need to focus your attention, because it moves fast and it’s a short book to begin with. There’s not a lot of room for your mind to wander between plot points! Keep your wits about you, or you’ll lose track of what’s going on and where allegiances lie in the hunt for this golden bird statue…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maltese Falcon:

  • “Awesome very different than the movie Bogart character was BLONDE!” – Debra Anderson
  • “Didn’t care for this book too much. Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Nuts to him.” – Phillip Marlowe
  • “classic af
    love living in San Francisco and I can literally visit the spots that are in the book. . .with this being said hire me someone! Marketing – is me at this time..” – Louis Quinteros
  • “Holy crap, if people were really this stupid in the early 20th century it’s surprising the human race has developed to the level it is in now. The characters are all dumb dumbs even the supposed bright private investigator is a dumb dumb. The book plays out like a boring episode of Scooby Doo if the characters were all victims of self inflicted anoxic brain injuries patients from trying to breath under waters.
    The ending which is supposed to be dramatic (I guess?..) is really dull and leaves me yelling at Sam the detective to shut up and call the police to arrest the woman already, but no it plays out like this: Semi-Spoiler Alert:

    Dumb detective: “I don’t know if I love you or not, sure we’ve known each other less than a week and may have banged once. Maybe that is love, maybe it isn’t. Don Draper from Mad Men isn’t alive yet to use creative marketing to tell us what love is. So like I said how can I know for sure if we’re in love?”
    Dumb Lady: “Oh Sam, I do love you, sure your contemplating calling the police because I straight up murdered your business partner and royally screwed over the other criminals I was working with but, I would never do that to you…”
    Dumb Detective: “That maybe, but I still don’t know if I can trust you. I think the best thing will be to still arrest you, maybe when you get out of jail, if you don’t get the death penalty, we can be a couple because that seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. Especially since I’ve known you for a week and you murdered my business partner and pretty much lied since we met.”
    Dumb Lady: “I guess.”

    The End” – Todd K.

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

Ever wonder why I’m constantly buying secondhand books? Aside from being thrifty, it’s because they have the most amazing and hilarious charm that I just don’t get when I click “buy now” on the latest brand-new mass-market paperback. Inside this well-worn copy of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, for instance, I found a hand-written business card, complete with name, phone number, email address, and the (one would assume unofficial) job title of “complete and utter wanker”. Can’t beat that!

Evelyn Waugh was the second son of Arthur Waugh, celebrated publisher-slash-literary critic, and also the brother of Alec Waugh, the popular novelist. I can only imagine the weight of family expectation on his shoulders, and the snippy conversations they had over Christmas dinners! Luckily, it would seem that he managed to out-write and out-last them both. He’s better known for his book Brideshead Revisited, but somehow Scoop, his satirical novel about sensationalist journalism and foreign correspondents, is the one that ended up on my reading list.

It’s kind of funny, really, to read a book about journalists and newspapers written before the News Of The World scandal. Scoop reads like a time capsule of the by-gone “heyday” of newspaper journalism. The protagonist is the humble (read: poor) William Boot, who lives on the very-very outskirts of London and regularly contributes over-written nature columns to The Daily Beast, a newspaper owned by the terrifying and powerful Lord Copper. Boot’s life is turned upside-down when Lord Copper mistakes him for a fashionable member of the literati (John Courtney Boot, a distant cousin), and bullies him into accepting a post as a foreign correspondent.

Not-very-important note, but something I can’t help mentioning: Waugh seemed to be unusually fond of the word “preternatural”. I had to look it up, to make sure it didn’t have some nuanced meaning or significant etymology, he used it so often! Twice in the first twenty pages alone, for crying out loud! In different contexts! I still can’t work out what he was playing at…


Anyway, Boot is sent to the fictional East African state of Ishmaelia, where Lord Copper believes there to be “a very promising little war” underway. Boot’s directive is to give the conflict “fullest publicity”. (Yes, the whole way through, the parallels to Murdoch’s real-life media empire are eerie.) Boot has no idea what the fuck he is doing, of course, but despite his total incompetence, he manages to get the biggest “scoop” of the year (thus, the title). He heads home a journalistic hero.

When he gets back to London, however, there’s another case of mistaken identity. All the credit for his work goes to John Courtney Boot, the writer for whom Lord Copper had mistaken him initially. Our hero is actually relieved by that turn of events, and he goes back to his humble life of genteel poverty, writing nature columns and caring for his crazy family. Everyone goes home happy, The End.

Now, let’s not overlook this: there are a lot of ugly racist and sexist overtones in this story (as there are in just about every book of that era). Privileged white people travel to East Africa to make a spectacle of a war between people of colour, in order to sell newspapers. That’s pretty gross on its face, but Waugh seemed to have a certain level of self-awareness about the implications. In fact, I’d say he used Scoop as an opportunity to punch up. The East Africans weren’t the butt of the joke: the ridiculous arrogant journalists and newspaper moguls were. And Waugh wasn’t subtle: the two major newspaper competitors were called the “Brute” and the “Beast”, so there’s no mistaking his true feelings. (Oh, and his idea of the lowliest employee at a newspaper was the book reviewer – ha!)

Waugh’s blatant disregard for the opinions of the powerful elites he lampooned is all the more surprising given that Scoop is actually based on his real-life experience working for the Daily Mail. He was sent to cover Mussolini’s role in the Second Italo-Abyssian war. Lord Copper is widely believed to be an amalgamation of characteristics of the real-life Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, a combination that produced a character so frightening his underlings could only say “Definitely, Lord Copper” and “Up to a point, Lord Copper” (which is how the whole mistaken identity issue arises to begin with). Waugh’s Scoop is the very clear and unambiguous predecessor to The Devil Wears Prada.

The main point Waugh was trying to make, it would seem, is that even if there isn’t anything newsworthy going on, the appearance of world media – desperate to please their editors and media owners back home – will, in itself, create the news. This sounds like an obvious statement of fact today, but I’d imagine at the time it was revelatory. Waugh appears to have foreseen the proliferation of fake news and alternative facts. It’s a testament to his searing insight that Scoop maintains its relevance to the present day. Even as journalism dies a quiet death and the newspaper work room becomes a quaint relic and the news increasingly relocates to online formats with instantaneous delivery systems, Waugh’s wit and insight remains almost as sharp as it did at the time of publication.

As for the writing itself, as much as I admire Waugh’s incredible foresight in his premise and plot, it wasn’t mind-blowing. It really evoked The Thirty-Nine Steps for me, actually – a grumpy Pommy bloke, through a series of coincidences, gets thrust into a situation that’s beyond him and he has to rise to the challenge. It forms a kind of bridge between The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Sun Also Rises. I liked it well enough; it wasn’t fantastic prose, but it wasn’t a chore to finish, and I’m glad to have read it. If you’ve got an interest in media, how it works and how it affects our understanding of the world, this would be great background reading for you – give it a go and let me know what you think.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Scoop:

  • “Somewhere between William Boyd’s “A Good Man in Africa” and Graham Greene’s “Our Man In Havana” you will find Waugh’s “Scoop”, which should have been titled “Our Gardening Columnist in Ishmaelia”….” – Pop Bop
  • “I think some people would find this very funny. I didn’t.” – ellen sf
  • “Book was brand new and I loved the size of the font! Extra easy to leave nits in the margin (because I am studying the novel for a class)” – Ebony Cannon
  • “She’s a he. Pronounced EEEEE-velyn.” – Amazon Customer
  • “‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’ That must babe good style.” – A customer

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

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

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

What Does It Mean To Read Diversely?

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

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

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

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

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

Why Should We Read Diversely? Why Does It Matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Books and Window Books

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

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

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

Exercise for your thinking muscle

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

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

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

Countering Psychological Biases Through Reading

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

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

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

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

Read More, Read Better

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

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

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

My Favourite TED Talks on Diverse Reading and Storytelling

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

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

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

Where To Start: A List of Diverse Books

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

Authors of Colour

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

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

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

Female, Trans, and Non-Binary Authors

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

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

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

Authors With Disabilities

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

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

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

Authors of Diverse Sexualities

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

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

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

Ready For More Diverse Books?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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

What Is The Great American Novel?

I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…

What Is The Great American Novel? - Text Overlaid on Image of American Flags - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept

It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.

He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…


How Do We Define the Great American Novel?

We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).

Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.

“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”

Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.

“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”

Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.

“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”

This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)

“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”

Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).

“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”

That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.

“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”

This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.



But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:

“… the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen.”

A.O. Scott (2006)

All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.

The Great American Novels

It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics.

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 once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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

Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me!



On The Road – Jack Kerouac

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

Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute).



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity.

Problems With Defining The Great American Novel

Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.

Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…

When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.




Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

I’ve got a little surprise for you, Keeper-Upperers: this review is actually a two-fer! The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the book from The List, and most of this post will focus on that story, but when I picked up this Wordsworth Classic edition, I realised it actually contained The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer as well, so I decided to read them both. As per the blurb on the back, “sharing so much in background and character, these two stories, the best of Twain, indisputably belong together in one volume” – and, as it turns out, in one review 😉

The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer

The introduction to this edition says that Huck Finn is quite inconsistent as a character, and Tom Sawyer is a “simpler affair” to read. Plus, it comes first in the chronology of events, so aside from anything else it makes sense to read it first. Twain published The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer in 1876, and it was initially a complete flop (all the best ones are!) but it went on to become the best-selling of any of his works during his lifetime. The story is set in the 1840s, in the fictional town of St Petersburg (which is quite obviously based on Twain’s own hometown: Hannibal, Missouri).

I’ll resist the temptation to break down the entire plot in detail for you (otherwise this two-fer review would end up longer than the novels), but suffice it to say that the young protagonist – Tom Sawyer – has a whole bunch of small-town adventures. He wags school, tries to start gangs like his heroes from adventure books, falls in “love” with a girl from his school and breaks her heart, the whole nine yards. The character of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck”) appears often, usually as a kind of side-kick in The Tom Sawyer Show.

I noticed reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer that Twain presents the reader with a really unsettling juxtaposition of innocence (see: small-town adventures, as described) and very adult themes. Tom Sawyer witnesses a murder, many in the town experience abject poverty, a couple of the adults are dreadful alcoholics, plus… well, y’know, slavery. These elements – innocence and darkness, side-by-side – really reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird. I suppose that’s hardly surprising; I’d wager that almost all Southern literature has its roots in Twain’s stories. After all, our mate Hemingway once said that “all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain” (and, yes, he was technically referring to Huckleberry Finn, but I think it still holds up).




Tom Sawyer is a good lead-up to The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn in terms of getting you acquainted with the time period and the language. I’m going to acknowledge right here that, yes, there are a lot of racial epithets – some folks are cool with that, some aren’t, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. And on a related note, I must confess it took me an embarrassingly long time to work out that “Injun Joe” actually meant INDIAN Joe (i.e., Native American)…

The introduction was right: The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer is indeed a simpler affair, and I knocked it over fairly quickly. Despite the adult themes, it’s basically a straightforward boy-adventure story. Huck Finn, on the other hand…

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn

As much as he was Tom Sawyer’s side-kick in the first book, Huck is definitely the star of the show in this review. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was published eight years after The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and represents – in my mind, anyway – a huge leap forward in terms of Twain’s craft. It was the first major American novel to be written entirely in vernacular English (i.e., in the slang and local colour of the region), and is now considered to be one of the Great American Novels.

I know we generally shit all over vernacular writing and whinge that it makes stories harder to read, but Huck Finn actually felt a lot more readable than Tom Sawyer, like Twain had finally hit his stride. The writing was far more engaging and immersive, and I didn’t struggle with the vernacular at all. If you really hate that style of writing, then sure, give this one a miss, but don’t make the mistake of lumping it in the same basket as D.H. Lawrence and his cronies. If you can handle the Southern accents in the movie version of Gone With The Wind, you won’t have any trouble with The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.




And here’s a cool piece of literary history for you: Twain actually composed The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by hand on notepaper, over the course of several years, and the original manuscript still exists today! On it, we can see how Twain’s use of language and vernacular evolved as he was writing it. The famous opening line originally read “You will not know about me”, which Twain later changed to “You do not know about me”, before finally settling on the final version which we now all know so well:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

So, as you can see, Huck tells us of his adventures himself, and they’re a direct sequel to The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Now, our mate Tom takes a pretty sharp left turn; in his book, he’d seemed like an innocent ragamuffin who let the pirate adventure stories he read feed his overactive imagination, but in the first few chapters of Huck Finn he comes across as an out-and-out psychopath. I really didn’t like him much at all after that; he literally tried to start a murder cult, and I’m not about that life.

We get to learn more about Huck Finn, finally, and he is infinitely more likeable (I mean, he’s not perfect, but I was rooting for him just the same). Huck is about thirteen or fourteen, his father is the town drunk and they’re incredibly poor, so it’s tough for the kid to fit in. In his adventures with Tom at the end of the previous book, Huck had come into a large sum of money, so the townsfolk suddenly take an interest in his upbringing and welfare. He goes to live with the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson for a while, and they try to beat some Jesus into him, but he escapes their clutches… only to wind up being kidnapped by his drunken a-hole father.




Huck manages to keep his Pap’s dirty hands off the money, but still has a bit of a rough trot with the old man. He’s locked in an isolated cabin in the woods, subjected to bouts of extreme violence, and on the whole things are looking pretty bad… but Huck is an enterprising kid, and he goes all-out with an elaborate escape, literally faking his own death. I mean, sheesh! I tried to run away a few times as a kid, too, but I never took it that far.

On the run, Huck encounters Jim, a huge (but very polite) black man who was once the slave of Miss Watson. It turns out most of the townsfolk assume that Jim killed Huck, and he was scared that Miss Watson would sell him down the river, so he’s done a runner too. Huck has to do a bit of mental gymnastics to overcome the guilt he’s been conditioned to feel for helping a runaway slave, but he comes to care deeply for Jim and they have a lot in common, so they become fellow travellers on the Mississippi River. They head towards a town in Illinois (a free state) where Jim won’t have to live looking over his shoulder.

Now, opinion is very divided as to whether this is a “racist” book, even above and beyond Twain’s liberal use of the n-word. Many academics posit that Twain intended The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn to read as a scathing satire of entrenched social attitudes, especially racism, but there are plenty of people who disagree. They say that Twain not only used racist language, but relied on racial stereotypes to get his point across. For my part, as I read it, there’s obviously a lot of structural racism involved and some white-saviour elements that grossed me out, but Huck and Jim’s relationship seemed to be very genuine, mutual, affectionate, and respectful. On several occasions, Twain explicitly showed Huck working hard to overcome the attitudes he had been socially conditioned to hold, and behave in such a way that contradicted the racism of the time. As such, I don’t think we should hold up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the last word on defeating racism in America, but simultaneously it seems that it was rather progressive in its own time, and it’s still a book from which we could certainly learn more.

“A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience… [Huck Finn is] a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collusion and conscience suffers a defeat.”

Mark Twain

Anyway, back to the fun stuff: Huck and Jim have a series of adventures and mishaps as they travel along the Mississippi. Towards the end, Jim gets captured by a family who believe there is a substantial reward on his head (being, as he is, a runaway slave). Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, and the two of them make a (very, laughably, elaborate) plan to set Jim free. It involves secret messages, a hidden tunnel, a rope ladder smuggled in Jim’s food (he was kept on the ground floor, but okay), snakes, and a bunch of other stuff that Tom had read about in adventure books. When they finally get Jim out, Tom gets shot in the leg and Jim remains with him, at risk of being recaptured, rather than taking the opportunity to escape alone.

(This is all pretty typical of the adventures that Huck and Jim have together, by the way, and there are a lot of ’em.)




Still, it’s all resolved rather quickly. It turns out that Jim’s “owner” (ugh) had died a couple weeks prior, and granted him freedom in her will. Huck’s father is dead, so he can return home safely. He and Tom set off back to St Petersburg, and Huck declares that he is quite glad to be done writing his story. He knows there’s a plan afoot to adopt and “civilise” him, so he plans to flee west (to “Indian Territory”) if they try it.

As much as Tom Sawyer’s adventures reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn oddly evoked another more contemporary book: The Catcher In The Rye. A lot of the same elements are there: a lost, wayward boy; strong characterisation through coarse language and slang; and (of course) a long history of being challenged and banned. As early as 1885, libraries had banned Huck Finn from their shelves. The Boston Transcript newspaper that year ran a story that read:

“The Concord (Mass.) Public Library committee has decided to exclude Mark Twain’s book from the library. One member of the committee says that, while he does not wish to call it immoral, he thinks it contains but little humor, and that of a very coarse type. He regards it as the veriest trash. The library and the other members of the committee entertain similar views, characterizing it as rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiencing not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.”

Boston Transcript (1885)

Twain reportedly then wrote a letter to his editor, saying:

“Apparently, the Concord Library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums’. This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

Mark Twain (1885) – funny bastard, eh?

The controversy persists to this day, and it ties into the whole is-the-book-racist debate. Huck Finn was the fifth most challenged book in the U.S. throughout the 1990s, with most objections citing its frequent use of the n-word and other racial slurs. Some publishers have attempted to mollify concerned parents and teachers by, for instance, publishing editions that cut out or replace the offending language. These attempts always backfire (duh), serving only to stoke the fires of the controversy. There’s no “winning” this debate, I tell you…

There is a whole world of really interesting articles and discussions out there, and if you’re curious you should definitely take a look. A lot of people who are far cleverer than me have posted some really insightful analysis about Twain’s treatment of race, identity, class, and the American South. It makes for fascinating reading, whether you (like me) have just read The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, or whether it’s your life-long favourite. As for the book itself, I’d say steer clear if you’re sensitive to issues of race and discriminatory language, but if you can stomach that stuff reasonably well, you should give it a go. If you read it once in high-school. but haven’t picked it up since, it’s definitely one that’s worth revisiting. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a nice entree, a simpler story of some interest, but The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is the main course, Twain’s pièce de résistance.

Note: I enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn SO MUCH that I ended up including it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn:

  • “I THOUGHT THAT THE STORY WAS GOING GREAT AT THE BEGINNING AND IT WAS BUT I JUST STARTED TO GET BORED” – Paul Robert Carroll
  • “Warning, will tell kids about some of your tricks.” – Regular Buyer
  • “Book isn’t normal sized” – Emily S
  • “Mark Twain didn’t write many bad ones.” – Thomas E. Bracking
  • “I’d talk about the plot but I don’t want to get shot!” – Solong
  • “Haven’t read them yet, but I’m sure I will like them because Mark Twain is incredibly entertaining for a dead guy.” – M. Waters
  • “i got this book as a gift to my ex a bit before we broke up.” – David A Medina
  • “Dude no words only pics a few pics 4 me. I hated it. This best way 2 read this is 2 smash whatever device u r using” – Ayden mccormick
  • “I was forced to read this for school and it was a complete waste of time I would much rather be reading Lolita or listening to one direction” – Felicia Hill


8 Most Annoying Characters In Literature

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

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

Harry (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cather “Cath” Avery (Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl - Rainbow Rowell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Guy Montag (Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury)

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

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

Pearl (The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne)

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

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

Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway)

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

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

Beatrice (The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri)

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

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


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

You know what NEVER annoys me? When Keeper Upperers throw some small change in the tip jar to keep this project going! Any amount, and all payment methods, accepted:

7 Books That Are Hard To Find Second Hand (And My Best Tips To Track Them Down!)

Hi, my name is Sheree, and I’m a second-hand book addict. If you’ve been following Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you’ll know that I’m a regular fixture in all my local stores, scouring the shelves for books. In fact, I’ve managed to find the majority of them this way (the subject of this week’s review, Fangirl, being the exception). Sometimes, I muse on how easy it would be to simply buy them all brand new with the click of a button… but where’s the fun in that? It’s all about the thrill of the chase! To save you some of my heartache, I thought I’d write a post about the longest and most difficult chases, and give you some tips to make it all a little easier. Here’s 7 books that are hard to find second hand (and my best tips for tracking them down!).

7+ Tips for Finding Rare Books In Thrift Shops - Text Overlaid on Greyscale Image of Woman Browsing in Book Shop - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett

The Colour Of Magic - Terry Pratchett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When my hunt for books on The List first started, I didn’t anticipate Terry Pratchett being a problem. After all, he’s so popular, and so prolific(!), I figured that every secondhand book store would be simply groaning under the weight of his entire collection. Plus, I was sure I’d seen stacks of his books in other stores before, so surely it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out, I was dead wrong! Maybe I’m just in the wrong (geographical) area, maybe all fantasy books just blur together in my mind, but whatever it is: The Colour of Magic was nowhere to be found! When I did see a small handful of Terry Pratchett’s offerings on the shelves (which wasn’t often at all, by the way), this particular book – the first in his Discworld series – was never among them. I ended up finding it while I was wandering through a neighbouring suburb on a Saturday afternoon. Some long-suffering hippie had set up a trestle table, and he was selling off his personal book collection; he had half a dozen Pratchett books, and I finally hit pay-dirt.

Tip Number 1: Don’t limit your search to stores! Often, the best bargains are to be found at markets and other stall-type set-ups, where people are just selling off their own stuff (thank you, Marie Kondo!). They’re just happy to be rid of it, de-cluttering and all that being good for the soul, and you can score a hard-to-find book at a fraction of what you’d pay in the store (where the seller would know exactly how hard it is to find, and how much it’s worth!).

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

I had one secondhand book store staff member LITERALLY LAUGH IN MY FACE when I asked if they had a copy. If that doesn’t convince you that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is hard to find second hand, I don’t know what will! The problem is that this beloved classic of the sci-fi genre is a comfort read; people pull it out when they want something familiar and calming, re-reading it dozens of times over, and so they never want to part with it.

Still, joke’s on that giggly store clerk: I grabbed the first copy I found, without even looking at the price (a modest $9, thank goodness!), and it turns out it’s a freaking first edition! It’ll be worth a quid one day, believe you me…

Tip Number 2: Don’t give up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. And before you donate or sell any book of your own, always double check the publication date and whether there’s any significance to that edition. Make sure you’re armed with information, and you know its worth before you pass it on!

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Now, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Clarissa was tough to find second hand: not only is it one of the lesser-known classics (compared to something like Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield), but it’s also fucking loooooooong! It runs to over 1,500 pages, meaning that it’s not that popular with contemporary readers. And when people aren’t buying it new, your chances of finding it second hand decrease dramatically (duh). So, I was keeping my eyes peeled for a big-ass book… Imagine my surprise when I found a modestly-sized abridged version at a closing-down sale, running to just 500 pages! Now, I’m not saying I’d turn down a copy of the full text if I came across one, but in the meantime I’m happy to consider it checked off my to-buy list.

Tip Number 3: Don’t get tunnel vision! I find having a to-buy list really enhances my second-hand book buying experience, and it stops me from feeling overwhelmed. Without it, I’d probably want to take home every single book I see, and end up with a hundred copies of everything. But if I stayed hell-bent on only buying “pretty” editions, or full texts, or print-runs from Penguin, or whatever, I’d have missed out on some great deals and books I’ve come to love very much. So, a list is a good idea, but don’t let it hem you in!

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend

I’ve searched for Lolly Willowes one long and hard, and it’s even tougher than most of the others on this list, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve got to check for two different titles (it’s usually called “Lolly Willowes”, but some editions go under “The Loving Huntsman”). And, if that’s not enough, I’ve also got to check under two different author names (she’s alternately called Sylvia Townsend, and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Luckily, T and W are pretty close together in the alphabet, so I normally don’t have to search too far if the shelves are arranged alphabetically…

Tip Number 4: If there’s something in particular you’re searching for, make sure you know everything there is to know about it. Does it have an alternative title? Did the author use a nom de plume at first, or switch to a married name, or choose a new name after coming out? You’ll kick yourself forever if you figure out that you could’ve found a copy, if only you’d known where to look!

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

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

Speaking of alternate titles: The Sun Also Rises was also sometimes printed with the title “Fiesta”. There’s a fun fact for you! But even knowing that, I still had a really tough time finding it, and I couldn’t understand why. I mean, I saw A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and The Sea, in almost every store I entered – but never the Hemingway I actually wanted. I was bitching about this situation (indeed, rather loudly) in my favourite second-hand book store one day, when a lovely young woman gently tapped me on the shoulder, and held out to me the copy she’d just pulled off the shelf.

Of course, this all happened on the very day when I had no cash on me and I’d left my card at home. But I wasn’t completely out of luck: I was in the company of a very dear friend (when I’m with friends, “let’s go for a wander!” is almost always code for “let’s go find a bookstore to browse!”), and he was kind enough to buy it for me. Not all heroes wear capes!

Tip Number 5: If you’re going to forget your wallet, make sure your friend brings his! And make sure you name them as a sponsor of your book blog and show them lots of love and gratitude 😉 Ha! On a more serious note, don’t be afraid to ask the store assistants if you’re looking for something in particular. Sure, now and then, you’ll encounter one that will laugh in your face (ahem!), but for the most part they are incredibly kind and helpful. And the patrons are too, come to that (the young lady who helped me was not an aberration – I’ve helped out fellow patrons a time or two myself!). Sometimes, the store will have a “wait” list of sorts, and the staff will add your name and call you if the book comes in. They’re so grateful for your custom, they’ll go above and beyond to make sure you keep coming back!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I actually have no idea why this one was so difficult to find. It was one of my top priorities in my search, having heard that it was excellent, and I dutifully checked every single store I passed in my travels. I came across dozens of regular bookstores that stocked brand-new copies of the tri-band Penguin edition, but I never came across it second-hand. It wasn’t too long to be popular, like Clarissa, or genre-defining, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it was just… hard to find! Luckily, I eventually found a copy at a market stall, buried among stacks of Vintage classics and coffee-table books.

Tip Number 6: Keep your eyes peeled, at all times, always! Even when you’re browsing the markets for a gift, or looking for a bathroom in Tel Aviv, or even just hanging out at a mate’s place – I’ve had more than one generous friend offer to permanently lend me a book from their collection, for the purposes of this blog. You just never know where you’ll find gold!

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have it on very good authority (i.e., several booksellers and #bookstagrammers have told me) that no one ever, ever, ever wants to part with their copy of The Bell Jar. And I can see why! Having read it for the first time recently (my review here), I can already tell that it’s a book I’ll read over and over again, and you’ll have to pry my gorgeous Faber edition from my cold dead hands. Seriously, it’s beautiful! It’s matte black embossed with shiny gold, and it has the most beautiful inscription from a friend of mine. (Yeah, funny story: she knew I’d been searching long and hard for a copy, and she was looking for a last-minute gift for me, so she stopped in the secondhand book store closest to my house and said “I know you probably don’t have it, because my friend is in here looking for it all the time, but is there any chance you’ve got a copy of The Bell Jar?”. Sure enough, they’d had one come in that very day. Sometimes, life just works out!)

Tip Number 7: Make sure your friends and family know what it is you’re after. That’s not to say you should expect them to buy everything they see for you, of course, but they can give you a heads up when they spot a hard-to-find book in their local second-hand store. And they’ll know exactly what to get you for Christmas!

Bonus tip: Never bother buying any Charles Dickens, or D.H. Lawrence, or Grahame Greene brand new. Every single second-hand store I have ever entered has STACKS of them, and at least a few of those are unread, as-new copies. The same also goes for the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and the Harry Potter books. Plus, if you’re not precious about movie tie-in editions (I’m not, but some booklovers are), you’ll find STACKS of them in secondhand stores, too. If you’re after a book that has been turned into a film in the last 2-3 years, you’re almost guaranteed to find it (and probably in pristine condition, too!).

Bonus bonus tip: Young Adult is a mixed bag, on the whole. Some of them (like Fangirl, and If I Stay) are tough to find right now. In general, you’ve got the best hope of finding the specific YA read you’re after in a secondhand store that has a dedicated YA section (if they’re lumped in with general fiction, you’re going to have a hard time – not sure why that is, it just is, I don’t make the rules). And you usually have to wait about 5-10 years after the initial release, once the target market has outgrown them and moved out of home (either they’ll sell them off, or their parents will, either way…).


Do you buy your books second hand? Why/why not? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook)!

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