40 Essential Books All Women Should Read In Their Lifetime

A good book can expand your worldview, change your life, help you heal – or just provide a healthy dose of escapism when you need a break from your routine. Whether you’re seeking respite from a broken heart, career advice, or inspirational tales, the following 40 titles are packed with refreshing antidotes and sage wisdom. Get ready to queue a long list of books into your Kindle!

#1 – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic is set in an oppressive parallel America of the future and tells the story of Offred and her role as a Handmaid. The Handmaids are forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of higher social status: the wives of Commanders. They are subject to regular medical tests, and in many ways, become invisible, with their usefulness measured in the total of their biological parts. Fiercely political and bleak – yet witty and wise, The Handmaid’s Tale won the inaugural Arthur C Clarke award in 1987 – despite Atwood maintaining that the novel is not classifiable science fiction. And she’s right. In this present day, where women in many parts of the world live similar lives – dictated by misogyny and biological determinism, this novel is a compelling read.

#2 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

A dystopian novella published back in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four follows the life of Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of ‘the Party,’ who is frustrated by the omnipresent eyes of the party, and its ominous ruler ‘Big Brother.’ The novel intricately explores the themes of mass media control, government surveillance, totalitarianism, and how a dictator can manipulate and control history, thoughts, and lives in such a way that no one can escape it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning for the human race; in an increasingly politically-turbulent world, it highlights the importance of resisting oppression and mass control.

#3 – A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s extended essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ is based on lectures she gave to two women’s colleges at Cambridge back in 1928, on the subject of ‘Women in Fiction.’ Give it a read, and you’ll find that this little book is quite unlike the other great feminist polemics – or in fact, anything else at all. Nonetheless, through its argument for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy, A Room of One’s Own remains a crucial work of feminism – supple, witty, and conducted in a spirit of restless inquiry.

#4 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence (1993) Directed by Martin Scorsese Shown from left: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis

At the heart of ‘The Age of Innocence’ are three people whose entangled lives are deeply affected by the rigid requirements of high society. Newland Archer is a distinguished lawyer looking forward to his marriage to lovely, shy, sheltered May Welland. But when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalously separated from her European husband, he falls hopelessly in love and blights his marriage to May by failing to break off his relationship with the countess. Meanwhile, timid as she may be, May Welland is determined to marry her fiancé and uses all the power of New York society to bring him to heel. Wharton’s lucid and penetrating prose style, vivid characterization, and rendering of the social history of an era have long made the novel a favorite with readers and critics alike.

#5 – Atonement by Ian McEwan

Set in three time periods, 1935 England, Second World War England, and France, and present-day England, ‘Atonement’ covers an upper-class girls’ half innocent mistake that ruins lives, her adulthood in the shadow of that mistake, and a reflection on the nature of writing. McEwan’s symphonic novel of war and love, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation expected of a master of English prose.

#6 – I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

In ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,’ Angelou describes her coming of age as a precocious but insecure black girl in the American South during the 1930s and subsequently in California during the 1940s. Sent by their parents to live with their grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother (Bailey) ensure the ache of abandonment and prejudice. Then, at eight years old and back at her mother’s side, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age – and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned. Powerful and poetic, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ is a must-read coming-of-age novel. 

#7 – Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love is the absorbing chronicle of how a thirty-year-old woman, Elizabeth Gilbert, got rid of her belongings, quit her job, and undertook a year-long journey around the world to give herself the time and space to find out who she was and what she wanted. Intensely articulate and moving, this memoir of self-discovery outlines what can happen when you claim responsibility for your contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals. If you’ve ever woken up to the unrelenting need for change, you can’t miss this book.

#8 – Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is an exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are convinced that she’ll fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia is found dead in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed – tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, longing, and secrets, Everything I Never Told You is both a thrilling page-turner and sensitive family portrait, uncovering how parents and children and husbands and wives struggle – all their lives – to understand one another.

#9 – The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt

Goldfinch is a complex story about Theo Decker, a young boy who suffers the loss of his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Disoriented during the attack, Theo takes the masterpiece The Goldfinch; this, along with the death of his mother, becomes the catalyst for a decade of adventure, sorrow, mystery, and redemption. At its core, the novel is an old fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention. 

#10 – Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist is a collection of essays spanning politics, criticism, and feminism penned by Roxane Gay – one of the most-watched young cultural observers of her generation. In these humorous yet insightful essays, Gay takes readers through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also exploring the culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. Bad Feminist is a witty, funny, and spot-on look at how the culture we consume becomes part of who we are, and an inspiring call-to-arms of all the ways we still need to do better, coming from one of our most interesting cultural critics.

#11 – How Should A Person Be? By Sheila Heti

Facing a creative dilemma after a failed marriage, Sheila finds herself in a quandary of self-doubt, questioning how a person should be in the world. Based on incidents from the author’s real-life, this fictional tale combines literary observations, unstinting confessions, and self-help advice. Uncompromising, searching, and yet mordantly funny, How Should A Person Be? is a brilliant portrait of friendship and art-making.

#12 – Room by Emma Donoghue

Room is the story of a five-year-old boy called Jack, who lives in a single room with his mother (‘Ma’) and has never been outside. When he turns five, he starts to ask questions, and his mother reveals to him that there is a world beyond the wall. Told entirely in Jack’s voice, Room is no tearjerker or horror story, but a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child – a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

#13 – Bossypants by Tina Fey

In Bossypants, Tina Fey tells her story. From her youthful days as a unembarrassed nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately half-hearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother picking things off the floor; from her one-sided romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon – Tina Fey reveals all about how she fulfilled her dreams of one day becoming a comedian on TV. An uplifting, inspiring memoir.

#14 – The Moment Of Lift by Melinda Gates

In this candid and inspiring book, Melinda Gates (wife of Bill Gates) traces her awakening to the link between women’s empowerment and the health of societies. She highlights some of the tremendous opportunities that exist currently to ‘turbo-charge’ change. She doesn’t shy away from actually providing simple and effective ways each individual can make a difference. A personal statement of passionate conviction, The Moment of Lift tells of Gates’ journey from a partner working behind the scenes to one of the world’s foremost advocates for women, driven by the belief that no one should be excluded, all lives have equal value, and gender equality is the lever that lifts everything.

#15 – Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling delivered a deeply affecting commencement speech at Harvard University in 2008. Now published in book form, Very Good Lives presents her words of wisdom for anyone at a turning point in life. Drawing from stories of her post-graduate years, Rowling addresses some of life’s most important questions with acuity and emotional force.

#16 – Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl

In this compassionate and witty book, Dhal – the editor of New York magazine’s ‘Science of Us’ – explores the oddest and cringiest corners of our world to explain the compelling psychology of awkwardness, and asks: what if the moments that make us feel most awkward are most valuable?

#17 – Becoming by Michelle Obama

In a life filled with accomplishment and meaning, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most compelling and iconic women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America, she helped create the most inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate of feminism. In her memoir, ‘Becoming,’ Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her – from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of work and motherhood, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.

#18 – Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things To Me is a collection of seven essays concerned with gender politics that perfectly explore what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women, the writer Virginia Woolf’s embrace of mystery, marriage equality, and the scope of contemporary violence against women.

#19 – The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley

In this collection of five short stories and a novella, Smiley presents six brilliant, unforgettable portraits exploring the perils of domestic life. In the title novella, a man who’s reached the ‘age of grief’ realizes that his wife is in love with someone else. Unsure whether his marriage is best protected by feigning ignorance or confronting her, he struggles to repress his anguish and to prevent his wife from discovering that he is aware of her infidelity. Ultimately, the stories in The Age of Grief explore the vicissitudes of love, friendship, and marriage with the surprising mix of tender compassion and sharp insight. 

#20 – Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved examines the destructive legacy of slavery as it chronicles the life of a black woman called Sethe, from her pre-Civil War days as a slave in Kentucky to her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. Despite having already escaped from her slavery days, it becomes clear that Sethe is still not free – even after eighteen years. Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel is filled with bitter poetry and is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

#21 – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity. Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, and enormously talented, but slowly going under – perhaps for the last time. In her acclaimed and only novel, Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, and scarily, even rational. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar remains a haunting American classic.

#22 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Published in 1905, The House of Mirth details the tragic fate of the beautiful and well-connected but penniless Lily Bart, who at age 29 lacks a husband to secure her position in society. But she will not marry just for love or for money; she’s determined to have both. Steered by her stubborn independence amid the conformity of New York’s Glided Age, Lily suddenly finds life impossible. The House of Mirth stands as a deft chronicle of the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. 

#23 – The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives. As the story unfolds, the two main characters move closer and closer to one another. Ultimately, The History of Love is a tender tribute to human valiance and stoicism.

#24 – The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Published in 1899, The Awakening depicts a young mother’s struggle to achieve personal and sexual emancipation in the oppressive environment of the postbellum American South. When it was first published, the novel was widely condemned for its portray of marital infidelity and sexuality. Today, however, it’s considered a landmark work of early feminist fiction.

#25 – Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Set in 17th century London, Sexing The Cherry is about the journeys of a mother (known as The Dog Woman) and her protégé, Jordan: they journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits and across time. The novel plays with the idea of history and reality – exploring the limitless realm of imagination. From the pollution of words ticking to the city of London to the fire that consumes all, from Twelve Dancing Princesses to the tribes of a faraway island. Sexing the Cherry engages with historicization and re-writing with a radically postmodern angle. 

#26 – The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Published in 1982, The Color Purple is, in essence, a feminist work about an uneducated and abused African American woman’s (Celie, the protagonist) struggle for empowerment. Raped repeatedly by her father, has two children forcefully taken away from her, and is separated from her beloved sister Nettie, Celie narrates her life through painfully honest letters to God. But then, with the help of Shug Avery, Celie gradually discovers the power and joy of her spirit, freeing her from her past and reuniting her with those she loves. 

#27 – Bastard Out of California by Dorothy Allison

At the heart of Bastard Out of California is Ruth Anne Boatwright, also known simply as Bone, a bastard child who observes the world around her with a mercilessly keen perspective. When her stepfather becomes increasingly more vicious toward her, Boone finds herself caught in a family triangle that tests the loyalty of her mother and leads to a final, harrowing encounter from which there can be no turning back. The novel examines the expectations of gender and mother-child relationships and explores the roles of these characters in the future. Conditions of class, race, sexuality, and gender are beautifully highlighted in Bone’s life and her relationships with others.

#28 – Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With The Wind is a story about the civil war, starvation, murder, rape, slavery, and heartbreak. But surprising as it may be, the book is one that inspires hope – at the novel’s heart lies Scarlett O’Hara, arguably one of the most ruthlessly optimistic characters in literature. In Gone With The Wind, Mitchell carefully analyzes the nature of human resilience and holds hopefulness as a critical tool for getting through the worst times. A timely reminder for us all. 

#29 – Broken Harbor by Tana French

Published in 2012, Broken Harbor is a crime novel where a detective is assigned a gruesome, tragic case: a husband and his two young children have been found dead in their home in Brianstown, a half-deserted development on the coast of Ireland. At its core, Broken Harbor is a tale about the different facets of insanity and obsession, and it winds up to a finale that is almost too distressing. 

#30 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers through a child’s awakening to racism and prejudice in the American South back in the 1930s. Exploring themes of innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor, and pathos, this local story claims universal appeal and is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

#31 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel that centers on the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy aristocratic landowner. The story revolves around the importance of marrying for love, not for money or social prestige – despite the public pressure to make a good (wealthy) match.

#32 – The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Set in the hometown of Lorain, Ohio, The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola fervently prays for her eyes to turn blue so she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. Essentially, it’s a remarkable novel that confronts beauty itself and the consequences of beauty standards on individuals who do not meet them. This novel is bound to make anyone who picks it up to evaluate the dangers of social norms and – perhaps – consider changing the way he or she looks at how society works.

#33 – The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham paints the story of three women searching for more potent, meaningful lives in The Hours. Each woman is alive at a different time and place, but are linked by their yearnings and fears. Their stories intertwine and finally come together in a surprising, transcendent moment of shared recognition.

#34 – The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, The Mothers is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition. In entrancing, lyrical prose, the novel asks whether a ‘what if’ can be more powerful than an experience itself, If, as time passes, we must always live in servitude to the decisions of our younger selves, to the communities that have parented us, and to the choices we make that shape our lives forever.

#35 – No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You is a collection of contemporary short stories about ordinary people living extraordinary lives, for whom a single moment may change everything. Throughout the collection, there is a strong emphasis on romantic love, female sexuality, and the desire to be accepted. There’s no doubt about it: No One Belongs Here More Than You is the work of a writer with a spectacularly original and compelling voice.

#36 – Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

Sweetbitter is a novel that details a young woman’s coming-of-age, set against the glitzy, grimy backdrop of New York’s most elite restaurants. Twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job working front-of-house at a celebrated downtown restaurant. What follows is her education: in champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars, and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen. Stephanie Danler deftly conjures the nonstop and high-adrenaline world of the food industry and evokes the infinite possibilities, the unbearable beauty, and the fragility and brutality of being young and adrift.

#37 – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is an honest portrait of a marriage. In this exquisitely suspenseful love story, Offill takes readers through the journey of how a couple confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

#38 – Kindred by Octavia Butler

Published in 1979, Kindred is a novel that incorporates time travel and is modeled on slave narratives. The book explores the dilemmas and dynamics of antebellum slavery from the sensibility of a late 20th-century black woman, who is aware of its legacy in contemporary American society. Through the interracial couples who form the emotional core of the story, Kindred also explores the intersection of power, gender, and race issues – speculating on the prospects of future egalitarianism.

#39 – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg shares her personal stories, uses research to shine light on gender differences, and offers practical advice to help women achieve their goals. The book challenges society to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what they can do, and serves as a rallying cry for all to work together to create more equal world/

#40 – The Confidence Code by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman

In The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman travel to the frontiers of neuroscience on a hunt for the confidence gene and reveal surprising new research on its roots in our brains. Inspiring, insightful, and persuasive, The Confidence Code shows that by acting on our best instincts and by daring to be authentic, women can feel the transformative power of a life on confidence.

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