“My life looks completely, totally, 100% different than it did when I first started”
What if you could spend your life reading the classics, and could share that experience with the world? Gosh, that’d be amazing! That’s kind of my dream job…
Well, that is precisely what Sheree from Keeping Up With The Penguins has done, and I’m so excited to introduce you to her today!
“That gave me a list of 109 books to read”
Sheree is a writer and blogger, living and working on Gadigal land (known as Glebe) in Sydney, Australia. One day, she realized she had had enough of not knowing the literary classics, so she devoted her time to reading a long list of classics she had always heard about. Thus began the Keeping Up With The Penguins initiative. Now, she is studying creative writing and blogging book reviews and banter at Keeping Up With The Penguins. Read her full story below and get inspired to read!
Me: What first inspired you to begin the Keeping up with the Penguins initiative?
Sheree: Even though I’d always been a “bookworm”, I reached a point a few years ago where I felt like I hadn’t read any of the books that other people wanted to talk about. I was deep in a rut of comfort-reading the same old favourites over and over, and never reaching for anything new or different. I found myself living with (and then married) to an English lit post-grad, and I’d have to nod along vacantly in conversations about Faulkner, Cervantes, the Brontës, Joyce… One night, I’m not sure why, I decided enough was enough. I googled a list of “best books”, and came up with two: the Guardian’s 100 best books written in English, and the Dymocks Top 101 for that year. I crossed out all the ones I’d read, mashed the remnants up together, got a few suggestions for additional books from others, and that gave me a list of 109 books to read.
At first, I was just reading them for myself, and I always take notes as I read (whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or anything else). Those notes became reviews, and those reviews became Keeping Up With The Penguins.
Me: What is Keeping up with the Penguins, and what is your goal with it?
Sheree: Keeping Up With The Penguins is a book blog, where I publish a book review and a separate discussion post or book list each week. The reviews (at the moment) are all backlist titles, mostly classic books, that people might not have read or have forgotten about, from that list of 109. When I’ve read and reviewed all of those (I’m getting close!), I’ve got a whole new stack of books I want to read, so the blog will continue with those. Personally, when I put together that list, my goal was simply to catch up on all those books I “should” have read already. But now, with the blog, my goal is to show people there’s nothing to fear from “classic” books, “dense” books, “fluffy” books, or books they might not otherwise consider reading. I want to write for people like me, the booklovers who “never read anything”. I give honest opinions – good, bad, and ugly – and try to make literature more accessible for everyone. Whenever someone comments or emails me to say “I wasn’t going to read this book, but then you reviewed it and I decided to give it a go”, I feel like I’ve achieved my goal.
Me: How has your life changed since you started this project? How has the project changed over time?
Sheree: My life looks completely, totally, 100% different than it did when it first started. That night I sat down to make my list, I was working a corporate job (a million hours a week, miserable), and had almost no life outside of that. Now, I’m a full-time writer, blogger, studying writing as a post-grad, doing some social media work for other bloggers, and just generally living a life that I love and for which I feel extremely grateful every day.
“I give honest opinions – good, bad, and ugly – and try to make literature more accessible for everyone”
That’s the power of reading, to me at least: it can change lives, so it can change the world. The project, as a result, has gone from jokey little reviews that I thought might make a handful of my friends chuckle to something I take seriously – it’s my job! – and reaches thousands of people around the world. I’m still amazed, every day, at everything that’s happened with it.
Me: What advice can you offer readers about how to make reading more a part of their lives?
Sheree: I wrote a series of blog posts at the beginning of the year about how to read more – it’s one of the most common New Year’s Resolutions, right up there with diet and exercise. What I found as I was researching and putting it together is that it’s crucial, before people make a plan to incorporate more reading into their lives, that they ask themselves WHY. Why do you want to read more? Is it just so you can say you do? Is it to learn more for your job? Is it to expand your mind? Is it to develop empathy? Is it to make yourself a better writer? Answering that question is the key: once you know why you want to read more, the steps to doing that will seem clear.
“There is nothing wrong with reading what you like, whatever it is, and anyone who makes you feel bad about it can take a long hike off a short pier”
Ultimately, for most people, I recommend doing it in increments. Don’t sit down to read Don Quixote on Day 1 and expect to knock it over in a week. Start by reading ten pages before you go to bed, or picking up your book instead of your phone while you’re having coffee. Your reading habit will grow organically from there, because the magic of reading is that the more you do it, the better you get at it and the more you want to do it. Think of it like exercise for your brain: you don’t start off running a marathon, but you go for a walk around the park, and then a run, and then it builds over time. Reading is the exact same thing.
I know this is a long answer – this is one of those what-could-you-lecture-about-for-30-minutes-without-preparing questions for me! – but I must add: stop “shoulding” all over yourself! A lot of people wig themselves out of reading because they think they’re not reading what they “should”, or the way they “should”. If you say things like “Oh, I just read romance novels, I should read something with more substance” or “I only read fantasy books, they don’t count” – that’s your problem! There is nothing wrong with reading what you like, whatever it is, and anyone who makes you feel bad about it can take a long hike off a short pier.
And now, for the REALLY Fun Questions!
Me: If you had to pick one literary classic to be stranded with on a desert island, what would it be, and why?
Sheree: Oh goodness – I wrote a whole post on desert island reads and I’m still not sure how to answer this question! Off the top of my head, I’d say Jane Eyre, because it would be comforting and maybe take my mind off the heat and desolation. But the wiser answer might be to say In Remembrance Of Things Past– lots to keep me busy, and I can burn a couple of pages as kindling if I need to start a fire, because there are plenty more!
Me: If you had to pick one literary character to be stranded with on an island, who would it be, and why?
Sheree: Hermione Granger. I think we’d be great friends, for starters, and she’d surely cook up a magical plan to get us out of that mess!
Sheree loves encouraging and inspiring people to read more of their favorite books, and in addition to her website, you can follow her on most social media platforms:
- Twitter: @ shereestrange
- Instagram: @ keepingupwiththepenguinsonline
- Facebook: @ keepingupwiththepenguins
- Pinterest: @ keepingupwiththepenguins
- Goodreads: @ keepingupwiththepenguins