OK so the first rule about lists of this kind is that they’re never definitive. There are simply too many excellent books by women, for women for a list of 10 to hit on everything in just one post. That said, what’s so excellent about the books on this list? They include a little bit of everything: memoirs and literary journalism, coming-of-age novels and epics, psychological thrillers. Just as important: Their authors are as inspiring as the stories they’ve crafted.
So settle in now and get ready to read.
10 Must-Read Books for and by Women
Charlotte Bronte’s classic coming-of-age novel gave us a heroine for the ages—fiery, passionate, and most importantly, a woman who’s determined to value her gifts and follow her dreams. The writing leaps off the page. In fact, y may be surprised to discover that, no, Jane isn’t standing behind your easy chair, reading over your shoulder.
At times, the 21st century can feel like it’s all about pushing the limits of human knowledge; Shelley’s novel, and the second half of its title, reminds us that we’re merely the latest in a long, long line of seekers. The eponymous Frankenstein is a young scientist who longs to uncover the mystery of how life is created, and he succeeds, at which point everything goes horrible wrong. The cherry on the sundae of this masterwork: Shelley began writing it at the age of 18.
At the centre of this radiant novel is the friendship between staid Englishman Archie and Bengali Muslim Samal, who served together during World War II. The story leapfrogs across the decades, as multiple narrators take over the telling, beginning with Archie and Samal and continuing with other characters inside their circle. At times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, and always deeply perceptive, the novel invites readers to reflect on the depth and complexity of human experience and how careful we must be before drawing totalizing conclusions.
At the age of 26, feeling her life unraveling, Strayed undertook the Pacific Crest Trail alone, a journey into two wild places, nature and the self. Strayed is fierce and fearless in confronting life’s shadowy corners (literal and existential). Her challenges and triumphs create an empowering manifesto about taking ownership of our choices and how we engage with the world around us, in good times and bad.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This sprawling, richly imagined epic is everything—funny, philosophical, intellectual, emotional, suspenseful. Through the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love as teenagers in Nigeria but take different paths in adulthood, it meditates on first love, race and class in the U.S. and U.K., life in a Third World Country, immigration, and finding the meaning of home.
“This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths,” Angelou writes at the beginning of this loving memoir of her evolving relationship with her mother. In telling their inspiring story, Angelou celebrates her mother for her support and guidance and for encouraging Angelou to pursue her dreams fiercely and live unapologetically.
This novel is a structural feat: It narrates the story of Japanese picture brides—sent to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century to marry men they knew only from their photos—in the first person plural, the collective “we.” The narrative style keeps readers at a distance, circling around the experience. In this way, the structure evokes in the reader the feelings of disconnection and dislocation the characters experience. And it reminds us that, at times, the most honest role we can adopt is that of witness.
Didion’s collection of essays, first published in 1968, sets the standard for literary journalism. The essays encompass her observations of and interactions in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury as well as her reflections on where she was at that moment in her life. A seamless blend of memoir and reportage, her writing is achingly brilliant, both for its cutting insights and stunning prose.
After earning her PhD in the United States, Nafisi returned to her native Iran just in time for the revolution and eventual ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Reading Lolita in Tehran is her story of teaching literature in her native country, within the university and, after she is expelled from it, privately to a group of female students. Books become both their common ground and their battleground. This memoir is a testament to literature’s power to shape and confer meaning to our experiences.
Sally Allen is the author of Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers. She is the founder of Books, Ink at HamletHub, a website dedicated to Connecticut books news, where her writing has earned her three Connecticut Press Club awards.