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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this particular book review might get a little ranty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel written by Anita Loos, first published in 1925 – one of several novels published that year that are famous for their depictions of the Jazz Age in America. It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge success immediately upon publication; the entire first print run sold out the first day it went into stores, it was a best-seller in thirteen different languages, and it counts among its fans James Joyce and Edith Wharton (who called it the Great American Novel). So, why is it always overlooked in discussions of the modern classics? Yet another example of how we value stories about and by men over those of women, hmph! (Yes, I’m getting ranty, I did warn you!)

The book’s full title is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and this edition also contains its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published two years later. The introduction to this volume is quite good, and highly readable. It contains gems like:

“It could be said, therefore, that Loos did not write a version of Beauty and the Beast; instead, she rewrote Beauty as the Beast.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

And:

“The men who perpetually orbit around Lorelei and Dorothy have two major problems: they have too much money in their bank accounts and too much time on their hands. Lorelei and Dorothy are able to solve both their problems at once.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

Loos said she was inspired to write the book after watching her friend, intellectual H.L. Mencken, reduced to a character she likened to a lovestruck schoolboy in the presence of a sexy blonde woman. Mencken was a good sport about it; he read her draft, loved it, and saw to its publication. Of the particular brand of humour she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos said:

“In those days I had a friend, Rayne Adams, who used to say that my slant on life was that of a child of ten, chortling with excitement over a disaster…. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.”

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

“… during a television interview in London, the question was put to me: ‘Miss Loos, your book was based on an economic situation, the unparalleled prosperity of the Twenties. If you were to write such a book today, what would be your theme?’ And without hesitation, I was forced to answer, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen’ (a statement which brought the session abruptly to a close).”

Anita Loos

Alright, alright, I’ll stop quoting Loos (even though I could do it all day, she was endlessly quotable!) and get down to business. Going in, I thought that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be The Great Gatsby meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in reality it was more like Gatsby meets The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It’s fun, and silly, but also insightful and powerful. Actually, charming is probably the best word for it. I couldn’t help but continue through reading But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes as well, so taken was I with Loos’ characters and prose.

The premise of the story is this: beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee decides to try her hand at writing a diary, because a gentleman friend suggested that her thoughts would make for an interesting book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is presented as a transcript of that journal, complete with spelling and grammatical errors that say much about Lorelei’s personality and position. She had been working in the movies in Hollywood, she tells us, when she met Mr Gus Eisman, a button manufacturer from Chicago. He decided that her line of work in Hollywood was not becoming for a woman of her potential, so he installed her in a New York apartment and committed a small fortune to “educating” her. What follows from these opening pages, the entire book, is a knowing wink at every woman who has ever copped a barrage of mansplaining from their boss or their boyfriend or the bloke buying their drinks in a bar.



In the course of her “education”, Lorelei meets Gerry Lamson, a married novelist. He is so taken with her that he decides to divorce his wife, on the proviso (of course) that she’ll leave Eisman and run away with him. Lorelei is flattered, naturally, but wishes to avoid the scandal of involvement in a divorce proceeding, and also worries that Eisman might cancel her European cruise ticket if she takes up with another man. Plus, Gerry’s kind of a bore.

Lorelei is also very concerned about her friend, Dorothy, who she believes to be “wasting her time” with a magazine writer named Mencken (a shout-out to Loos’ real-life friend and inspiration for the story), when she could be lavishing her attentions more strategically in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from such fruitless pursuits, Lorelei brings Dorothy with her on the cruise and they set sail for Europe together (with Eisman promising to meet them there).

To Lorelei’s dismay, she discovers that former District Attorney Bartlett is also on board, and she reveals to the reader how she came to know him (and why she’s so distraught at his presence). See, Lorelei once worked as a stenographer in her hometown for one Mr Jennings. Upon finding out that he was a sexual predator, she became “hysterical” and shot him. It sounds brutal, but her re-telling of these events is actually one of the funniest parts of this entire hilarious book. Bartlett is the attorney who prosecuted the case, with little success; apparently, the gentlemen of the jury were so “moved” by Lorelei’s “testimony” (wink-wink) that they acquitted her without question, and the judge – equally taken with her – gifted her the money she needed for a ticket to Hollywood.



Anyway, after some shenanigans on board (involving Bartlett and some military espionage), Lorelei and Dorothy eventually arrive in London. They encounter several impoverished aristocrats who are selling off their jewels to wealthy Americans. One particular £7,500 tiara catches Lorelei’s eye; what’s a poor girl to do but seek out a wealthy man to buy it for her? She settles on Sir Francis Beekman (whom she calls Piggie). He’s rich, but also married (duh) and notoriously stingy. Still, using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her.

With that taken care of, Dorothy and Lorelei head to Paris, but unbeknownst to them Lady Beekman is hot on their tails, hell-bent on confronting Lorelei about this tiara business. In thirty-five years of marriage, she says, her husband has never once bought her a gift, and she accuses Lorelei of having seduced him. Lady B tries to get her lawyers to steal the tiara back, but Lorelei manages to trick them with a fake one, and everyone goes home happy

When Eisman arrives in Paris, he quickly hustles the girls onto the Orient Express and takes them to Vienna. En route, Lorelei meets staunch Presbyterian moralist and prohibitionist Mr Henry Spoffard. He is (you guessed it) filthy rich, old money from Philadelphia. Eisman is quickly discarded. On one of their early dates, Spoffard takes Lorelei to see Dr Sigmund Freud, who says he cannot possibly analyse her because she has never repressed a desire in her entire life (accurate). Spoffard also later introduces Lorelei to his mother; she’s a tough old battle-axe, but Lorelei wins her over with champagne and charm. When Spoffard proposes, Lorelei accepts, albeit begrudgingly; she finds him rather repulsive, but he has money and prospects enough to make her happy.



When they get back to New York, Lorelei decides that she should “come out” into polite society, now that she’s marrying into the fold, so she plans a debutante ball for herself (honestly, I love this woman!). The party lasts three days, and makes the front pages of the newspapers. Lorelei has so much fun that she decides she might not marry Spoffard after all. She gets Dorothy to tell him that she is pathologically indulgent and extravagant (not that much of a stretch), while she goes on a mammoth shopping spree, charging everything to Spoffard’s accounts. When she stops for lunch, she meets a fascinating screen-writer, who convinces her that she should go ahead with the marriage so that her new husband will finance his film projects and she can star in them. It takes a bit of wrangling to unring the bell, but Lorelei – resourceful, clever Lorelei – manages to convince her fiance that it was all a misguided test of his love, and he remorsefully agrees not just to marry her, but finance the first film of her new friend. And so ends Lorelei’s diary, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

(And in the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei gives up her film career after she has a child. She decides to become an “authoress”, after all the fun she had writing her diary, and her first project is to tell Dorothy’s life story.)

So, we arrive back at my “controversial” opinion, which I will repeat once more for the cheap seats in the back: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book than The Great Gatsby. They take place in a comparable setting, but Loos’ effort is just so. much. better! I think it’s too easily written off as a funny little story about a silly gold-digger, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a compelling and hilarious account of gender roles, politics, and power in 1920s America. It’s a story about resourcefulness, determination, strategy, and relationships. Compare that to stinkin’ Gatsby, which is pretty much just a cautionary tale about how rich people aren’t as happy as they look – pffft! What a tragedy that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t the book that teenagers are forced to read in high school; I’m sure it’d teach them a lot more about life, and heck, it’d be a lot more fun for them to read!

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

  • “The air head who overrates her intellectual prowess is cute, but this book is a one trick pony. Lorelei simply sees life as “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she wants to shop for hats, men are her sugar daddies. I’m sure this book was uproariously funny in the 1920’s.

I guess you had to be there.” – J. Rodeck
  • “It wasnt the play its the novel and im an so not satisfied” – Raven Lyons

Book Reviews By Title

A

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Amongst Women – John McGahern
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

B

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

C

The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

D

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Divergent – Veronica Roth
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

E

Emma – Jane Austen
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

F

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

G

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
The Golden Bowl – Henry James
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

H

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I

If I Stay – Gayle Forman
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

J

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

K

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

M

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Money – Martin Amis
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

N

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos

O

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

P

Paper Towns – John Green
Party Going – Henry Green
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Q

R

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

S

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!

T

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

U

Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

V

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

W

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

X

Y

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Z

Book Reviews By Author

A

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Money – Martin Amis
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Emma – Jane Austen
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

B

She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

C

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

D

The Divine Comedy – Dante
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

E

F

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

G

Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Party Going – Henry Green
Paper Towns – John Green
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

H

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

I

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

J

The Golden Bowl – Henry James
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

K

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
American Sniper – Chris Kyle

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

M

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Amongst Women – John McGahern
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
The Lake House – Kate Morton

N

O

P

Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

Q

R

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

S

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

T

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

U

V

W

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Picture Of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

X

Y

Z

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.



The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker



50 Books To Read Before You Die

It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.

Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.

6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.

7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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

Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

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

Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?



14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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

This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.

15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

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

Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.

16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

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

I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.

22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.

25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

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

OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

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

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.

28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.

32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.

38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

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

It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century…

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).

48. Beloved by Toni Morrison

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

Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think!

And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!


Murphy – Samuel Beckett

I’m getting closer and closer to the pointy end of my reading list, which makes it harder and harder to pick my next read! I decided to do something different this time, and let my husband pick for me. He chose Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, because (in his exact words): “It’s exceptionally weird, and he was mates with [James] Joyce, so it’s the next best thing to forcing you to read Ulysses.” Isn’t that sweet? *eye roll*

The inscription in this pre-loved edition reads: “To Dad, Fathers’ Day 1973, from No. 1 Son”. Whoever Dad is, he apparently enjoyed Murphy, because it’s very well worn – I had to tape the back cover on to hold it together as I read.

Murphy was first published in 1938, the third work of fiction by Beckett (but the first one to be released). He wrote it painstakingly, by hand, in six small exercise books over the course of 1935 and 1936. He had a devil of a time getting it published; no one wanted in Europe wanted a bar of him, and he got no love in America either. Now and then, a publisher would offer to take it on if Beckett was willing to undergo a rigorous editing process, to make the book more marketable, but the smug prick turned them down every time, insisting the book was perfect as it was. In the end, he had to get his mate – the painter Jack Butler Yeates – to put it on the desk of a publisher friend at Routeledge. That’s how Murphy came to be another story in the file of Magical Nepotism.

Between the time of Routeledge accepting his manuscript as-is, and Murphy hitting the stores, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed while wandering the streets of Paris. Apparently, he’d refused a kind offer of companionship from a notorious local pimp, who had much the same attitude towards rejection that Beckett had himself. Beckett nearly died, and had to call on another friend, this time James Joyce (yep, the same one), to oversee (and pay for!) his medical treatment. He made the final amendments and approvals to the manuscript proofs from a French hospital bed. This is a very on-brand story for Beckett, which tells you everything you need to know about the man, really.



It’s got a cracker opening line, perhaps my favourite part of the whole book:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Murphy (Pg. 1)

Normally I’m not a fan of opening with the weather, but for a line so delightfully snarky, I can make an exception. Anyway, Murphy follows the story of a solipsist named (you guessed it) Murphy, who lives in a condemned apartment in West Brompton and later moves to London. Funnily enough, shortly before putting pen to paper, Beckett himself had moved from Dublin to London – the advice to “write what you know” pays off, once again! If we’re to believe, as has been reported, that Murphy draws heavily on Beckett’s real-life experiences, geographically and otherwise, then you’ll soon see that Beckett must have lived a very strange life indeed…

See, the story opens with Murphy sitting naked, tied to a chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, apparently having placed himself in that position. It’s his attempt to enter “a nonexistent state of being” (something akin to sensory deprivation, or deep meditation perhaps), and he finds this state particularly pleasurable. He has withdrawn from the world in gradual but increasing increments, in pursuit of these (shall we say) unconventional desires. Now, bear with me, I’m going to have trouble explaining what happens from then on because this book is, as my husband so eloquently described it, exceptionally weird. Just trust me: if you’re finding this hard to follow, you’re not the only one.



Even though he’s off his trolley, Murphy has at least one friend: Neary, whose party trick is stopping his own heart, a phenomenon he calls “apmonia”. Basically, he can induce cardiac arrest at will. WTAF? And Neary and Murphy sit around talking about their heart attacks and special-naked-rocking-chair-time, until the conversation eventually shifts around to their love lives. Murphy is engaged to one Miss Counihan, but in conversation with Neary, he decides – to hell with her – he’ll escape to London where he can have all the special-naked-rocking-chair-time he pleases, without her nagging him. Of course, he tells his wife-to-be that he’s taking off to find a respectable job, and she… just… believes him? Smh.

It’s not until after he’s been gone quite a while, without a word of correspondence, that Miss Counihan starts getting suss. She’s now shagging Neary (who has no qualms about cutting his mate’s grass), and they decide together to hire a bloke to track Murphy down. Miss Counihan is hoping that the dick, named Cooper (who, it must be said, is also a few pickles short of a party), will prove that Murphy is either dead or sleeping around, so that she can move on with her life guilt-free. Yeah, she’s a real peach; they deserved each other, to be honest.

That’s when the character of Celia Kelly is introduced: a sex worker, and Murphy’s concerned Friend-With-Benefits. I think Beckett invented her character purely for the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the censors. In describing her profession, he says: “This phrase is chosen with care; lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche”. Ha! But even so, you really feel for this girl, perhaps more than anyone else in Murphy, because she’s hopelessly in love with him even though he’s bonkers. He’s only slightly more than indifferent towards her, and yet she has enough powers of logical persuasion to convince him to get a job.



And what a job it is: Murphy begins working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, finding a refuge from the strains and pains of the real world in a literal asylum. He befriends the long-institutionalised patients there, and figures if he hangs out with them long enough, he’ll find a way to send himself insane and escape reality altogether. He’s so happy in his new work that he ditches Celia, and promptly forgets all about her. What a guy!

Celia joins forces with Miss Counihan, Neary, Cooper, and some other blow-in called Wiley. They all hurry-up-and-wait for Murphy to snap out of it. I can’t even begin to fathom the delusion that went into deciding on this course of action, because Murphy has never done anything not weird. And just as you think the story is approaching some big confrontation or resolution, Murphy dies. Yep! He’s burned to death in his room due to some whoopsy-daisy with the gas line (or maybe he died by suicide and that was his chosen method, Beckett didn’t really make it clear). Either way, he’s dead, and his friends don’t waste a lot of time mourning. They charge Cooper with putting Murphy’s remains to rest, which he does by spilling the ashes during a bar-room brawl and just leaving them there, among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”. So, a happy ending for all involved!

Reviews of Murphy were (very) mixed, and sales were (predictably) poor. Just 568 copies were sold upon its release in 1938. A further 23 were sold in 1939, 20 in 1940, and just 7 in 1941. By 1943, Murphy was out of print altogether. Beckett didn’t see any success or find any substantial audience until the release of Waiting For Godot, and since then Murphy has lived entirely in its shadows. I felt, reading Murphy, that Beckett was naturally more inclined towards being a playwright than a novelist, because his prose (bizarre as it was) read very theatrically – I could picture it being performed on a stage.



I’m sure there’s a lot of brilliant stuff in here – Beckett was obsessed with chess, for instance, and even I (a relative dummy) can see some of the ways he exploited the artistic possibilities of the game in Murphy – but damn, it’s a tough row to hoe. Normally I’m a fan of nihilistic black humour, but the way Beckett stewed it in absurdist existentialist ramblings just wasn’t to my taste. Luckily, there are plenty of people far smarter than me who are able to get more out of it, like the folks who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Murphy is a hard book to read, even being as short as it is (just 158 pages). I had to keep convincing myself to pick it back up; this is one I definitely would have abandoned if not for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s neither character-driven, nor plot-driven – in fact, I’d say it’s not “driven” at all. It’s just a weird meander in the dark through some dodgy parts of town. My ears picked up a bit when Murphy started working in the asylum, but my interest waned very quickly. On the whole, I was rather underwhelmed. Luckily, my husband anticipated this reaction, and laughed heartily when I told him what I thought. I think I’ll stick to picking my own reads from now on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murphy:

  • “I had to read this for class. The plot is all over the place and it is really boring. There is nothing memorable about this book and it as mundane as watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter…on second thought, watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter is like going to Disney World when you are 4 years old compared to reading this book. I had to read this for English 196 and I can’t wait to sell this back to the book store even though I got it on ebay…so in essence, selling it to the bookstore…..good riddance!!!” – M. R. Randall

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!).

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve been looking forward to The Bell Jar for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it’s another book that’s practically impossible to find in secondhand bookstores. No one – and I mean no one – seems to want to part with their copy! I checked in every secondhand store, market stall, and charity shop I passed for over a year, with no luck… and then (get this), one day, a dear friend was searching manically for a last-minute gift for me, and she managed to find a copy in the secondhand book store closest to my house. It had come in that very day. She got this gorgeous Faber edition for a song, and it is honestly one of the best presents I have ever received. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published just weeks before her suicide – and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the tone of the book. I know trigger warnings are controversial, but surely we can all agree that if there’s any book in the world that deserves one, it’s The Bell Jar? It’s such a stark depiction of depression and suicidality, it could really bring up some stuff for you if you’re not prepared. Readers also widely regard it as a roman à clef, because the main character’s descent into mental illness so closely mirrors Plath’s own struggles. She pretty much just changed the names of people and places (not unlike Jack Kerouac’s On The Road… well, in that regard only).

The story is set in 1953. It opens with a young woman – Esther Greenwood – completing a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City, exactly as Plath did (I’m not going to point out every similarity though, because that would get very old very quickly – just trust me that Esther = Sylvia, kay?). Esther had high hopes for the internship, but it’s been nothing like what she expected, and she’s more perplexed than enamoured with the glamourous big-city lifestyle. She returns home, in low spirits, and her mother piles on, telling her that she was rejected by the prestigious writing program she’d set her sights on entering.

So, Esther can’t figure out what the fuck to do with herself. She tries to read Finnegan’s Wake, but gives up on that quick smart. She thinks about marriage and motherhood, but decides she’d rather throw up in her mouth and swallow it. She looks into all of the socially-acceptable “woman jobs” available to her (like stenography), but they bore the pants off her. Given her options, it’s hardly a surprise that she winds up extremely depressed.


Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist, who apparently got his education from one half-hearted read of One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. He gives her a horrific round of ECT, and she (quite rightly) refuses to return. His “treatment” makes everything worse instead of better, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther survives… barely.

Her mother has her committed, and she finally receives some actual therapy from a non-idiot, including properly-administered ECT, after which her condition greatly improves. She takes many steps towards rebuilding her life and her mental health, and she says she feels as though the “bell jar” of her depression has been lifted (thus, the title). The book ends with her talking about her fear that the bell jar would again descend one day – it’s kind of ambiguous, but also beautiful.

I had such high expectations of The Bell Jar, after years of hearing how fantastic it was, and I was convinced there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype… but, of course, it fucking did. The prose was so damn beautiful, I was almost angry. I started wondering why I should bother writing or reading anything else in the world, when something this good already exists. I wanted to throw my gorgeous Faber edition across the room… but, of course, I couldn’t, because I was clutching it so hard.

The Bell Jar touches on many major themes and issues, but not in a way that feels Loftily Literary(TM) – it all just emerges naturally from the story. Take, for instance, the questions Plath raises about the role of women in society, and the constraints of gender roles for women in mid-20th century America. Esther feels the usual pressure to be a “good girl” and become both self-sufficient and married with children, but she lacks the resources and opportunities to become truly independent. Then, on top of that, Plath has a lot to say about mental health treatment – especially for women – in that era, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of how it could all unfold.


Unfortunately, Plath’s real-life story has a much more tragic end; she died by suicide barely a month after publication of The Bell Jar in the U.K. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971, as per the wishes of her husband and mother. I think her death is all the more tragic for how it’s impacted our reading of her work. We’re so obsessed by the autobiographical nature of it, especially in light of her death, that we seem to overlook the artistic triumph of this (ultimately fictional) book. We miss the proverbial wood for the trees, or whatever.

I read one review that said Plath’s suicide so soon after publication meant that there have been “few innocent readings” of The Bell Jar, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. It’s practically impossible to read this book without, on some level, searching for insights into Plath’s real life and death. Still, for the sake of art, we should really try.

Even though The Bell Jar was her only novel, there’s still plenty more Plath in my future; she’s widely credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more than any of her contemporaries, so I’ll be seeking out her collections, not to mention her diaries and letters. Her work is hardly a barrel of laughs, but if you’re in a mentally stable place and equipped to cope with what it brings up for you, it is so, so worth it. I one-hundred-percent recommend The Bell Jar, one of the few books I’ve ever read that truly exceeds the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

  • “Every girl should love this by age 15 and be embarrassed that they did by age 35.” – Jonathan AW Edwards
  • “What light-hearted fun this was! A comedy romp from beginning to end. Highly recommended if you need cheering up.” – Katie Krackers
  • “There was sticky brown stuff all over the book including on the inside.” – Lilian
  • “Does what it says on the tin.” – Carl Sanders
  • “Noice” – Jacob Bradley
  • “Overly sensitive privileged white girl rejects a guy, doesn’t get into the writing course she wants. Tries to read James Joyce, thinks about death, tries to kill herself. Has a bunch of shock treatment.
    Maybe you have to be young and angsty to appreciate it.
    I am not young, and successfully medicated. Even it my most angsty, this would have been a drag.
    Bonus points for language usage.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It was a good 47 minutes” – Amazon Customer

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful

If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful - grey text on a white background with a black image of a hand making a thumbs down - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie – Stephen King

Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

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Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! (Read my full review of Still Alice here!)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order!

Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports! (Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here!)

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and in film earlier this year.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

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Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…

… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just £1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.

That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight. Rowling gets the last laugh, once again!

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

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A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch!

Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! (Read my full review of Catch-22 here!)

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

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William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, that would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written. (Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.)

Dubliners – James Joyce

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Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.)

When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

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It’s equally unsurprising that Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!)

Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea. 😉

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

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I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection?

The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.

Imagine what kind of world we’d have without Harry Potter, or Lolita, or any of the other book on this list, if those publishers had had their way! Do you have a favourite author rejection story? Tell it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

No one wants to be a reject! Help Keeping Up With The Penguins keep on keeping up, throw your change in the tip jar here:


10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

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You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

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The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work. Read my full review here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here 😉

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.

1984 – George Orwell

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I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!

What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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