Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - text overlaid on an image of Barack Obama standing in front of an American flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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

You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protΓ©gΓ©. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work. Read my full review here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

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

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here πŸ˜‰

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.

1984 – George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!

What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Want more surprising book recommendations? Throw some change in the tip jar, so I can keep on Keeping Up With The Penguins and bring you more!


  1. I’m intimidated by Ulysses as well! It’s at the very bottom of my Life List. Haha!

    It’s so interesting to me that Rowling is a Little Women and Emma fan. I’m probably one of the only people on the planet who still hasn’t read Harry Potter, but we finally bit the bullet and bought the set so I’ll be joining the ranks soon. I’m a HUGE Austen and Little Women fan, so I feel that Rowling and I may be kindred spirits after all. (Also, I can never talk about how much I love Little Women without mentioning how perfect the follow-ups Little Men and Jo’s Boys are as well!)

    Great post!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 19, 2018 at 4:37 PM

      Cheers Hannah! I can’t imagine moving through the world without having read Harry Potter πŸ˜‚ but I’m sure people think the same about me not having read Pride & Prejudice or a bunch of the others on this list, so I see and respect your efforts to catch up!! Make sure you let me know how you go with it, hope it lives up to your expectations!! ❀️

  2. Love this list. I’m happy to see so many great women enjoyed Little Women. it does offer us a lot and should be highly praised. But I don’t think anyone is getting me to read Moby Dick! Lol

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 20, 2018 at 8:27 AM

      HA! I don’t think you’re alone there Nina, Moby Dick is quite a slog (have you seen my review of it?). But there’s plenty of others here to sink our teeth in to! πŸ˜€

  3. Would I sound uneducated and awful if I said BLAH to the classics lover?! LOL. Don’t get me wrong: I 200% appreciate this list and have read most of the titles. I did love 1984, Catcher in the Rye is so-so for me, and Maya Angelou is great. Moby Dick is literally the most boring piece of literature that I have ever read. I had to read dear Moby at Smith for English class and I just couldn’t even. I do like and respect To Kill A Mockingbird, but I’d love for there to be a list with much more ‘wild’ suggestions from great leaders…they need to let loose! I would kind of expect these (and like you said, nonfiction…). Thanks for posting their recs, though. I definitely appreciate it! I am sure this speaks to my taste…and why I am not a world leader lol….and maybe why I am a boozy blogger ; )

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 22, 2018 at 10:17 AM

      Ooooh see, I didn’t expect people to recommend the classics at all, for EXACTLY the reasons you mentioned!! I guess I’m just more often exposed to the Reese Witherspoons and Emma Watsons who mostly recommend very recent and contemporary stuff; I’d shit a brick if one of them pulled up Moby one time πŸ˜‰

  4. I love reading through the recommended book lists of others. Barack Obama puts out a list of books every year. Getting to the books is another matter. I have read seven of these books and I want to read all the others. I liked all the ones that I read. While I like Ulysses I thing that it is one book best read with a detailed companion book to help one along the way.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 22, 2018 at 10:42 AM

      Hahahahahaha we’d probably suffocate under a mountain of books if we tried to read our way through every single list of recommendations πŸ˜‰ Which three haven’t you read? (Just curious – and would, of course, love to hear your thoughts on them once you have!)

  5. Little Women, every time! It’s such a wonderful novel.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 25, 2018 at 1:18 PM

      Agreed!!! Far too often overlooked or dismissed, I’m fighting the good fight to get it the recognition it deserves πŸ’ͺ🏽

  6. Vigilance and Skepticism, I did not know that, well done Richard and time I read some more Orwell obviously

    • ShereeKUWTP

      November 15, 2018 at 10:23 AM

      Hahahaha yep, he nailed it! I’m right there with him, 1984 is one of my favourites of all time. I still need to get onto Animal Farm – but I worry that by now I’ve built it up too much in my head and the bar is set too high…

  7. I’ve avoided Joyce’s Ulysses too, but I feel better about since it was pointed out to me that you can’t really “read” Ulysses – you have to study it. In a class with a competent professor if you’re lucky, but at the very least with a good study guide to help you along. I love this list – I’ve read most of them and you’ve reminded me to read some of them again!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      May 3, 2019 at 11:24 PM

      I’ve heard similar things re: Ulysses! I was also told that you need to simply accept the fact that you won’t “get” it all – in fact, you probably won’t even “get” most of it, let go of the idea of understanding the book as a whole and just go with it. And I’m so glad you loved the list Briget, thanks so much! πŸ™‚

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