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The Old Man And The Sea – Ernest Hemingway

I didn’t love The Sun Also Rises, so you’d be forgiven for thinking I was done with Hemingway. But I couldn’t resist inheriting my grandparents’ copy of The Old Man And The Sea, a beauty published by Jonathan Cape in 1962. It’s a little worse for wear, but still perfectly readable.

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Old Man And The Sea here.
(I’ll be grateful until I’m old and out to sea myself if you make a purchase through an affiliate link that supports this page.)

Ernest Hemingway wrote this novella between December 1950 and February 1951, and it was first published in 1952. It was his last major fictional work to be published before his death. It’s hard to separate the content and themes of The Old Man And The Sea from Hemingway’s own life and state of mind at the time. His previous novel had been savaged in reviews, his wife wasn’t speaking to him (because he’d fallen in love with his “muse”) and he was drinking his life away in Cuba. Feeling old and dejected and cursed, but holding onto hope for a silver bullet solution, pretty much sums it up – both Hemingway and his book.

The blurb for The Old Man And The Sea sums it up well: it’s “the story of a young boy, an old man, and a giant fish”. That’s literally it. A young boy helps care for an old fisherman who hasn’t brought in any catch lately; then the old man goes out on his own and catches a huge marlin, so big he can’t haul it in himself and it tows him out to sea.

It took longer to read than I thought. Even though it’s short and an ostensibly simple story (old man + big fish = trouble), The Old Man And The Sea is surprisingly emotive and weighty. It’s a tragic one-two punch: the pitiable old man puts in such an effort (literally, his life on the line) to haul in this great fish only to have it snatched out of his grasp, and the quiet dignity with which he suffers and perseveres.

Ultimately, it’s quite a bummer – especially when you read it knowing a little about Hemingway’s personal life at the time of writing.

Hemingway sure went out on a high, though. The Old Man And The Sea earned him his first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and it was the only of his works specifically cited when he was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1954. The judges praised his “powerful, style-making mastery of the art of modern narration” (which seems to me to be a very fancy way of saying “he write good”).

And, the highest praise of all: *I* liked it, far better than anything else of his I’ve read. The Old Man And The Sea is definitely the one to pick up if you’re not sure you’ll vibe with Hemingway and his whole schtick. There’s a lot less explicit misogyny and ethnocentrism in this one (it’s still there, but not quite so in-your-face), and it’s definitely Papa at his most emotionally intelligent and sensitive.

Read The Old Man And The Sea on audiobook via here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Old Man And The Sea:

  • “I don’t care about fishing and I don’t see the point of the story.” – Samira P.
  • “If I could give this book zero stars, I would. This is a poorly written “classic” that doesn’t deserve the time to be read. If you don’t want to take my advice, then have fun reading about an old guy who is very angry at a fish.” – laura harshbarger
  • “The Old Man and the Sea reads as if it were written by a demented philosopher with the vocabulary of the current American President, trying fruitlessly to convey some idiot zen life lesson… If you like dull old men in boats writing about dull old men in boats alone, this is the book for you. Or, for those curious as to what alcoholism does to the mind, read The Sun Also Rises and this book back to back.” – Dr Moreau

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was no slouch when it came to writing, as we’ve established, but perhaps his true talent actually lay in reading. He would read anywhere up to ten books at a time, plus squeezing in at least a few newspapers and journals every single day. He would travel with a huge bag full of books for reading on the journey. The dude was voracious, in more ways than one.

In 1934, aspiring writer Arnold Samuelson knocked on Hemingway’s door, and asked to pick his brain. It was a ballsy move, given that Hemingway had a reputation for (a) being grumpy, and (b) liking guns. And yet, Samuelson wound up becoming Hemingway’s only true protégé, working in his employ and following him around the world for nearly a year. During that time, Hemingway was kind enough to jot down a list of books that (according to him) all writers must read. Samuelson kept the list, and published it in his book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway told Samuelson not to bother with writers of the day, and focus on becoming better than his favourite dead white guys: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert.

Then, the following year (1935), Hemingway wrote a piece for Esquire magazine (Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter). Perhaps inspired by his list for Samuelson, he digressed from his point briefly to give us another list – the books he desperately wished he could read again for the first time. In fact, he put his money where his mouth is, and said that he would rather have another chance to read any one of them for the first time than have an income of a million per year. Big talk, eh? He lamented that there were “very few good new ones”, and that perhaps his days of enjoying previously-undiscovered literature were behind him (so dramatic).

Anyway, given that the guy clearly knew his shit, it might be high time we review a list of books recommended by Ernest Hemingway. (Pay extra-close attention if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s bound to be something in here for you…)

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway - Green and White Text overlaid on Greyscale Image of Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve mentioned before that I think Emma Bovary is one of the best “bad women” in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary follows the story of her attempts to escape the intolerable boredom of her provincial married life. She descends into a spiral of alcoholism, adultery, and debt, unraveling and undone by her unwieldy desires. It is a story exquisitely told, and the woman isn’t exactly painted in the best light – so it’s no surprise that it was right up Hemingway’s alley.

Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners - James Joyce - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen stories, all centered around Joyce’s distaste for his ‘dear dirty Dublin’, exposing the corruption, vulgarity, and heartlessness of his city of birth. The collection was the first notable publication of 20th century realist literature coming from Ireland, and to this day it is celebrated for its artful depiction of the infamous Dublin accent. I haven’t read Dubliners myself (I tackled Ulysses instead), but Hemingway’s recommendation of this gritty, brutal read still counts for something.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another one of my favourite bad women – are you sensing a theme in books recommended by Ernest Hemingway? Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the best love stories (indeed, one of the best novels) ever written, so hats off to Tolstoy. Anna, a beautiful but self-indulgent woman, seeks the love of Count Vronsky (who is definitely not her husband), and basically sets fire to her 19th century Russian life. Tolstoy’s writing is beautiful, passionate, and intense – not for the faint of heart, though undoubtedly easier to tackle than the doorstop-worthy War & Peace (which also featured on Hemingway’s lists).

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hemingway didn’t want to make it easy for us! Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment isn’t that tough to get through, but Papa recommended The Brothers Karamazov, a more complicated and controversial novel. The story kicks off with the murder of cruel and corrupt landowner Fyodor Karamazov, and follows the fallout in the lives of his three sons (well, four, if you count the illegitimate son posing as a manservant). It’s a detective story, in a way, but it’s no Sherlock Holmes – you’ll need your thinking cap on for this one.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wuthering Heights is definitely one of the more readable books recommended by Ernest Hemingway, so it might be best to start here if you’re new to the game. I once described Emily Brontë’s only novel in a single sentence thus: A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages. Yes, it’s a long sentence, but I still think it’s a fairly accurate summary. Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

The American by Henry James

Hemingway was the archetypal American “ex-pat” (because we only call brown people “immigrants”). He spent a decent chunk of his life in France and Spain, shooting and fishing and running with bulls. So it’s no surprise that he was really into The American, a story of a wealthy American man trying to marry into the French aristocracy. James dissects the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans in a melodramatic, but ultimately kind of comedic, way.

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

Hemingway is quoted as saying he considered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “the best book an American ever wrote”, and that it “marks the beginning of American literature” (kind of like Lennon saying that, before Elvis, there was nothing). It’s a big call, but I think we can all agree that Huck Finn is one of Twain’s most enduring and celebrated works, at least. It is the sequel to his previous (also renowned) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it explores the conflict between civilisation and nature – a lofty topic if there ever was one. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.

In the end, you can be pretty confident that any book recommended by Ernest Hemingway is going to be a heavy read. Everything he loved explored the underbelly of humanity in some way, and it seems like they got bonus points if they did it in Europe, or featured bad women front and center.

What do you think of Hemingway’s recommended reads? How many have you read?

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

A little while back, I conned my mate Andrew into visiting a secondhand bookstore with me (my friends know that I’m prone to this kind of maneuver). While were were there, another patron overheard me (loudly) bitching about how difficult it was to find a well-preserved copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. She tapped me on the shoulder, pulled this copy off the shelf, and handed it to me so sweetly I almost cried. Well, of course, all of this happened on the very day that I had no cash on me – so Andrew swooped in and made the purchase on my behalf. What a champion!

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I was eager to read more Hemingway. I first encountered his short story Hills Like White Elephants at uni, and I’ve re-read it a thousands times since; it was very formative for me. Other than that, my only real exposure to Hemingway was Kat’s succinct analysis in 10 Things I Hate About You (of course).

Kat on Hemingway - 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, was published in 1926. He actually pulled a sneaky trick to make sure he got the publisher that he wanted for it. While under contract to Boni & Liveright (with whom he was unhappy for some reason), he submitted a hastily-written satirical novella that he knew they would reject, effectively terminating his contract on the spot. This allowed him to submit The Sun Also Rises to Scribner, and the rest is history.

The story follows a group of American and British migrants who travel to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Of course, Hemingway was the king of “write what you know”, so the story is very closely based on his own trip to Spain in 1925. The characters were real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Apparently, he had originally intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but he decided that his experiences had given him plenty of content for a novel – and the result was The Sun Also Rises.

So, what’s it like? Well, it seems to confirm the worst of what people say about Hemingway. It’s all brooding white guys, drinking a lot and butting bruised masculine egos. The women are either shrill harpies or desirable floozies. A boy likes an unattainable girl, who shags all of his rich friends but sticks him in the friendzone. The boy goes fishing with those friends, and the girl tags along. Everybody drinks.

The dialogue is so sparse and hard to follow that I almost missed what seems to be the focal point of the novel: Jake (the protagonist) is literally impotent, thanks to a nasty war wound. Once I cottoned onto that, I couldn’t decide whether it made The Sun Also Rises better or worse. I know that his injury symbolises the disillusionment and frustration of his entire cohort, not to mention Jake’s own metaphorical impotence in navigating friendships and politics in post-war Europe, but… it’s just a little obvious, isn’t it? A little too neat? I mean, a man gets his dick blown off and starts questioning the meaning of the world without his masculinity in it: pfft.

As much as Hemingway is the darling of the American literary canon, not everybody loved The Sun Also Rises, so I know I’m not alone here. A reviewer at the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote at the time that The Sun Also Rises “begins nowhere and ends in nothing”, which I thought was particularly pithy.

Even Hemingway’s own mother wasn’t a fan: she hung shit on him for wasting his talents on such filth, writing to him “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ – every page fills me with a sick loathing”. You can’t please everyone…

Anyway, Jake’s love interest is Brett – and wherever she goes, trouble follows. Men fall over themselves for her: they drink too much, and fight one another. I liked Brett in so much as she was unashamed about enjoying sex and chasing good times – there’s not enough of that in female characters, even today – but I certainly didn’t idolise her the way that Grown Up Literary Critics seem to. To me, she was a mere receptacle for all of the projections, hopes and frustrations of men. She lacked any true independence or self-determination. It’s all well and good to commit yourself to the ho-life, but damn girl – have a sense of who you are!

Jake’s defective junk is the primary obstacle to their having a relationship – which seems kind of quaint and ridiculous to a post-Sexual Revolution reader. If Brett and Jake had heard of cunnilingus, The Sun Also Rises would have played out differently. Of course, that would depend on Hemingway opening his mind to the sexual agency of a woman. You can be damn sure that if the situation were reversed, and Brett had had her lady parts blown off in the war, Hemingway would have been writing a life of endless blow jobs for Jake – a “happy ending” as it were (ha!).

This is yet another book from my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list that makes it abundantly clear to me how little humanity has changed over time (see also: Dante’s The Divine Comedy). Nearly a century after its publication, I still recognise Hemingway’s descriptions of pre-gaming for the fiesta (akin to skulling Vodka Cruisers at home before jumping in the Uber to the club). All the men around Brett are just bitching about how they’ve been “friendzoned”, the way that angry young men do on the internet today. Technology might progress exponentially, and the new cycle might move ever-faster, but those same base urges come forth one way or another.

I think I’ll need to give The Sun Also Rises another read or two before I write it off completely. Another friend (who loves it) asked me what I thought after I’d finished, and (very gently) pointed out all the ways in which I was wrong. A spot of Googling reveals all kinds of readings that I overlooked. Spoilers actually save the day with this one – it’s actually better if you know the history and the themes going in.

My tl;dr summary would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sun Also Rises:

  • “Of course I’m missing the point. Literary scholars be damned. This one was just a lot of drinking and yapping away about seemingly insignificant things. The title, I can only surmise, refers to those drinking nights that extend until, you guessed it, the sun rises.” – 3MAT3
  • “I tried to like it. I was in Pamplona and San Sebastian. 20 years ago, and 15 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 2 weeks ago, I started it. I couldn’t stand it. Nothing is worse than a writer penning a story about writing. The book is a cliche. And, Hemingway was a wimp. He drank wimpy drinks. Mojito? Bellini?” – Duff
  • “good writing, no use of pointless big words, not all of us went to harvard, hemingway gets that.” – Lucas Rascon
  • “Easy to read. Mostly pointless – but I guess that’s the point.” – Stanley Townsend
  • “It’s a masterpiece. If you can handle all the drinking, the bitch called Brett, and a pain in the as s named Cohn. But, it’s a classic and Hemingway will at least teach you how to drink absinthe, if you’re too scared to learn his powerful and dangerous approach to descriptive prose, which I highly recommend, as it beats bullfighting for a living, or looking for a male meal ticket, at which Brett excels. Five obligatory stars. If you hated it, you have no soul.” – Pyrata

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books

We all have them: unpopular opinions about popular books. Whether it’s a classic that just didn’t quite work for us, or a best-seller that made us roll our eyes, there are books we’d rather not admit we didn’t love in mixed company. Well, I’m ripping the bandage off our collective secret shame today by sharing my very own unpopular opinions about popular books. Have at it!

My Unpopular Opinions About Popular Books - Book Discussion - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be popular with me if you use an affiliate link on this page to buy a book – I’ll earn a small fee for referring you.

It Ends With Us actually does a good job of countering myths about domestic violence

Criticism of It Ends With Us – some of it from very authoritative sources – stems from the view that it “romanticises” domestic violence. As I read it, though, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she depicted the insidiousness of violence in this kind of relationship.

People don’t fall in love with people who beat them or are cruel to them. They fall in love with someone who seems wonderful, who treats them well, and makes them feel loved and safe. It’s only later, often very gradually, that violence occurs.

To ignore the romance of relationships that turn violent is, ultimately, dangerous. If we’re only on alert for bad guys under the bed or behind the closet door, we’ll miss the danger that’s right in front of us.

Read more (with additional context and caveats) about domestic violence in It Ends With Us here.

The Sun Also Rises is heteronormative nonsense

I realise I’m hardly blowing your mind by proposing that Hemingway was a drunk misogynist – but the number of times I’ve expressed this opinion to shocked countenances warrants its inclusion.

The Sun Also Rises basically boils down to a veteran who got his dick blown off bemoaning the fact that he can never fuck the woman he loves (and, as such, can never make her love him).

And that’s how we know that Hemingway never went down on a single woman in his life.

Seriously, the notion that there is no way to fuck without a full and functioning penis is completely ridiculous – as is the idea, by extension, that a woman can’t return your romantic feelings if you can’t have sex with her.

For all his faults, Hemingway still managed to write some brilliant pieces. This just isn’t one of them.

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

The Great Gatsby is not the definitive Jazz Age novel

If you’re a regular Keeper Upperer, you’re probably sick of hearing me bang on about this – so I’ll forgive you if you skip down the page. This unpopular opinion has become more of my personality than I care to admit.

The thing is, The Great Gatsby stinks. The prose is overwrought. The metaphors are clumsy. And the plot is just… ugh. A rich guy gets shot after the woman he’s been stalking for years commits vehicular homicide, then his mate has a sook that nobody comes to the funeral. The narrator thinks he’s the first person to discover that drinking with pretty girls is fun. I mean, why do people like this novel?

Especially given that there is a much, much better alternative out there: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Most people don’t realise that it was a brilliant book before it was turned into an iconic film. I suspect that’s because Anita Loos wrote funny stories instead of tragic ones, irreverent stories instead of earnest ones, and interrogated the inner lives of women instead of men.

She deserves to be a household name, dammit – I won’t rest, etc etc.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

Read my full review of (the far superior) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway

I suppose I have to hand in my feminist card for this one, but I stand by it. Even though it’s longer and whinier and more self-indulgent, Ulysses is a better read than Mrs Dalloway. I got more out of reading it, and think back to it more often. It had a much stronger sense of place, and much more ambition. Woolf basically just wanted to “top” Joyce anyway, because she thought Ulysses sucked, whereas Joyce’s motivations were a little more organic.

I’ll prove it: read the opening chapter of Mrs Dalloway alongside the final chapter of Ulysses (the best of each, in my view), and tell me which one is more powerful.

Read my full review of Ulysses here.

Read my full review of Mrs Dalloway here.

Not every Dan Brown book is terrible

Everyone loves to shit on The Da Vinci Code, using it as short-hand for the pulpy mass-produced adventure thrillers that you buy in an airport for lack of better options – but that’s not all Dan Brown has written. It’s just his most “popular” book.

His earlier novels, Digital Fortress and Deception Point, are much better in my view, and I’ve got copies of both on my shelves (not in pride of place exactly, but still, they’re there). They’re not great works of literature, they probably wouldn’t stand up to intense critical scrutiny, but they’re cracking good reads that made me think. Is there really any more we can ask of them?

The Hunger Games movies are better than the books

I’m probably angering a legion of millennial young adult readers here, but so be it. I’ve read endless complaints about the Hunger Games films – that they cut out Peeta’s disability, they skipped important scenes, they added stuff that wasn’t necessary – and yet none of them have been able to convince me.

The thing is, the narration of the Hunger Games books is infuriating. The mind of a teenage girl isn’t a fun or interesting place to be when the writing isn’t sophisticated and superb. I lived through it once, I don’t need to do it again in fiction. Katniss Everdeen’s train of thought drove me nuts at times, and with the film format, I got to thoroughly enjoy Suzanne Collins’s dystopia without having to put up with the protagonist’s thoughts about it.

In fact, I enjoyed the films so much – not just the story, but the costumes! the staging! – that I’ve watched them multiple times. They’re comfort watches for me, the same way that the books are comfort reads for so many others my age.

Read my full review of The Hunger Games here.

13 Books About Loneliness And Solitude

It must be tough for authors to write about characters who spend a lot of time alone. Without other characters to bounce off, you’ve got to make their personality and their inner worlds damn compelling, or the reader will lose interest. Here are thirteen books about loneliness and solitude where the author absolutely nails it.

Using an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase really takes the sting out of loneliness! You’ll be sending a small commission my way and we’ll be BFFs.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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

Who couldn’t use a whole year off – off work, off social engagements, off interacting with anyone other than the nearest bodega worker – to sleep? That’s what the unnamed narrator is aiming for in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. What sounds like a sweet dream, though, is given depth by a character who is a walking nightmare. She’s full of herself, terrible to her friends, manipulative, and (as she tells it) absolutely gorgeous. Her self-imposed loneliness and solitude is definitely well-deserved. Ottessa Moshfegh is the queen of unlikeable female characters, and this book is her best and most readable.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Piranesi lives in a house, alone. But this is no ordinary house, and he’s not as alone as you think. Piranesi is a strange and enigmatic book, one that raises philosophical and psychological questions you’d never expect from the blurb. The obvious question is: how did Piranesi end up in the house? What is the house, anyway? It’s big enough to have its own weather systems, after all. Before long, other questions emerge, too. Who is the Other? Is there someone else in the house? Is Piranesi’s simple life of solitude in danger? Read my full review of Piraensi here.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eleanor Oliphant is an odd duck. It turns out she has good reason to be, and it goes a long way to explaining why she is so terribly, terminally alone. Beyond the occasional chat with one of her colleagues at a graphic design firm, and a weekly conversation with Mummy, she lives a very solitary life. But she’s completely fine with it – isn’t she? Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a real dark horse, a book about very traumatic stuff that became the beach read of the season. And, of course, it shines a light on the issue of endemic loneliness in today’s world, especially among young people. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All The Birds Singing - Evie Wyld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

All The Birds, Singing has some of the richest and most evocative place writing you’ll read – fitting, for one of the most lauded books about loneliness of the past decade. Jake Whyte has fled her troubled past to live alone in a remote farmhouse on a craggy British island, lashed by wind and rain, surrounded only by sheep and her disobedient dog. But something is picking off her sheep, one by one, and the horrors creeping up at night seem other-worldly when there’s no one else around to check your perspective. This is a story about solitude, survival, and hard-won redemption.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The beauty of Charles Dickens’s books is that he managed to write about everything. Seriously, you’d be hard pressed to find a theme or motif or symbol he didn’t address somewhere. He didn’t write whole books about loneliness specifically, but he did write one of the most iconically alone characters of all time: Miss Havisham, of Great Expectations. She is a wealthy spinster who begrudges being left at the altar, and years later still wears her wedding dress – all day, every day. She rarely leaves the crumbling mansion she shares with the only person she truly loves, her adopted daughter Estella. She has been caricatured and parodied to death, but when you look at her in the original context and story, she’s a fascinating study in solitude. Read my full review of Great Expectations here.

Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller

Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Notes On A Scandal is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London comprehensive school, and a lonely spinster in her spare time. How to put this delicately… she has trouble making friends. Her story begins with the arrival of Sheba Hart, a new and apparently-naive (though very privileged) art teacher. Barbara intuits that they are potential BFFs, though Sheba barely seems to realise she exists at first. This is a twisted and compelling literary thriller about the lengths that loneliness can drive us to – Barbara to effectively stalking Sheba, and Sheba into the arms of one of her students. Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel DeFoe - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, it turns out one of the very first novels written in English is also one of the very first books about loneliness and solitude – who knew? Robinson Crusoe is iconic, the story of a man shipwrecked on an isolated and uninhabited island, forced to find a way to survive for decades on his own. Best of all, Daniel Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. The book is definitely a product of its time, so you need to steel yourself for some horrific racism and a determinedly colonial mindset, but you can’t skip it if you’re looking to read your way through all the classic books about loneliness. You just can’t! Read my full review of Robinson Crusoe here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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

Not all books about loneliness and solitude are fictional. Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s account of how and why she found herself hiking over a thousand miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. There are two stories that weave together across the memoir: her mother’s death (and we get all of the weren’t-we-so-poor-and-dysfunctional-but-we-loved-each-other-so-much backstory), and the at-times comical dire realities of a haphazard solo hike through the wilderness. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor – and inspirational as heck. If Strayed can survive a hike of that magnitude on her own, you can get through a lonely Saturday night at home. Read my full review of Wild here.

Bonus: for similar true wilderness survival books about loneliness and solitude, check out Into The Wild by Jon Krakaeur.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. So, it’s hardly surprising that his story revolved around an aviator, crash-landed in the desert, entirely alone except for an alien prince who guides him – literally and spiritually. It’s a story that manages to be both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, which probably explains its enduring popularity. It’s now the most-translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects. Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think about loneliness, you’re probably envisaging the terrestrial kind. Alone in an apartment, or on a beach at night, or something in that vein. Andy Weir takes solitude to a whole new level in The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is literally the most alone person in the universe: stranded by himself on Mars, after an accident led his fellow interplanetary travellers to believe he was dead. He’s very much alive, and faced with the challenge of a lifetime – figuring out how to survive in solitude on the red planet, until the next mission arrives. It sounds daunting, but this is a surprisingly upbeat and fun sci-fi novel, brightened by Watney’s sense of humour and can-do attitude. Read my full review of The Martian here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s kind of sad that The Old Man And The Sea was Ernest Hemingway’s last book, but also poetic. It’s a book about a lonely old man, desperate and hungry, searching for a mythical fish and being dragged out to sea by it. Hemingway himself was aging, and undoubtedly lonely with a string of divorces and trashed friendships behind him. The parallels are clear, if not particularly imaginative. Still, it’s a powerful read, and you could spend years studying the metaphors about solitude that can be found in this slim little tome.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where The Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The “Marsh Girl”, Kya Clark, lives alone on the land. Her only friends are the gulls, and her home is the sand of the North Carolina coastline. The people in the village of Barkley Cove have gossiped about her for years. When a handsome man turns up dead, she’s the first person they suspect. But we fear what we don’t know, and Kya is more than they realise. Strangely, Kya’s loneliness is actually a balm, a protective shield against the terrors of the world. It’s when she reaches out, searching for love and recognition, that she runs into trouble. Where The Crawdads Sing is one of the best-selling books about loneliness in recent memory.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sorry to end this list on a bum note, but A Single Man is one of the most devastating books about loneliness and solitude – and you must read it! It’s the story of a day in the life of (you guessed it!) a single man, George, who is silently mourning the death of the love of his life. See, George is gay, and could never publicly share his relationship, or openly grieve his loss. George is desperately lonely in the wake of Jim’s death, and he seeks connection anywhere he can find it, resenting it all the while. It’s a beautiful story, and a sad one, and strangely funny in a very-dark-comedy kind of way. Read my full review of A Single Man here.

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