Once upon a time, there was a young woman who loved reading. All her life, she’d escaped into books, learned and lived through them. She worried, though, that she didn’t read the “right” books. Everyone she knew seemed to have read classic books and best-sellers that she’d never even heard of. Fear kept her from trying anything new. She kept re-reading her old favourites over and over again, and just tried to bluff her way through conversations about other books that she had never picked up. One night, after a long day at her miserable office job, she had a thought: bugger it. She pulled up a list of the Guardian’s 100 best books written in English. She pulled up that year’s Dymocks 101. She tried to recall every book everyone had ever recommended to her. She scrambled them all up and made for herself a reading list: 109 books she “should” have read already. She started reading them, one by one, and taking notes as she went. Those notes became reviews, and she started publishing them online. That young woman was me, and those reviews are all here, on Keeping Up With The Penguins.
In the last couple weeks, since finally finishing that original reading list with Ulysses, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the best (and the worst) of it all. Still, I had some thoughts that couldn’t be crammed into those round-ups. I’ll forgive you if you want to skip this self-indulgent nostalgic meander through the cobwebs of my mind, but this project has changed my life in more ways than one, and I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
As I alluded to earlier, at the time I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I was working an office job that wasn’t right for me. I was miserable, exhausted, and just treading water – trying to survive, never moving forward. I remember crying to a friend at one point that the highlight of every day was reading a book on the bus to and from work. Those little windows of time, where I could stick my nose in between the pages and find myself somewhere else for a while, were what brought me the most joy out of anything I did on any given day. Something had to change.
And it did (or, should I say, I did). I quit the job – not in a particularly graceful fashion, I’ll admit, but I did it, and it was absolutely the best decision I ever made. I’m not sure I would have done it had I not started Keeping Up With The Penguins. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying everyone should quit their jobs to read books. That’s a pipe dream. What I’m saying is that the choice to start something different, to just try reading books I’d never read before, started a boulder running down the hill. It expanded my thinking, it opened me up to new possibilities about what my life could be. For me, it was reading books, but it could be anything for anyone: crochet, martial arts, speed dating, windsurfing, listening to podcasts, keeping a journal, going for walks. You never know what might be the thing that will change your life: the only way, as my mother would say, is to “suck it and see”.
But enough heavy stuff about life! I’m not a guru. What about the books?!
It’s annoying, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all these books, all this reading, is a bit of a cliche: don’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, the “cover” is metaphorical, but that’s basically the gist of it. There were so many books – SO many books! – that I would NEVER have picked up had it not been for Keeping Up With The Penguins. The classics were “too hard”, young adult was “too sappy”, fantasy was “too complicated”, sci-fi was “too nerdy”… I had all of these preconceived ideas, about genres and about specific books, and this project forced me to set them aside and forge ahead anyway. The example I point to all the time is Crime And Punishment. I was VERY sure that I was in for a dense, dull, depressing read – I mean, it’s Russian – and yet it was one of the most wonderful, hilarious, relatable reads of this whole project.
And that brings me to a related lesson: say what you think, no matter what it is, because there’s someone out there waiting for you to say it. One of my best, most-treasured memories of Keeping Up With The Penguins came shortly after I published my review of Crime And Punishment. To protect the innocent, I won’t name names, but a woman in her late 70s got in touch to say that she’d refused to read Crime And Punishment all her life, for the same reasons I had (dense, dull, depressing, etc.). But, having read my review, she finally felt confident about giving it a go. That’s why I’ve always been 100% frank in my reviews here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. If I think a book stinks, I say so, no matter what. If I think it’s great, the same. I try to be fair, not nasty, and give adequate explanation as to the reasons for my opinions, but whatever the case, I’m always going to be straight with you. It’s an approach that has rubbed some people the wrong way (I’ve had more than one rotten tomato lobbed in my direction for my opinions on American Sniper and The Great Gatsby), but I think it’s worth it if what I say resonates for even one reader out there.
I think a lot of this project was about giving myself permission. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I know logically that I don’t need to wait for permission to read a book, any book, and no one can give it to me anyway. Still, I had all of these subconscious worries and doubts: I’m not educated enough to understand the classics, I’m not smart enough to follow experimental prose, I’m not arty enough to enjoy poetry… And you know what? Even if all of those suppositions are true, I can read the books anyway. My husband gave me the best advice when I was reading Moby Dick, and it’s something that I’ve carried with me ever since, with every book I read: “let go of the idea that you’re going to understand everything, just take from it what you can”. So, now, I give myself permission to not completely understand a book. I give myself permission to read one even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy it. And, further to my last lesson, I give myself permission to tell the truth about it. Another example: I didn’t love Mrs Dalloway, even though I “should” have, but I gave myself permission to let it go over my head and to tell the truth about it (even if it makes me a “bad feminist”).
And, of course, I learned a lot personally, about my reading tastes and how I read best. It turns out, I like diversity: in authorship, in content, in form, in style. If I read too many of the same type of books in a row, I get antsy and frustrated – no “book flights” for me. I like humour: even when the subject is “serious”, I’m far more likely to engage with a book that makes me laugh (and I don’t have to feel ashamed about that). I now know that if I’m already thinking about a person I want to give a book to before I even finish it, that it’s a winner – that’s like my brain’s way of telling me YOU LOVE THIS BOOK! And I’m actually pretty good at recommending books to people, with their specific tastes and interests in mind. All of this I only learned through Keeping Up With The Penguins. I think, had I read the same number of books but not taken the time to write down my feelings about them, I might’ve never noticed these patterns.
Alright, I think that’s enough for the moment! From now on, it’s back to regular reviews and bookish chat (at least until I next start feeling philosophical). What do you reckon? About books, about life, about anything? Let me know in the comments!