Esquire recently compiled a massive book list titled “The 80 Books Every Man Should Read.” Esquire calls it, “An unranked, incomplete, slightly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published.” Because I love lists, and I love books, I started browsing through the list, noting books by Raymond Carver, John Steinbeck, Hunter S. Thompson, and 76 more novels written by men. The only book written by a woman Esquire recommended was Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (I see what you did there, Esquire).
These 80 books are excellent and I’ve read many of them. I’ve studied them in school, read them on my own terms, and I totally respect any and all authors who are able to write compelling stories, whether that author identifies as male or female. But there’s one major issue I have with this list: if you’re going to suggest a bunch of essential books to men, why must they be all be written by men?
I understand that Esquire is a men’s magazine. I get that their target market is for the most part dudes, and that’s all totally fine. But are men really not interested in reading books written by women? Is Esquire suggesting that novels written by men are superior or perhaps more essential?
Because I believe we all need a diverse literary palate, I’m going to even out the playing field. So without further ado, here are 40 books by women you should most definitely read:
1. The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley
In this thoughtful collection of short stories, Smiley writes about female sexuality, marriage, friendship, sexual fluidity, and the complicated relationship we have with ourselves. Wry and sarcastic, Smiley essentially proves that none of us are really all that “normal.”
2. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is the heart-wrenching story of a woman who is haunted by her dead baby girl. A novel that deals with slavery, sexual abuse, violence, and death, Morrison’s work is surreal and forever haunting.
3. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
This collection of short stories focuses on Indian immigrants and first generation sons and daughters who grapple with their American-Indian identities. Lahiri’s voice is wonderful, and her details so rich and so personal.
4. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
In A Visit from the Good Squad, the lives of a musician and the people he knows are explored, as they interweave through a scattered narrative.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar, a quasi-autobiographical novel, is about Esther Greenwood, a talented journalist. Throughout the story, she battles depression and slowly descends into insanity.
6. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth is essentially 1905’s Gossip Girl. Through a critical lens, Wharton writes about Lily Bart, a social climber accepted by Old Money, who is trying her hardest to keep up appearances by borrowing extravagant amounts to buy dresses and gamble. Soon she realizes what she really needs is a rich husband.
7. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Lives are beautifully intertwined in this love story about Polish Jewish writer Leo Gursky, a curious young girl named Alma who wants her mother to fall in love, and Alma’s widowed mother.
8. Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
This stream-of-consciousness novel is about Joana, a protagonist who explores life, freedom, and existence. This nod to philosophers like Camus and Sarte is a non-linear look into the mind and how it perceives things.
9. The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende
Allende’s creation of the tremendous and complicated Trueba family is magical and tells of South American politics, love, time, and fate. This story takes many magical realism elements in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but sprinkles them with more than enough of Allende’s aesthetics to love and appreciate.
10. Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
In her non-fiction work, LeBlanc discusses the glamorization of gangster culture, drug dealers, and drugs in the Bronx. Random Family deals with murder, violence, and crime; the beautiful, compelling story speaks to the affects of poverty, prison, and homelessness.
11. Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion
Queen Joan Didion’s story of the ’60s American life, takes place in LA and focuses on female protagonist Maria Wyeth, an actress who is just as self-destructive as she is desperately stuck in her body and life.
12. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Published in 1899, The Awakening is one of the first books in American literature that explores our role as women and mothers. Edna Pontellier, the protagonist, does not identify with the role as matriarch, and feels less and less attracted to her husband. Unfortunately, her position is described as a mental deficiency and a mental illness she may or may not succumb to.
13. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women, a cherished book about the close friendship between four sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, deals with family, love, death, and inner-strength.
14. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a beautiful and gorgeously sad tale essentially about a governess who falls in love with her boss. What keeps them apart is his wife, a madwoman who lives in the attic.
15. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A story about college and societal pressures, The Secret History is about Richard Papen, who is recruited by his peers in the upper echelon of social life at Hampden College. Like many secretive and exclusive social clubs, these students have secrets. One of which is a deadly.
16. Runaway by Alice Munro
Munro’s short stories delicately illustrate love in a brilliant, refreshing light. Stories about women unable to leave their lovers, friends, families, and children prove to be deeply personal and inevitably relatable.
17. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie, in each of her short stories, introduces characters who are confronted with violence, racism, and betrayal. These stories take place in Nigeria and America, and are grippingly wonderful and tragic.
18. Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
In this bizarre, surreal novel, Winterson weaves a magical world much like Gulliver’s Travels. In Sexing the Cherry, we follow Jordan, our protagonist, through her dazzling odyssey.
19. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
White Teeth centers on two families who live in the UK and explores marriage, race, clashing culture, and identity.
20. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This graphic memoir gives us a window into Alison Bechdel’s childhood, which is a lonely and complex one. Her emotionally unavailable father and family life greatly affect Bechdel and the path of her life. She later in the book describes grappling with her own sexuality.
21. Cherry by Mary Karr
Mary Karr, novelist and poet, describes her childhood in rural Texas, and hormonal teen years with precision and the rhetoric of wanderlust.
22. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple unveils the difficult and painful story of a group of black women living in 1930s Georgia.
23. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out of Carolina is an incredibly emotional, quasi-autobiographical read about a young girl who is sexually assaulted and abused by her mother’s new husband. Her relationship with her sister and herself are marred by this, as she finds ways to protect what is hers.
24. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
While the philosophy of Objectivism may not be for everyone, The Fountainhead is a compelling read regardless. The story of a determined and innovative architect and the woman who seeks to destroy him sends a message speaking to society’s conventional standards and morality.
25. My Antonia by Willa Cather
This meditation on the America pastoral is a slow, sleepy read that follows the hard life of immigrant Antonia and our narrator, Jim.
26. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
Z.Z. Packer’s short stories are funny, heartfelt narratives that deal with racism, abandonment, love, and the perpetually wavering, complicated human condition.
27. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
We were hooked as soon as Hagrid exclaimed, “Yer a wizard, Harry!” The story of a boy wizard is not just a story of boy wizard: it’s the odyssey of a seemingly average individual who discovers greatness within himself.
28. Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender’s short stories are crafted with magic, humor, bizarre imagery, and sarcasm. From boys with keys for fingers to potato children, Willful Creatures is a whimsical look into what makes us human (or not so much).
29. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell’s beautiful portrayal of the South during the Civil War paints the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a rich daughter of a plantation owner. After Sherman’s March to the Sea, she finds herself with neither money nor the power she is used to and she is forced to give into a new life.
30. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This story about a man who time travels in and out of a woman’s life, is as ethereal as it is heartbreaking. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a science fiction romance novel that questions whether love can conquer time and space.
31. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The remarkable diary of Anne Frank reveals the life of a Jewish girl during the Holocaust, as millions of Jews went into hiding (or were forced into concentration camps). For two years, she documents her life, where she faces hunger, boredom, and the fear of being discovered by the Nazis.
32. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Blue Flower is set in 18th century Germany, and depicts the life of a philosophy student who marries a plain girl named Sophie, and shocks everyone.
33. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Love Medicine is the first of Erdrich’s trilogy which explores the rich, complex culture of Native American families.
34. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Amy Tan’s story interweaves between four mothers and their four daughters. The Chinese mothers have difficulties understanding their American daughters, while their daughters struggle to understand their Chinese-American identities.
35. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Sebold’s magnificent and terrifying story about Susie Salmon, a young girl who is raped and murdered by one of the neighbors, is about closure for an entire family, including Susie. Told from the perspective of Susie after her death, we follow a determined family’s need to find her killer.
36. What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller
Heller’s novel about friendship, and secrets, is really about the way media twists and (ultimately) adores scandals.
37. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
The Golden Notebook focuses on Anna, a writer, who keeps notebooks as most writers do. In each one, she recounts different aspects of her life and tries to connect them all together to create cohesion within herself.
38. Broken Harbor by Tana French
This dark story is about murder, a defunct family, and flawed individuals. Its morbidity and mystery make for an addictive, read into a spiraling murder-mystery.
39. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Austen’s wonderful novel that comments on societal standards, romances, and the relationship between men and women, is drenched in irony and wit. And of course features the timeless romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.
40. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird is a narrative that delves into the subject of morality, family, and the way we treat one another with kindness and cruelty. It’s a classic.
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