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13 Classic Books That Weren’t Well Received

It’s easy to forget that some iconic books – classics that we were forced to read in high-school, that SparkNotes makes memes about now – weren’t always held up as the pinnacle of literature. Many of the “most loved” books today were woefully underappreciated in their own time. Some of them were downright derided. Here are thirteen classic books that weren’t well received… at first.

If you buy one of these classic books through an affiliate link, I’ll receive a small commission, very gratefully!

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley’s now-classic dystopia, complete with sex, drugs, and “feelies” – got some positive press upon its release in 1932. Philosopher Bertrand Russell praised it, saying that Huxley “has shown his usually masterly skill” and Dame Rebecca West called it Huxley’s “most accomplished novel”. But he faced some heavy criticism, too. Fellow sci-fi author H.G. Wells railed against Huxley for “betraying the future as a concept”. A review published in The Guardian was particularly savage: “the title which he gave to one of his earlier books, These Barren Leaves, is applicable to very much that he has written…. This book fails both as a satire and romance…. It is easier to exploit the possibilities of mental death than to meet the demands of creative life.” Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might surprise you to know that The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was almost as controversial when it was first released in 1885 as it is today. As recently as 2016, the classic American novel was removed from one Virginia public school district, on the basis that it includes inappropriate language and racial slurs. 130 years prior, the Concord Public Library committee held a very similar view: “the veriest trash… rough, coarse, and inelegant, dealing with a series of experiences not elevating, the whole book being more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people,”. They, too, chose to ban the book. Upon hearing that news, Twain is reported to have said “This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Brontës famously published their works using androgynous pseudonyms (Emily going by “Ellis Bell”), but that didn’t stop reviewers going to town on her only published novel, Wuthering Heights. Graham’s Lady Magazine wrote at the time: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors,”. The Examiner said “as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages”. Emily, being notoriously shy and reluctant to publish at all, probably didn’t read her own press – good thing, too, if those reviews are anything to go by. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Even though Gone With The Wind was wildly popular with readers immediately upon release (it was the best-selling fiction book two years running, in 1936 and 1937), critics didn’t share their enthusiasm. Reviewer for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson, said “I happen to feel that the book would have been infinitely better had it been edited down to say, 500 pages… Very nearly every reader will agree, no doubt, that a more disciplined and less prodigal piece of work would have more nearly done justice to the subject-matter.” That’s a sick burn all on its own, but critics rightly also zeroed in on Mitchell’s deeply problematic and revisionist depictions of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. Those (very justified) criticisms have only amplified over time.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

I have been very vocal about my own dislike of The Great Gatsby, and I am pleased to report that many early readers and reviewers agreed with me. The novel – now considered one of the classic books of the Jazz Age – was considered a fall from form for Fitzgerald, “an inconsequential performance by a once-promising author who had grown bored and cynical”, and reviewers were “quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today”. The plot was also called “improbable”, and its style “painfully forced”. Fitzgerald was apparently so bummed out by these reviews that he signed off a telegram to his publisher: “Yours in great depression”. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

One of the (many) funny things about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the contrast in its reception on different continents. In the U.K., where newspapers had a huge staff of experienced reviewers and literary critics, they called it “a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance”, and “one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books”. Meanwhile, in the New World (U.S.), where experienced critics were few and far between, baffled journalists trying to wade through Melville’s mountain of prose declared it “not worth the money asked for it, either as a literary work or as a mass of printed paper” and “a crazy sort of affair”. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of the pond, but doesn’t that just prove the rule? Read my full review of Moby Dick here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Look, examples abound that prove Ulysses should be on any list of classic books that weren’t well received. Even today, respected as a load-bearing pillar in the modernist canon, most readers and reviewers regard it with confusion more so than admiration or anything else. Some of my favourite Ulysses slams include Virginia Woolf writing in her diary that it was: “an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating,”. See also The Sporting Times, who wrote that it was “written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine,”. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Joseph Heller threw a decades-long tantrum when Catch-22 wasn’t received as well as he thought it should have been. Even though The New York Times initially called it “a dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights,”, a second review in the same paper said “[it is] repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest,”. Despite Heller’s big hopes, it didn’t win a single award, not even the much coveted Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Heller remained bitter about it until the day he died. Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

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

Angry teenagers forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in English Lit classes would be thrilled to know how poorly it was received upon its release in 1951. It was called everything from “disappointing”, to “a near miss”, to “wholly repellent”, to “peculiarly offensive”. Most reviewers seemed to take particular issue with the divisive protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield, whose adolescent angst was declared “wearisome” by the New Republic. Older wowsers didn’t like that he was running around getting drunk and trying to get it on with sex workers, either – a position that certain school board members still hold today, it would seem. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Kafka was the very definition of “underappreciated in his own time”, and he knew it, too. His diaries and letters are full of laments about his work and his general malaise, self-deprecation taken to the extreme. Today, The Metamorphosis is his best-known work and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant allegories ever written – but it was barely read when it was first published in 1915, and even Kafka himself didn’t like it in retrospect. He wrote that he “[was] reading The Metamorphosis at home and find[ing] it bad,”, that he felt a “great antipathy” towards it and its “unreadable ending”. The bulk of Kafka’s other work wasn’t published until after his death, and it certainly wasn’t widely read or beloved until many years later.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

Long before it was a HBO series, or the symbol of white feminist resistance against the Trump administration, The Handmaid’s Tale was a 1986 novel met with a reaction that could be best summed up as: “meh”. The New York Times said it “lacks imagination” (which is true, technically, given that Atwood has said time and again that everything she included in the book has happened or is happening somewhere in the world). It was also called, by various other outlets, “short on characterisation,” “thinly textured,” and (my personal favourite) “paranoid poppycock”. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

The Grapes Of Wrath was basically America’s first big Hate Read. In 1939, everyone was reading it and everyone had something to say about it. Steinbeck was attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, believe it or not: both accused him of being a communist, and publishing a book of propaganda. The Associated Farmers of California were particularly vocal in their displeasure, calling Steinbeck’s depiction of the treatment of migrating farm workers as a “pack of lies”. Steinbeck was also revealed to have ripped off the research work of comparatively-unknown writer Sanora Bobb, but that didn’t seem as important to anyone as the fact that he was “trying to make a political point” (that it… sucks to be poor?). Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Lord Of The Flies by William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The criticism of Lord Of The Flies began before it even hit the bookstore shelves. More than 20 publishers passed on Golding’s nightmare-fuel story about shipwrecked children turning to savages (I can’t imagine why). One called it “rubbish and dull, pointless,”. Even when he finally found a publisher willing to take a punt on it, they sold only a few thousand copies before it went out of print. The New Yorker called it “completely unpleasant”. How it went from the bargain bin to a Nobel Prize winner assigned reading in every English-speaking classroom around the world is beyond me. Read my full review of Lord Of The Flies here.

100 Years Of Good Reads

I came across something fun on Goodreads the other day. They’ve put together a list of “the most popular books published over the past 100 years, as determined by Goodreads members’ digital shelves”. What a great use of the data they’ve collected from us obsessive book loggers!

100 Years Of Good Reads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
(There are some affiliate links on this page, just FYI – I’ll earn a small commission if you buy your next good read!)

It’s actually pretty fascinating: There are plenty of old-school masterpieces, of course, and a good supply of those books most likely to be found in required school curricula. But you’ll also find gonzo journalism, children’s classics, international literature, Arabic poetry, existentialist dread, and even graphic novels.

Goodreads (100 Years of Popular Books on Goodreads)

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the list and add a little commentary for you. (Okay, and I also wanted to tally up how many of them I’d already read – sue me!)

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce

I don’t want to be that girl, but I promise you: Ulysses is not the crisis situation you’re imagining! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

1923: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

1924: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

UGH! Why? Why? Why? If I never have to see The Great Gatsby on a best-of book list ever again, I’ll die happy. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

1926: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A soldier gets his dick blown off, and remains such a misogynist that he never figures out how to go down on the lady he loves. The Sun Also Rises? More like The Lady Also Deserves To Finish. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

1927: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

1928: The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

1929: Passing by Nella Larsen

1930: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A truly pleasant surprise! As I Lay Dying is short, weird, and an excellent example of why men can write from a woman’s perspective (occasionally). Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

1931: The Joy Of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

1932: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Sex, drugs, and feelies? The “dystopian” future that Huxley imagines in Brave New World doesn’t sound so bad, really. Read my full review of Brave New World here.

1933: In Praise Of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

1934: Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

1935: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich and wonderful and devastating – and Tea Cake is my ride-or-die classic book boyfriend. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

1938: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Did you know that Rebecca has never been out of print? Never, not once, in the nearly-hundred years it’s been a good read? It’s gothic, it’s spooky, it’s fun, and it’s more than deserving. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

1939: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, I was angry. Angry that no one had ever told me – warned me! – how damn good it is. I’m still angry! Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

1940: Native Son by Richard Wright

1941: The Library Of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges

1942: The Stranger by Albert Camus

1943: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince works precisely because doesn’t get bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,” de Saint-Exupéry writes on page 6, “and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.” Bring tissues. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

1944: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

1945: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

1946: The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers

1947: No Exit by Jean Paul-Sartre

1948: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

1949: 1984 by George Orwell

1950: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

1951: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Did you know that books don’t actually burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? Ray Bradbury asked an expert for help naming his novel, but they misunderstood the question. Paper auto-ignites at that temperature, but burns much, much lower. That fun fact is honestly more interesting to me than Fahrenheit 451 was. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

1954: The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1956: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

1957: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

1958: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

1959: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

1960: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know, it’s problematic. White saviours are bad, and Atticus Finch is the whitest-saviouriest of them all. But To Kill A Mockingbird is still such a good read! And Harper Lee’s only (true) novel! Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1961: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 is funny… for the first hundred pages or so. Beyond that, you’re just reading the same joke over and over again. It’s good to know where the idiom came from, though! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

1963: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s infuriating how good The Bell Jar is. Like, seriously, I wanted to throw it down on the floor and just give up. So good. And the Faber editions are so pretty! Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

1964: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

1965: Dune by Frank Herbert

1966: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

1967: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad. Beyond that, I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

1968: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

1969: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.” It’s confronting, it’s brilliant, and it’s an enduring classic for a reason. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

1970: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. Read my full review of The Bluest Eye here.

1971: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

1972: Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

1973: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1974: Carrie by Stephen King

I’ve got this one on a to-read shelf, that I might get to… some day… probably…

1975: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

1976: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

1977: Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

1978: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

1980: The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1982: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is still – to this day – being challenged, banned, and removed from high school reading lists. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! eye roll). Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

1983: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

1984: The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

1985: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Even though it might feel like “The Handmaid’s Tale is coming true!” with everything going on at the moment, the truth is that Atwood didn’t use a single thing that hasn’t already happened, or isn’t already happening, to create the dystopian world of Gilead. Just a heads up! Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

1986: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1987: Watchmen by Alan Moore

1988: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a beautiful fable, a wonderful read… for hippies. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

1989: The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

1990: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

1991: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel to 18th century Scotland, marriage of convenience with a Scot in a kilt… but make it horny! It’s not a great work of literature, but Outlander does exactly what it says on the tin. Read my full review of Outlander here.

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I’m sorry to say that The Secret History, is every bit as good as everyone always says it is. Read my full review of The Secret History here.

1993: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

1994: The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

1995: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

1996: A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game Of Thrones might never have made it onto a list like this, if not for the HBO adaptation that had the whole world glued to their screens for eight seasons. But here we are! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

1997: Guns, Germs And Steel by Jared Diamond

1998: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

1999: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

2000: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski

2001: The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

2002: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

2003: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reckon this one is destined to become a classic. It’s clever, and it’s creepy as heck. Well deserving of its place on this Goodreads list! Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

2006: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

2007: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Look, if you’re in the mid- to upper-end of the Young Adult bracket and you’re just starting to understand the significance of WWII, The Book Thief is a brilliant, life-changing read. For the rest of us… well, it’s a good reminder that literacy is important. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

2008: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Do you remember when it felt like everyone and their book club was reading The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society? You might’ve skipped it because of all the hype, but it’s actually not bad. Read my full review of The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society here.

2009: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a “biography” is reductive. It’s so much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

2011: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, monks could use the rock you’ve been living under as an off-the-grid retreat. You need to hop to it, if for no other reason than it’s miraculous it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It wasn’t quite the blockbuster success that Little Fires Everywhere was, but Everything I Never Told You is still a masterful, gripping domestic drama, fully deserving of its place on any list of good reads. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

2015: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

2016: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

2017: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s incredible how timely The Hate U Give was at the time of its release – and it’s incredibly sad that it’s still so timely, even more so, years later. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

2018: Educated by Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be a fascinating read. Read my full review of Educated here.

2019: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing and anyone who needs a bit of starry-eyed optimism. Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

2020: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels. The Vanishing Half is a must-read for your book club; there’s a lot to unpack here. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

2021: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Alright, I’ve read 33 of these so far, and reviewed most of them, too! Not bad! How about you? Drop your total in the comments! And thank you Goodreads for putting together this list – nice to see you using your powers for good.

Banned Books Around The World

Earlier this year, five people were arrested in Hong Kong for “conspiring to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”. The publications in question were a series of children’s books about sheep. The Guardians Of Sheep Village sought to explain to children the 2019 democracy protests, The Janitors Of Sheep Village depicted sheep workers going on strike, and The 12 Braves Of Sheep Village saw twelve sheep escape their village’s wolf overloads by boat (in reference to the twelve Hongkongers who sought to escape by speedboat to Taiwan last year). It seems unthinkable that, in the 21st century, there are governments in the world still trying to control and censor what their constituents read… but here we are. Take a look at some of these banned books around the world.

Banned Books Around The World - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Banned or not, I’ll earn a small commission from any book bought through an affiliate link on this page.

Note: I’ve chosen not to delve into the books banned in Nazi Germany, partially because it’s such a long list in and of itself, but mostly because there’s a lot of potential for insensitivity that I wish to avoid. Plus, I didn’t want to give the impression that book banning and book burning are problems specific to one geography and government…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

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

When I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but a lot of governments sure did get their knickers in a knot over it. In 1928, the Chinese translation by Rao Shu-yi was denied publication by China’s Central Bureau, and booksellers weren’t allowed to stock or sell any version of the novel. It was also banned in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, for violation of their respective obscenity laws, until the 1960s. There was quite a famous court case about it, and current editions of the book (like mine) are dedicated to the jurors who acquitted the publishers on charges of obscenity. Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a (you guessed it) brave new world, where everyone’s high and having sex, and babies are made in test tubes. It’s a sort of dystopia in utopian clothing, if you will. In this cautionary tale, the Irish government found “comments against religion and the traditional family”, as well as “strong language” and “sexual promiscuity” – grounds enough to have it banned in 1932. They weren’t alone in their condemnation; Australia also banned Brave New World the same year, and the Indian government called Huxley a “pornographer”. I guess we know which countries to avoid if we want sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll after the apocalypse… Read my full review of Brave New World here.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Oooh boy! *cracks knuckles* If there were awards for most banned books around the world, The Satanic Verses would surely be a contender. Salman Rushdie was roundly condemned for his alleged “blasphemous treatment of a character modeled after the Prophet Muhammad and of the transcription of the Qurʾān”. The Iran Ayatollah was so ticked off, he put a hit out on Rushdie (a fatwa), forcing him into hiding for years. He couldn’t leave his safe house (which changed every few months) without protection. The book was banned in (*deep breath*): Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand.

Special mention: Hitoshi Igarashi, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991 as a result of his involvement with The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued on anyone involved with its publication. Always, always, always #NameTheTranslator – sometimes they die for the work they do. Vale.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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

It’s hard to imagine any government finding offense in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. It’s a children’s book, for goodness sake – and largely nonsensical, to boot! I’m sorry to say that doesn’t stop them. In 1900, a school in the United States proposed that the book implied expletives and alluded to masturbation (no, I’m not kidding), and “other sexual fantasies”. I mean, I personally am not turned on by the Cheshire Cat, but go off, I guess. Later, in 1931, the powers that be in Hunan, China, banned Alice and co. because anthropomorphised animals are “insulting”, somehow. General Ho Chien contended that teaching children to regard humans and animals as equals would be “disastrous”. And then finally, back in America in the 1960s, a whole new batch of parents worried that Alice’s adventures would encourage kids to try hallucinogenic drugs. All told, these are some of the most ridiculous reasons I’ve heard for banning books. Read my full review of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Banning Frankenstein might seem funny on the face of it (or warranted, depending on your view of the macabre), but there’s actually a dark truth behind this one. In 1955, the South African government banned Frankenstein for containing “obscene” or “indecent” material. The thing is, this was shortly after the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and amendments to the Immorality Act, introduced to prevent “Europeans” and “non-Europeans” forming families. Yes, this is some awful apartheid shit. The government saw in Shelley’s science fiction an “indecent” message about the “amalgamation” of people. Just thinking about it makes me shudder… Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

Ulysses by James Joyce

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

Turns out a book about a bloke who wanders around Dublin for a day, drinking and wanking and forgetting to pick up the perfume he bought for his wife, raised some eyebrows. Who could have guessed? Ulysses has been banned by various governments since it first appeared in serial form in 1918-20. An excerpt featuring the aforementioned cheeky wank came to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and (true to their name) they did everything they could to suppress its circulation. The United States Postal Service even burned copies that were sent in the mail. A landmark court case, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933, finally caused the ban to be lifted. The United Kingdom also lifted their ban on its distribution shortly after. Australia held firm, though, and suppressed its circulation until the 1950s. Read my full review of Ulysses here.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Simone de Beauvoir once said that The Second Sex was her attempt to explain “why a woman’s situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world’s basic problems”. Luckily, she first published it in France, where permissive attitudes and effective absence of obscenity laws meant that anything went in publishing – even broads getting mouthy about their shitty circumstances. Francoist Spain held a different view, though, and banned the book for “advocacy of feminism” (they didn’t even try to cloak it in euphemism, bless them); they didn’t account for the brave feminists who would smuggle in copies of the book and circulate it themselves, until the ban was lifted and an accurate translation permitted for publication.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the very first books to be formally banned in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1852, upon its publication, the southern Confederate States banned it for its abolitionist philosophy and for “arousing debates on slavery”. (Funnily enough, the States – now “United” – are still having that same argument about, for instance, The Hate U Give, alleging that it arouses abolitionist arguments regarding policing and debates about racial profiling.) Stowe’s novel was also banned in Russia by Nicholas I, because in presenting a view that, y’know, all humans might be equal it “undermined religious ideals” of the country.

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Forget about Lady Chatterley and her lover: Tropic Of Cancer is the go if you want 20th century smut. Unsurprisingly, it was subject to similar bans and censorship. It even caused the pearl-clutchers of France a bit of bother. They initially allowed its publication because it was written in English and intended only for English-speaking readers… but once word got out about its misogyny, racism, antisemitism, and straight-up eroticism, authorities and conservatives pushed for an outright ban. Meanwhile, around the world, it was banned decisively and immediately. The United States objected to its sexually explicit content and vulgarity up until the 1960s, South Africa until the 1980s. Interested readers, of course, got around these restrictions by smuggling the book, leading to a lot of court cases and criminal trials, which in turn only boosted Miller’s popularity as a purveyor of literary porn. Read my full review of Tropic Of Cancer here.

100 Fun Facts About Books and Authors

Exactly what it says on the tin: here are 100 fun facts about books and authors. Enjoy!

100 Fun Facts About Books And Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins
  1. Jane Austen had a knack for brewing her own beer. She used molasses to give her brews a sweeter taste.
  2. Thomas Pynchon’s middle name is Ruggles.
  3. Fredrik Backman was a blogger before A Man Called Ove became a bestseller sleeper hit.
  4. 451 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t actually the temperature at which paper burns. Bradbury was misinformed when he was choosing a title for Fahrenheit 451; that’s actually the temperature at which paper will combust.
  5. Harper Lee was Truman Capote’s assistant when he was writing In Cold Blood. She was in charge of managing his 8,000 pages of notes, and interviewed townspeople who were too suspicious to tell him anything.
  6. The Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton is the most-watched series in the platform’s history. Over 82 million households have tuned in.
  7. Suzanne Collins claims she came up with the idea for The Hunger Games when she was channel surfing, flicking between footage of the war in Iraq and reality TV.
  8. Agatha Christie disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926, after her first husband told her he wanted a divorce. Her car was found abandoned, 15,000 volunteers undertook a manhunt, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a psychic. She was found in a hotel under an assumed name (borrowed from her husband’s mistress), and never offered any explanation, not even in her autobiography.
  9. Daniel Defoe was terrible with money. He was in-and-out of debtors prison for most of his life, and died while (probably) in hiding from his creditors.
  10. In her youth, Gillian Flynn worked odd jobs, including one where she was required to “dress up as a giant yogurt cone who wore a tuxedo”.
  11. Hans Christian Andersen was a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but the admiration was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but Andersen drastically overstayed his welcome. Upon his departure, Dickens taped up a note in the room that read: “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”
  12. When Stephen Hawking turned in his first draft of A Brief History Of Time, his publisher gave him some advice. They said that book sales would be halved for every mathematical equation that he included in the manuscript. Hawking went away and removed all equations bar one (E=MC2). The book went on to sell over 25 million copies.
  13. James Joyce wrote with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat. This is likely attributable to his notoriously poor eyesight, for which he had twenty-five surgeries over the course of his life.
  14. After a severe car accident, Stephen King‘s lawyer purchased the vehicle that hit him, “to prevent it from appearing on eBay”. The car was later crushed in a car yard, and King was reportedly disappointed that he didn’t get to smash it himself.
  15. The Little Prince is the most-translated French book in the world, available in over 300 languages.
  16. David Sedaris’s essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, was all set to be adapted for the screen, with a completed script ready for production. Sedaris withdrew the rights after one of his siblings expressed concern about how their family would be portrayed.
  17. Robert Louis Stevenson deliberately left out the definite article (“the”) from his title of Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Most editions now include it, to make the title grammatically correct.
  18. Hanya Yanagihara, her editor, and her agent all expected that A Little Life “would not sell well”. It defied their expectations.
  19. After publishing The Book Thief, Markus Zusak was able to support himself and his family on the royalties alone, for thirteen years. His next novel, Bridge Of Clay, is the only book he has published in his children’s lifetimes.
  20. Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died on the same day, 22 November 1963. Unfortunately, their deaths were overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  1. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record for being the most-often rejected book to go on to become a best-seller. Robert M. Pirsig received 121 rejections before a publisher agreed to buy his book.
  2. Louisa May Alcott criticised Mark Twain for The Adventure Of Huckleberry Finn‘s crudeness. She said that if he couldn’t “think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them”.
  3. Edith Wharton’s father’s family was very wealthy and influential. Their surname was Jones, and it is said that this is where we get the saying “to keep up with the Joneses”.
  4. Paulo Coelho wrote The Alchemist in just two weeks. He said he was able to get it down on paper quickly because the book was “already written in his soul”.
  5. Kazuo Ishiguro is a “great admirer of Bob Dylan”, who won the Nobel Prize the year before he did.
  6. Tayari Jones had the idea for An American Marriage when she was eavesdropping on a nearby couple in a shopping mall. She told The Paris Review: “I overheard a young couple arguing in the mall in Atlanta. The woman, who was splendidly dressed, and the man—he looked okay. But she looked great! And she said to him, “You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he shot back, “This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” And I was like, You know, I don’t know him, but I know she’s probably right.”
  7. William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks, between midnight and 4AM, while working at a power plant. He said that he did not change a single word of the draft between completion and publication.
  8. Andre Aciman was raised in a multi-lingual household, speaking predominantly French. Family members also spoke Italian, Greek, Ladino (Old Spanish), and Arabic.
  9. The Call Of The Wild was inspired by Jack London’s own extended stay in the Klondike (where, he said, he “found himself”). He was forced to leave when he developed scurvy, as a result of the lack of fresh produce available in the Arctic in winter months.
  10. Despite the anti-war and anti-capitalist themes of Catch-22, Joseph Heller spoke positively of his own time in the army during World War II, and said that he “never had a bad officer” during his time of a bombardier.
  11. J.D. Salinger became a vegetarian after his father tried to pressure him to enter the meat-import business, and he spent a short time working in slaughterhouses in Vienna and Poland.
  12. Toni Morrison wrote her Masters thesis on “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s treatment of the alienated”.
  13. Terry Pratchett’s signature fashion style was “large black hats… more that of urban cowboy than city gent”.
  14. Brad Pitt optioned the film rights for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. A writer was attached to the project back in 2011, but as of 2021 production has not commenced.
  15. Protesting the Government of Portugal’s decidedly negative reaction to his book The Gospel Of Jesus Christ, José Saramago left his home country and lived the rest of his life in exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.
  16. Anaïs Nin wrote her erotic short stories – published posthumously in the collection Delta Of Venus – for the “personal use” of a “private collector”. The collector paid her a dollar a page, and told her to stick to the pornography, “no analysis, no philosophy”.
  17. John Green foolishly promised to personally sign every pre-ordered copy of The Fault In Our Stars. He ended up having to sign every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received.
  18. Today, Bram Stoker is best known as the author of Dracula, but during his lifetime he was only known as the “personal assistant of actor Sir Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, which Irving owned”. He also (probably) died of syphilis.
  19. Veronica Roth wrote her debut novel, Divergent, while on winter break from her studies at Northwestern. She sold the book before graduation, and film rights sold before the book’s release.
  20. Alice Walker coined the term “womanist”, in 1983. She intended it to mean simply “a black feminist or a feminist of colour”.
  1. V.C. Andrews insisted (even after her death, via a surviving relative) that Flowers In The Attic was based on a true story. She claimed that she developed a crush on her doctor, who – along with his siblings – had been locked away for 6 years to preserve his family’s wealth. This claim has never been verified, and is widely disputed.
  2. George R.R. Martin has said that comic book legend Stan Lee is “the greatest literary influence on [him], even more than Shakespeare or Tolkien”.
  3. Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford. She adopted the name Toni for her saint – Anthony – at age 12, after converting to Catholicism. Sadly, she came to regret using a pen name. She worried that it made her sound “like a teenager” and it she felt “ruined” by it. Still, her closest friends and family continued to call her Chloe until her death, and the pseudonym allowed her to keep her professional and personal lives separate.
  4. Stephen Chbosky not only wrote but also directed the film adaptation of his young adult novel The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and received a standing ovation.
  5. Anita Loos was Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriter.
  6. Thriller author Paula Hawkins has written romantic comedies under the name Amy Silver.
  7. Though Nora Ephron was “culturally and emotionally Jewish”, she said that she was not religious. While promoting her final film before her death (Julie & Julia, based on Julie Powell’s blog and memoir of the same name), Ephron said “You can never have too much butter – that is my belief. If I have a religion, that’s it.”
  8. John Steinbeck’s wife was the one who came up with the title for The Grapes Of Wrath.
  9. Margaret Atwood says that her spelling is terrible.
  10. Liane Moriarty wrote season two of the mini-series adaptation of her novel Big Little Lies with Meryl Streep in mind specifically for the new character Mary Louise. Streep didn’t even read the script before agreeing to sign on for the role.
  11. Italo Calvino’s mother chose his first name to commemorate his Italian heritage (he was born in Cuba). However, as the family moved back to Italy while Calvino was still quite young, he effectively grew up with the same name as his country, which he thought sounded “belligerently nationalist”.
  12. Douglas Adams claimed that the concept and title of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy were inspired by a bender. He was hitchhiking around Europe and one night, lying drunk in a field (if I had a dollar), he got to thinking about his mate’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe and mused that there should be a version written for the galaxy.
  13. Cormac McCarthy wrote on the same typewriter for over 50 years. It later sold for $250,000.
  14. When Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar was scheduled for demolition, he reportedly tore a urinal from the wall in the men’s room and took it for his own, saying that he had “pissed so much money into it” that it was his by rights.
  15. William Golding’s manuscript of Lord Of The Flies was initially rejected by his eventual publisher, Faber, with their in-house professional reader calling it an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb on the colonies and a group of children who land in the jungle near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless”.
  16. Australian scientists were such great fans of Andy Weir’s science-fiction novel The Martian that they named a new species of bush tomato after the main character: Solanum watneyi.
  17. Samuel Beckett completed the final edits on his novel Murphy from a Parisian hospital bed. He’d been stabbed after declining an offer of companionship from a notorious French pimp (who went by the street name Prudent). James Joyce paid for Beckett’s medical care.
  18. Despite reaching the peak of international literary fame, Elena Ferrante has remained anonymous for nearly two decades. She has said in (rare) interviews that anonymity is a pre-condition of her work.
  19. Sally Rooney was the star of her university debate club, and was top debater at the European University Debating Championships in 2013.
  20. Jack Kerouac didn’t learn to drive until he was 34 years old, and he never held a formal driver’s license.
  1. Gulliver’s Travels is the most-widely-held book of Irish literature in the world’s libraries.
  2. Ayn Rand dedicated her novel Atlas Shrugged to her husband, and her lover – two different men! In her author bio, she added that her husband (Frank O’Connor) had the values of character she sought in a man, while her lover (Nathaniel Branden) was her “intellectual heir”, an ideal reader with as rational and independent a mind as she could conceive of, whom she met through a fan letter he sent her.
  3. Victor Hugo really struggled with procrastination. While writing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, he had his servants take away all of his clothes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go out during the day when he was supposed to be working, effectively forcing him to write in the nude.
  4. In an essay, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn admitted to sadistic childhood impulses like “stunning ants and feeding them to spiders”.
  5. Travel writer Bill Bryson has been eligible for British citizenship, but avoided it for most of his life, claiming that he was “too cowardly” to take the citizenship test. When he eventually worked up the courage, he passed.
  6. Jennifer Egan has said that her book A Visit From The Goon Squad was inspired by two main sources: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and HBO’s The Sopranos.
  7. The mathematics textbook that Charles Ludtwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) used in school has survived the intervening years intact. An inscription in the front, written in Latin, translates to: “This book belongs to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: hands off!”
  8. Neil Gaiman and musician Tori Amos are very close friends; he is godfather to her daughter, and they have referenced each other in their work often.
  9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger Of A Single Story, is one of the top ten most-viewed TED Talks of all time with more than fifteen million views.
  10. James Joyce loved the work of playwright Henrik Ibsen so much, he learned Norwegian in order to send Ibsen a letter in his native tongue.
  11. F. Scott Fitzgerald was named for Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for The Star Spangled Banner.
  12. John Steinbeck wrote a werewolf novel. It’s called Murder At Full Moon, and it has never been published. A copy of the manuscript is held in the archives of the University of Texas. It will enter the public domain in 2043.
  13. A French soldier claimed that a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim saved his life. He had the book in his pocket when he was shot, and said that the bullet stopped “twenty pages from his heart”.
  14. Mark Twain was once the next-door neighbour of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
  15. Walt Whitman wrote a temperance novel, Franklin Evans, for the money. He admitted later that he was drunk when he wrote it.
  16. The musical Cabaret is an adaptation of a play called I Am A Camera, which in turn is an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye To Berlin.
  17. Aldous Huxley taught George Orwell’s French class at Eton College in 1917.
  18. Gabriel García Márquez never sold the film rights to One Hundred Years Of Solitude, because “(t)hey would cast someone like Robert Redford and most of us do not have relatives who look like Robert Redford.”
  19. Oscar Wilde’s last words were reportedly about the wallpaper in the room where he was confined to his sick bed, which he hated. He reportedly said something to the effect of “my wallpaper and I are fighting… one or other of us has got to go.”
  20. On the eve of their marriage, Leo Tolstoy gave his wife-to-be his complete and unabridged diaries, detailing his sexual history (including his illegitimate child by a serf on his estate), and insisted she read them.
  1. One of Ali Smith’s part-time jobs prior to writing plays was “lettuce cleaner”.
  2. The iconic 2000 film Coyote Ugly was based on an essay written by Elizabeth Gilbert, about her time working as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly table dancing bar in the East Village. Gilbert married a man she met at that bar, and it was her divorce from him that inspired the memoir for which she is most famous, Eat Pray Love.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates said she trained herself to be a writer by “writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them”.
  4. E.B. White has never revealed his inspiration for writing children’s classic Charlotte Web, saying “I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze,”.
  5. Stella Gibbons was ostracised from literary circles in her time, mostly because she dared to parody D.H. Lawrence. Virginia Woolf in particular took issue with her, writing to Elizabeth Bowen after Gibbons won a literary prize: “I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”
  6. As he was writing, Kevin Kwan shared an incomplete draft of Crazy Rich Asians with an editor friend, who complained that he had “ruined her Thanksgiving dinner” because she couldn’t put the manuscript down to finish preparing the meal.
  7. To avoid the ire of Soviet censors, Boris Pasternak had to smuggle his manuscript of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to his Italian publisher. He is reported to have quipped “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad,” as he handed it over.
  8. We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Don Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of the character’s early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase is translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”.
  9. Alexander McCall Smith put his significant royalties from his prolific literary career to good use by purchasing a chain of uninhabited islands, the Cairns of Coll. He intends to hold them in trust, to ensure that they are “kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife – for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home.”
  10. Zadie Smith’s two younger brothers are both rappers.
  11. bell hooks decided to use the “unconventional” lower case for her pen name to distinguish herself from her great-grandmother (from whom the name is taken) and to emphasis what she considers to be most important (the work, not the writer).
  12. Gone With The Wind sold a million copies in its first year of publication (1936), despite its “unprecedented” high price of $3, and widespread hardship in the wake of the Great Depression.
  13. Yuval Noah Harari does not own a smartphone.
  14. Maya Angelou used a hotel room as her study. She asked management to remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles.
  15. The publication of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil led to an increase of 46% in tourism to Savannah.
  16. Jodi Picoult has written several issues of Wonder Woman.
  17. Diana Gabaldon believes that time travel is possible, and on that basis that the Loch Ness monster could exist: “All you need is a time-portal under Loch Ness, which would occasionally allow a prehistoric creature to pass through it.”
  18. Isabel Allende once had a job translating romance novels from English to Spanish, but she was fired for changing dialogue to make the heroines “sound more intelligent”. She also changed the ending of Cinderella.
  19. When he was ten years old, Amor Towles threw a message in a bottle into the Atlantic Ocean. It was found by Harrison Salisbury, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of the New York Times, who responded. The two of them kept up correspondence for many years.
  20. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. This may be where he drew his inspiration for the famed punishment of his protagonist of The Scarlet Letter (to wear a scarlet A, for Adultress, on her chest).

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t had the chance to get out much lately. Whether you’re in official lockdown, or just staying home because it’s the right thing to do, you’re probably getting sick of staring at your own four walls. Luckily, booklovers have a magic power: we can escape to anywhere we want, at any time, as long as the right book is within reach! To stop you going stir crazy, I’ve put together this list of books that will take you to another place…

7 Books That Will Take You To Another Place - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you buy any of these through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission that will help fund my next adventure!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Naples)

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

Naples is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited urban settlements in the world. It’s got a whole lotta history to get the buffs excited: a UNESCO World Heritage site in its city center, the Roman ruins of Pompeii, and Vesuvius just up the road… but, let’s be real, most of us are really thinking about the food. Naples’ pizza is world famous, and they have more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else on the planet. The Naples of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a lot grittier than the one we day-dream about (violence, poverty, and oppression are rife), but her writing is powerful enough to sweep you up in the story and make you feel as though you’re really there, anyway. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (The Pacific Crest Trail)

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Pacific Crest Trail is a 4,720km hiking route along the West Coast of the United States. It covers mountains, national forests and parks, scooting around areas of civilisation and modern conveniences (like roads and toilets). Hiking the whole thing is – obviously – a huge undertaking, usually requiring months or years of preparation. Cheryl Strayed, in the wake of her mother’s death and recovering from heroin addiction, decided to give it a go on a lark. She didn’t set out to do the whole thing (she’s not that crazy), but she still managed nearly 1,800km on her own, with very little preparation or assistance. She immortalised her journey in her memoir, Wild, which went on to top international best-seller lists and make the PCT a go-to destination for hikers in search of solace and revelation. Read my full review of Wild here.

Ulysses by James Joyce (Dublin)

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

Dublin – “The Fair City” – is the capital of Ireland and ranked by the Globalization and World Cities Network as one of the top thirty cities in the world. You’d think it might’ve changed a lot since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, depicting a day in the life of fictional Dubliner Stephen Bloom, but given the number of Joyce/Bloom tours that still operate in the city, it would seem that a lot remains the same. You can visit the pubs Bloom drank at, sites where Joyce is known to have lived and worked, and even have a gander at statues erected in their honour. That is, if you’re not too busy enjoying the rest of what Dublin has to offer… Read my full review of Ulysses here.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Lagos)

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lagos is the most populous city of Nigeria – in fact, of the entire African continent – and it’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. It’s a booming economical and financial hub, with the flood of new money bringing ultramodern sky-rises and developments, but it’s also the center of art and culture in the region. “Nollywood” (the Nigerian film industry) produces about 1,000 films per year, outstripping Hollywood by a considerable margin. After the movies, you can check out the city’s famed nightlife and live music scene. The hustle and bustle, the colours and lights, jump off the page of My Sister, The Serial Killer. It’s a unique glimpse into a part of the world too often inaccessible to Anglophone readers. Read my full review of My Sister, The Serial Killer here.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (New York)

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

C’mon, do I really need to explain to you why you might want to visit New York? Fictional depictions of the Big Apple abound, in every form (film, television, books, music, musicals…), so you’re spoiled for choice if that’s what you’re after. I find the depiction in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year Of Rest And Relaxation particularly interesting, though, because it covers a unique time in New York’s history: the year leading up to the September 11 attacks. The (relatively) carefree innocence of the city’s inhabitants is oddly foreboding, the dramatic irony being that the reader knows what’s coming. Seeing as time travel isn’t yet possible (nor any other kind of travel at the moment… ahem!), give this one a try if you’re so inclined.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Tokyo)

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the political and economic center of the country, the seat of the Emperor, and the most populous metropolitan area in the world (with about 37 million inhabitants). I must say though, what I find most alluring about it as a destination isn’t the “attractions”, the history, or the other stuff that we tourists normally gawk at: it’s the idiosyncratic features of modern life in Tokyo that fascinate me. And there’s no better view of them than that offered by Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman. This slim little novel taught me more about Tokyo and urban Japanese culture than anything else I’ve ever read. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

Paris Match by John Von Sothen (Paris)

Paris Match - John Von Sothen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, normally I would prefer books about places to be written by native inhabitants of those places (see… pretty much all of the above). However, I make an exception for Paris. The city of love manages to be both alluring and hostile to outsiders at the same time, which makes it uniquely fun and funny to read about from an outsider’s perspective. That’s what you get in Paris Match (and in Me Talk Pretty One Day, and in pretty much every other American-man-abroad account I’ve read of living in France). John Von Sothen has been living with his Parisian wife and children in the city for nearly two decades, so he’s seen it from both sides now, and his insights are both hilarious and helpful for us would-be Francophiles. Read my full review of Paris Match here.

Whew! That was quite a trip around the world, wasn’t it? And without having to check baggage or try to snooze off the jet-lag in a busy airport! Where have you (fictionally) “been” lately? Tell me the comments!

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