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7 Classic Books For People Who Don’t Read The Classics

Are you still searching for a bookish new year’s resolution? “Start reading the classics” might be a good one, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were feeling a bit intimidated. Classic books have a reputation for being long, dense, and difficult to understand. If you were forced to read a few in high school, that was probably enough to put you off them for life. The trick is to find classics that will ease you in. That’s why I’ve put together this list of classic books for people who don’t read classic books.

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If you buy one of these classic books through a link on this page, I’ll get a tiny cut for referring you, just FYI!

I tried to pick classics that are easy to read, in terms of both language and content (no trigger warnings required, though there will always be some darker themes, can’t avoid those). These reads will get you into the rhythm, and hopefully help you develop a taste for classic books…

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”, which means she was one of the first writers to do first-person narration really, really well. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman (named Jane Eyre, duh) coming of age in Victorian England. She’s a bit down on her luck, with dead parents and mean stepsisters and everything, but a position as a governess for a strange and alluring man could turn things all around for her… It’s the perfect classic to start with if you’ve got feminist leanings but you’re still a sucker for a good romance. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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You might think you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes – he is, after all, the world’s most famous fictional detective, and one of the most commonly used and adapted characters in English literature. All that familiarity and context will make Doyle’s original short story collection, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a fun and easy read. Even if you’ve been living under the world’s largest rock and know nothing about Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson, you’ll still find these stories are quick, clever, and rollicking good fun. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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In addition to a classic book with an intricate love triangle, when you pick up The Age Of Innocence you’ll also get a piece of history. It’s written in remembrance of a long-lost time, that of Gilded Age New York, and it’s also the first book written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. That makes Wharton a trailblazer, as well as a teller of cracking yarns. You do need to keep your wits about you as you read this one, because she weaves all kinds of interesting comments and observations into passages as simple as the description of a house facade. If you want a classic book you can sink your teeth into, on a long flight perhaps, this is the one for you! Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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I know I promised you some short and snappy classic reads, so I understand if you’re looking at a copy of David Copperfield right now and thinking I’ve led you up the garden path. The thing is, even though this is a long book in terms of page count, I was so enthralled by it and the pages flew by so fast that it felt like a regular-length novel. It’s written in the style of an autobiography, telling the life story of (you guessed it) a man called David Copperfield. Dickens was the master of writing something for everyone; he knew that his books were used for family entertainment, so he weaved in politics, romance, adventure, and intrigue, and seasoned it with humour and horror, to make sure readers of all ages and inclinations would enjoy his books. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women wasn’t even considered to be a “real” classic until very recently. It has historically been written off as sentimental fluff, and many critical readers have turned their noses up at it. Luckily, I’m here to testify the truth of the matter, just for you Keeper-Upperers: this book is brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to read, and yes, at face value it can come across a little earnest, but lurking below the surface are all manner of feminist principles and class commentary and Alcott’s trademark subversion of expectations. I’m glad to see it has claimed its rightful place in the American literary canon! This is the classic book to read when you want a cozy family story with an edge. Read my full review of Little Women here.

Emma by Jane Austen

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It took me a while, but I’m finally coming around to Austen, and to Emma in particular. I know most readers would probably recommend Pride And Prejudice for first-timers, but I actually found Emma to be a better introduction. It’s a gentle book, in the sense that most of the action takes place around bored wealthy white people visiting each other’s houses, but it’s also incredibly clever and witty and wise. Emma is a book that will marinate in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Pick it up if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about. Read my full review of Emma here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley put pen to paper and created Frankenstein in order to win a bet, and with that the whole genre of science fiction was born. If you’re a sci-fi reader, you should read this one to see the origins of your preferred genre brought to life (much like the monster, ha!). It’s written in an epistolary style – in letters, and diary entries, and so forth – which means it’s easy enough to pick up and put down, great for reading when you’re likely to experience distractions. That said, you’ll never want to put it down, because it’s just so gripping! Read my full review of Frankenstein here.

What classic books would you recommend to people who don’t normally read classic books? Add to this reading list in the comments below!

The Best Books I Read In 2019: Year In Review

Another year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for another obligatory year-in-review post, a round-up of all the best books I read in 2019. This year, I reviewed 51 books (though a 52nd will squeeze in just after Christmas, before the new year ticks over), and once again they spanned centuries and categories like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one of my favourite things about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: the variety! I’ve covered everything from Pulitzer Prize winners (old and new) to little-known autobiographies, from Great American Novels to books in translation from Sweden, from hilarious Jazz Age social commentary to re-imaginings of Australian folklore. Here’s the best of what I’ve read this year, from start to finish…

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If you buy any of these best books of the year through a link on this page, I’ll earn a tiny cut from the sale, which will make YOU the best PERSON of the year!

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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Like almost everyone, I think, I sat down with my copy of Little Women carrying a heavy burden of skepticism. I assumed it was going to be fluffy, saccharine, a relic of the days before feminism taught the world that women were powerful. How lucky I was to pick up this edition, with its incredible introduction that detailed for me the life and politics of Louisa May Alcott. It really opened my eyes to what she was trying to do with this book, and how she cleverly – but subtly – subverted the weight of expectation that was thrust upon her. Read my full review of Little Women here.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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Here’s another one I never thought I’d be including in a list of my best reads of the year. Portnoy’s Complaint, by all accounts, was a self-indulgent romp through the mind of an upper-middle-class Jewish American man, obsessed with sex and his mother (naturally). There was no way, I thought, I could possibly relate to, let alone laugh at, his neurotic monologue. Once again, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me eating my words: this book was hilarious! I cackled over poor Portnoy’s complaints, his childhood anecdotes, and his unbelievable knack for getting in his own way. Read my full review of Portnoy’s Complaint here.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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Alright, here’s one I knew I’d love: I just had no idea how much. I saved up reading The Bell Jar for the moment I thought I needed it, and I’m so glad I did. It was searing, it was heart-breaking, it was gut-churning, it was tear-jerking, it was breath-taking. It’s a modern classic for a reason, Keeper Upperers, and it was so good I almost gave up reading and writing altogether when I finished it. Why bother, when something so beautiful already exists in the world? Trigger warnings aplenty, however – you’ve been warned. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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The Age Of Innocence is a lot like one of those boggy marshes with hidden patches of quicksand (I know, it’s not an elegant metaphor, but bear with me): it looks plain, maybe a little boring, but if you don’t keep your wits about you as you wander through, you could find yourself sinking and struggling to get free. Wharton’s prose is deceptively simple. What appears to be a description of a carriage or a house actually contains crucial commentary about the world her characters lived in and the way it worked. If you let your mind drift, you’ll miss it, and have to track back through the pages to pick it up again. Wharton was a trailblazer for 20th century female authors in America, and The Age Of Innocence totally holds up. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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Poor Stella Gibbons. I’d never heard of her, nor Cold Comfort Farm (her best-known work, which isn’t saying much) before I put together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. In fact, it would seem that most people – outside of the very well-read English Lit elite – have never heard of her. She wrote dozens of books, and yet it took me a year to track down any of them. Why is she so underappreciated? Well, it would seem she had the audacity to parody D.H. Lawrence, the beloved grand-daddy of horny male writers in her time (and now, come to that), and she pissed off Virginia Woolf into the bargain. Essentially, Gibbons refused to play by the rules, and as a result, those in the powerful literary cliques sought to pull her from our shelves. I’d say that makes reading Cold Comfort Farm a political act. Read my full review of Cold Comfort Farm here.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Mark Twain’s books are divisive, I won’t deny it. I can certainly see the problems in his treatment of race in America, problems that have seen his books banned from many school libraries and removed from many a syllabus. But I really enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in spite of myself. I loved the way he used dialect, the way he crafted his characters’ speech to tell the reader as much about them as what they were saying. The writing was brilliant, masterful, immersive, and compelling. I wasn’t as sold on Tom Sawyer, but they can’t all be winners. Read my full review – of both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn! – here.

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

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Are you tired of me explaining all the ways in which my preconceived ideas have been kicked in the bum this year? I hope not, because here comes another one. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, getting the gong for literature back in 2017. I assumed, coming to his work knowing that, that it would be Very Literary(TM). To put it bluntly, I thought it would be dense, bleak, boring, and written for people far smarter than me. I was surprised, when I finally came across a copy of An Artist Of The Floating World, to see how slim it was, and even more surprised by how quickly I powered through it. I’ve talked before about how I’ve largely gone off WWII historical fiction, but this is one I can get behind. It’s set in Japan shortly after the conflict ended, and it follows a few days in the life of an artist who is not only “of the floating world”, but also created propaganda posters for the government. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.

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

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When I finished reading The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I knew I’d found my go-to cheer-up read for many years to come. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of an old bloke who jumped out of his nursing home window to avoid a birthday party, and the role his life’s adventures play in what unfolds after that. It stretches far past the bounds of believability, but it’s so fun and so funny that all is forgiven. This is the book I thrust into a friend’s hands if they’re having a down day. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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I must admit, even if I hadn’t enjoyed Pride And Prejudice, it would be getting a spot on this round-up of the best books I read this year, purely for the fact that I finished it! Long-time Keeper Upperers will know that I’ve been engaged in a brutal stand-off with this book for many years. I’ve picked it up no fewer than six times, only to quickly abandon it and move on to something else shortly thereafter. But now, I can proudly declare that I have read Jane Austen’s beloved prototypical romance, and I finally understand what all the fuss is about. My experience(s) with Pride And Prejudice just go to prove, once again, that it is crucial – crucial! – that a book comes to you at the right time in your reading life. Read my full review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, by a long way, the book I have recommended most often and most vehemently this year, to anyone who’ll listen (and even to those who won’t). I was completely knocked off my feet by this charming little tome, stylised as a series of diary entries chronicling the adventures of society darling Lorelei Lee. If you’ve seen the movie and figured that you didn’t need to read the book (or if you didn’t even know there was a book, no judgement!), you’re dead wrong. This is the most astute, insightful, and witty take on gender roles in the Jazz Age (and all subsequent ages) that I have ever read. Forget about Gatsby (ugh): leave your copy at a local Little Library, and curl up instead with this absolute gem. Read my review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? That’s what happened to me when I read The Grapes Of Wrath. I was nonsensically angry with every single person in my life who had read it and hadn’t (a) recommended it to me immediately, and (b) warned me about how gut-punchingly good it was. I didn’t want to like it. Steinbeck shamelessly ripped off years of work, that of a woman who history has all but forgotten. But the story of the Joads, their migration across America to seek their fortunes (i.e., survive), moved me in ways I can barely describe. It’s all the more incredible, too, for its startling relevance in a climate that is rapidly changing… Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

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Upon reflection, this might be my year of reading (and loving!) dialect, because – like with Huck Finn, and a few others on this list – what drew me in most to Carey’s reimagining of an Australian folk “hero” was the way he represented an early Irish-Australian accent on the page. True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve ever read that has, in my expert-by-virtue-of-living-here opinion, accurately and beautifully represented Australian speech in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to claw their own eyeballs out. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, consider this: Carey imagines an internal world for Kelly that few have considered before reading this work, but simultaneously allows the reader room to make up their own mind about his morality or lack thereof. A must-read Australian novel! Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.


And there we have it, Keeper Upperers – an even dozen! What do you think of the best books I read this year? What were the best books YOU read this year? Add your recommendations to the comments below, or tell me on the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If you want to check out more of my best-of recommended reads, try this list of the best books I’ve read so far, earlier in the year.

11 Best Closing Lines in Literature

Opening lines get a lot of attention – heck, I’ve done round-up posts of them a couple of times over (here and here). But what about closing lines? Authors must be knackered by the time they get around to the end of their book, I’d understand if they just wanted to phone it in… but these guys managed to whip out one final zinger, a deeply satisfying note on which to leave their readers. Here’s my list of the best closing lines in literature.

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(And if you think it’s possible to write a post like this without spoilers, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Don’t you dare complain to me if you read on!)

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s start with something a little bit hopeful, a little bit inspirational, from the American classic Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has been abandoned by her true love, Rhett Butler, and she’s reassuring herself that tomorrow she’ll think of some way to win him back. The beauty of this aphorism is that it can be applied to almost any situation, because (in the end) it’s basically just a statement of fact, but one that sounds good.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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“He loved Big Brother.”

And now to something chilling and bleak: this terrifyingly cruel outcome for Winston, at the conclusion of Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a few hundred pages of frustration and rebellion against the omniscient dictatorship under which he lives, Winston sadly succumbs to their brainwashing and decides that he loves his leader. I’ll never forget the first time I read it: young, wide-eyed, naive, I struggled to believe that Orwell didn’t give Winston a happily ever after (you know, overthrowing a government). I’m still not over it, to be honest.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

OK, I unashamedly hated The Great Gatsby, but even I’ve got to concede that this is a corker of a closing line. It’s one we trot out whenever someone brings up The American Dream – finding it, losing it, exposing it, whatever – and for good reason. It’s just masterfully crafted, beautifully evocative… is there anything more frustrating than having to acknowledge how good something is when you didn’t like it? Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

It’s not like Franzen is known for particularly optimistic takes, and indeed The Corrections isn’t a particularly optimistic book… but, looking at it in isolation, I really like the hopeful ring in this closing line. It’s determined, it’s upbeat – it brings to mind a spritely granny who’s heading out in her active wear for an afternoon power-walk. Right?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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“The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

I’ve said before that The Bell Jar is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and Plath didn’t miss an opportunity to hit me over the head with one last clanger. I love the discordance of an ending that’s about entering a room (which is where you’d logically expect a story to start, not finish). Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

I’ve heard Annie Proulx say in interviews that she’s a bit “over” talking about Brokeback Mountain – in light of the incredibly popular film adaptation – but I can’t help including this closing line in a list of the best. It’s like the literary equivalent of the serenity prayer (accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, etc.). I think everyone can relate, in some small way, to the pain and disillusionment that Proulx captures here.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

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“Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.”

I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of The Makioka Sisters, let alone read it, before I started putting together this list… but I came across it in another best-of closing lines compilation, and I laughed out loud, disturbing everyone in my immediate radius. It’s just such a wry, blunt statement! As it turns out, Tanizaki’s story is a really heart-wrenching one (from the plot summary, it sounds like the Japanese equivalent of The Grapes Of Wrath), but I love this matter-of-fact translation of its closing line.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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“At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”

Perhaps I only like this one because I thought Newland Archer was a weak-willed nincompoop, and I was happy to see The Age Of Innocence end with him alone and miserable, but it’s still a beautiful closing line. Quick recap: Newland is standing alone outside a building, knowing that his “true love” (with whom he carried on an affair in his youth, behind his wife’s back) is inside, but he lacks the gumption to go in and say hello. Instead, he heads back to his own hotel alone (to masturbate and cry, probably). Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Raymond Chandler is beloved for his place writing, and how well he captured Los Angeles’s unique ambience in the early 20th century, but as I said in my review of another of his novels (The Big Sleep), I actually enjoyed his characterisation more. He came up with incredible metaphors and similes to really nail his characters, and a bit of that comes through in this closing line from The Long Goodbye: you can just pictured the beleaguered smirk that accompanies it, can’t you?

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Hemingway famously put a lot of effort into his closing lines. He re-wrote the ending of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are still plenty of readers who insist that he got it wrong!), but I don’t think there’s any argument that this closing line, from A Moveable Feast, was his best.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

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“An excellent year’s progress.”

To end back on a lighter note, I love this beauty from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Perhaps it’s not quite as good out of context – Bridget has just summed up her year in alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, weight gained and lost, and boyfriends dumped and won – but I think that it holds up. And it’s certainly a line I’ve borrowed myself once or twice around New Year’s Eve…

(Kisses and hugs to everyone who buys a book through one of these affiliate links – finishing all these books ain’t cheap!)

Which beautiful endings have stuck with you? Which closing lines do you think are the best? Drop your additions to this list in the comments below (or join in the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).


7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading (And What To Read Instead)

I don’t think anyone should read the classics just so they can say they’ve “read the classics”. Sometimes books are glorified and lionised for reasons other than readability. Take Moby Dick, for instance: it’s a fascinating book, one worth reading and understanding from an academic standpoint, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable reading experience for most booklovers. Earlier this year, I talked about how to read more classic books, and I still think that’s a laudable goal… but consider this post the counterpoint, a list of classic books you can skip reading (and some suggestions as to what you can read instead).

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Go forth and buy from one of these affiliate links – I’ll get a small commission for referring you, and I’ll love you forever!

Don’t Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

If you’ve followed Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you had to know this would be the first cab off the rank. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hated The Great Gatsby, and if anything my distaste for it has only grown over time. I have no idea why it’s so popular, especially in high-school reading lists. A privileged white guy discovers it’s fun to have money and party with pretty girls, then his friend dies and nobody comes to the funeral – smh. Maybe it was a revelation for some, but certainly not for me. I found Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superior in just about every way. First, it was funny. Second, it was incredibly insightful. Third, it privileged the voices of characters that Fitzgerald mercilessly marginalised (i.e., women). Trust me, you’ll have way more fun reading about Lorelei’s adventures in love and high society than you will reading about Gatsby borderline-stalking his married ex-girlfriend.

Don’t Read: The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

When I read The Adventures Of Augie March, I could tell straight away that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens in general, and to David Copperfield in particular. Bellow basically took Dickens’ style of storytelling and transplanted it into 1920s Chicago. I don’t think he did a great job of it, though. Augie is barely a character, he has no agency in his own life, and any other character you might actually care about only appears for a page or two. David Copperfield, on the other hand, was full of fun and intrigue and heartbreak and glory; Dickens was the master of writing books that had something for everyone, and writers like Bellow tackle that legacy at their own peril. When in doubt, go for the OG.

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I love the story of how Ray Bradbury came to write Fahrenheit 451. He found a library that would let him use a typewriter for 10c per hour, and he got to work, writing his magnum opus for the princely sum of about nine bucks. It’s a great story-behind-the-story, and I talk more about it in my review, but unfortunately a handful of speed-writing sessions in a library basement doesn’t a masterpiece of modern literature make. Fahrenheit 451 is a really short book, and it reads like a good first draft (which, basically, it is). I feel like almost everyone who loves it read it for the first time in high school, when the idea that a government might gain too much power and people would be forced to rebel was a game-changer. In my view, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the superior dystopian classic: it’s given us so much iconic imagery (Big Brother, the ubiquitous ever-watchful screen, etc.), the prose is straightforward but gripping, and Orwell has a lot more room to explore the ideas of his imagined future.

Don’t Read: The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

OK, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the first full-length novels written in the form we recognise today, so I can’t be too hard on Laurence Sterne for not exactly nailing it. But don’t be fooled by the title, it’s a study in irony: there’s very little of Tristram Shandy’s life, or opinions, in this book. It’s mostly a meandering chat about philosophy, politics, and his father’s household staff. The language is really inaccessible for most contemporary readers, and I had trouble staying awake. Jane Eyre came later, yes, so Charlotte Brontë had more literary influences to draw upon and she took less of a risk creatively. Still, whichever way you slice it, Jane Eyre is still a far more engaging and readable story. It actually does what it says on the tin, for one thing, in telling Jane’s life story, and Charlotte Brontë has since been called the “first historian of the private consciousness” for her incredible rendering of her protagonist’s inner world.

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I expected so much more of The Scarlet Letter, based on its reputation. I thought I was in for a treatise on the control of female sexuality, I wanted a take-down of the patriarchy, I hoped there might even be a few dirty bits. I was sorely disappointed, on all counts. Hawthorne sought to make a single point – that the Puritans sucked – and he made it again, and again, and again. The Age Of Innocence (another later book, but an infinitely better one) had a much more nuanced look at gender roles and societal pressure in America. It’s a lot more subtle, which means you have to play close attention, but I’d much rather that than the way that Hawthorne whacked you over the head with his symbolism…

Don’t Read: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If you’re going to have a stab at writing the Great American Novel, I think it’s cheating to set your story in Europe. I know, I know, Hemingway was “writing what he knew”, but what he knew was a bunch of drunk blokes and one token woman (whom they all wish to sleep with, natch) enjoying their time as spectators to animal cruelty and exhibiting some pretty gross xenophobia. Also, Hemingway was clearly a terrible lover, because not one of his characters in The Sun Also Rises seemed to realise there were alternatives to vanilla P-in-V sex. Snore. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was actually set in the States (point one!), and told what I think to be a far more important story about the lives of rural and impoverished Southerners during the Great Depression. Instead of dilly-dallying about feeling sorry for themselves, every character sacked up and shipped out to make the best of unimaginably shitty circumstances. It sounds like an uplifting read as I’m describing it here, and it was in part, but trust me: Steinbeck had perfected the art of the emotional gut-punch, so there’s plenty of those to be found here, too.

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

I really am loath to tell anyone not to read a book. Even when it’s a book I hated, a book that made me want to pull my eyes out and soak them in vodka, I’ll usually tell people to give it go and decide for themselves. I never want to discourage anyone from reading, and even in my most negative reviews I try to find something positive to say about the book in question. But for The Golden Bowl, that was damn near impossible. I have never read a book more impenetrable! I had to resort to reading chapter summaries online as I went, to make sure I was actually following what was going on. James seemed hell-bent on confusing and frustrating the heck out of his reader. Maybe he had a nice turn of phrase or two on occasion, and the plot itself (or what I could decipher of it) wasn’t terrible, but reading The Golden Bowl was enough to make me swear off reading anything else he’s written for the rest of my goddamn life. I can’t really think of a comparable title to encourage you to read instead, I hated it that much. Do yourself a favour and pick up something completely different: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, or Little Women, or Cold Comfort Farm.



What classic book do you think you could have skipped reading? What would you say would be a good one to read instead? Drop your recommendations in the comments below, or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If it’s summer where you are (it’s certainly heating up here!), be sure to check out this guide to the best classics to put in your beach bag.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head.

Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to mute your feminist ideals to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down and opened myself up to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue doesn’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review of Little Women 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

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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