I was always a bookworm.

Baby bookworm Sheree reading on couch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is me, bookworm from the start.

And yet, somehow I made it through to my 25th year, seemingly having read nothing at all. Despite completing an Australian secondary education, I deftly – if unintentionally – managed to squirm my way out of having to read The Great Gatsby for a book report, or The Catcher in the Rye for an essay. I’ve started Pride and Prejudice at least six times, and never once made it more than a third of the way through. My husband has multiple arts degrees, and daily he makes references to texts I’ve heard of, but never read. I haven’t been keeping up with the Penguins.

It feels like a problem that needs tackling, and I got to thinking… I can’t be the only one, right? My efforts wouldn’t even really count if I didn’t start a blog to document them, so that all the bookworms who never read anything can benefit.

Keeping Up With The Penguins might be for you if:

  • You’re scared your Tinder date will ask you about your favourite book, and you’ll be forced to confess you haven’t read anything new since Harry Potter
  • You quickly excuse yourself to the bathroom when people start talking Brontë (you’re pretty sure there’s more than one of them, but you’ve got no idea which is which)
  • You want to give classic literature a go, but every time you Google “which classic should I read first” it returns a stack of books you’ve never heard of and overwhelms you with academic analysis
  • You’ve been stuck reading the one genre for years, and you either need to find something new or download your 800th poorly-formatted $0.99 Kindle e-book
  • You don’t mind having a laugh at a millennial’s attempt to wade through the literary canon of popular and classic fiction

I’ve crafted a list: 109 books that I’ve never read (even though I really should). It’s a motley crew, a kind of cross-breed of the Dymocks 101, the Guardian’s top 100 books written in English, and a handful of personal recommendations. Many are classics, some are a little more obscure – so it’s quantities known and unknown. I’ve intentionally included on this list the much-maligned Pride and Prejudice, and – to my husband’s disgust – The Maze Runner (what’s the opposite of “highly recommended”?). I figure this is the best opportunity I’ll have to force-feed myself those books I wouldn’t normally choose, expanding my horizons and all of that. If nothing else, I’ll enjoy hating those books that I find particularly difficult to swallow, and explaining to you exactly why here.

How can I afford that? Books are expensive!

Setting out, I already had about a dozen of the books lying around the house, but that still leaves a considerable number to be sourced in second-hand bookstores and garage sales. I’ve had to make a ruling: I will spend no more than $10 on each book. That’s pretty much the only way I can avoid this project sending me destitute, and has already led me to turn down well-preserved copies of Mrs Dalloway and The Alchemist and A Clockwork Orange. (Note: this site does contain affiliate links, and every time you make a purchase through one of those, I get a teeny-tiny cut of the purchase price without any extra cost to you. It keeps this project alive! The official/legal declaration: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.)

How long is this going to take?

I considered giving myself a timeframe: could I do this in a year? That’s what smarmy bloggers do, isn’t it? “The Year Of Doing A Thing That Completely Changed My Life”. But then I did some quick maths and realised I’d have to average at least a couple of books a week, and – considering that Ulysses and Crime & Punishment are among them – I quickly re-evaluated. After all, I can’t be hemmed in by petty rules like timeframes (especially if there’s any risk of them forcing me to stay at home to read instead of going to the pub).

What am I going to get out of this?

Keeping Up With The Penguins will give you a taste of classic and popular books – from Victorians to vampires, from memoir to military, from horror to hipster philosophers. Best case scenario, you’ll find something new or something you hadn’t considered before, and you’ll fall madly in love (in which case, tell me all about it!). Worst case, you’ll at least have an insight or two that you can drop into conversation instead of chuckling along blankly at a book club. There’s no pretense here. My commentary on these works won’t help you in your graduate degree or inform the committee for the next Pulitzer: I’m just a loud-mouthed Aussie girl combing the secondhand bookstores of Sydney’s inner west, and telling you all about it.

And, P.S., let this serve as a universal spoiler warning. I don’t really care if I’ve ruined the twist ending of a 100-year-old novel for you, don’t @ me.