Hey guys, Shelby here! So its summer, and obviously that means books. Growing up, I looked forward to summer and winter holidays because that meant I had plenty of time to devote toward one of my favorite hobbies: reading. When I began college, this was the case even more so because I found my brain inept to the task of processing more information than that already required of it by the rigors of my University workload. Reading was and is my escape; my favorite vacation.
This summer I was faced with a roadblock in my literary life. Have any of you out there ever conducted an online search for a reading list geared toward women in hopes of discovering some excellent books, only to be presented with lists restricted to romantic fiction, self-help books, and otherwise generally awful books? Sadly, this was exactly what happened to me at the beginning of the summer. I felt insulted and patronized. In the midst of this, I was suddenly struck with the idea that these woefully inadequate lists presented me with the opportunity to do a service to women everywhere and craft my own!
As I set about the task of compiling a list I became increasingly intimidated. Many who would read this list would be far more well read than I and might spurn my selections. How could I solve this problem? I decided to enlist the help of my dear friend Jessica. Jessica is, to use a phrase of Beth Moore’s, a rabid reader. In fact, she might be the most widely read human I know. Additionally, she is the author of a fantastic literary blog called Shelf Assurance, which you should all check out. If anyone could help me with this task it would be her.
Jessica agreed to co-curate this reading list with me and below are our final choices. Whether they have feminist leanings, strong female protagonists, or female authors, they all made the cut because we feel that all intelligent women (and intelligent men!) should read these titles at some point in their life. The descriptions below are basically a compilation of the conversations we have had regarding the books. So without further ado, here are 18 great reads for women that have nothing to do with vampires, recipes, or the color grey!
1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
“The first time I read this book in high school, I hated it. I saw the protagonist, Edna, as selfish and irresponsible and couldn’t get over her poor choices. But when I read it again in college, it was a completely different experience. Edna’s struggles to deal with her unorthodox perspective on womanhood and motherhood in the 19th century American South is realistic and heartbreaking. I still don’t agree with her choices, but her journey is thought-provoking.” -Jessica
2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
“Published largely during the 1950’s, Lewis was the only one of the “Inklings” (a type of literary club associated with the University of Oxford whose members included, but were not limited to, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and C.S. Lewis) to have female protagonists. The story itself is fantastic. Lewis crafts worlds filled with fantastic mythical creatures and much beloved characters, but my favorite aspect of the chronicles is how reading this makes me relate to my own faith.” -Shelby
“I think the important thing about Narnia is that women are full participants in the story. Susan fights in battle alongside Peter, Lucy, like Edmund, makes a critically stupid mistake that endangers her family. I absolutely agree about how reading this offers great visuals and ways to understand our own faith.” -Jessica
3. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
“Eighteen-year-old Victoria ages out of the foster care system after years of being bounced around families and group homes. She struggles to find a job and community with her limited set of skills (intense knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers). Diffenbaugh doesn’t oversimplify Victoria’s pain or insufficiencies. She deals with Victoria’s flaws with respect but doesn’t patronize the audience – there are consequences for her actions. One of the best flawed protagonists I’ve read in modern literature.” -Jessica
4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
“Strangely enough, I read this by choice and not because I had to for school. I believe I was in middle school at the time. I remember being very intrigued by the mystery of it all and by how much Jane had to go through. I have not re-read since coming into adulthood but I think I will. What I think is important about this novel is the female protagonist as well as the female author. Before the 1850’s, female authors had very little influence. They were criticized by their male counterparts and unable to achieve much notoriety within the field. Authors like Brontë and Austen flew in the face of popular culture and were crucial in bringing about a shift in the literary world.” -Shelby
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books and Jane Austen one of my favorite authors. I deeply relate to Elizabeth Bennett. Feisty, outspoken, and independent, Lizzie is a girl after my own heart. Couple rich characters with Jane Austen’s wit and mastery of the English language, and you have me coming back time and time again to this beautiful novel.” -Shelby
“Yep. Elizabeth Bennett is the prototype for so many bold, outspoken women characters in books and film and LIFE. I love her.” -Jessica
6. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
“Religion, family drama, world conflict, and coming-of-age in an unfamiliar location: this book has it all. The story follows the wife of missionary Nathan Price and their four daughters as they live and work in the Belgian Congo over three decades. I love the variety of their perspectives as white, Southern women learning to adapt in a tumultuous time. It also forces us as readers to deal with the complicated and often messy ways our best intentions go awry.” -Jessica
7. Great House by Nicole Krauss
“I struggled to choose between this and History of Love, but the freshness of this read on my mind won out. Great House is a tough read, but so worth it. The characters in this book are all shattered and share a connection with an oversized writing desk. Her descriptions of motherhood, falling in love, friendship, struggling to create art, etc were so raw and vivid I often had to pause to take it all in. Nicole Krauss captures emotion in a way I’ve never read. Read it in awe of her literary prowess.” -Jessica
8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
“I didn’t know if I was going to like The Hunger Games before reading the novels. I didn’t know if they would be too YA fiction for me. However, once I started reading them I couldn’t stop. The story is enveloping (my favorite kind of book) and thought provoking. Obviously the protagonist is a strong female which I enjoy, but the books are more important than that. The political/cultural satire is intriguing and relevant and Katniss deals with things well beyond her years making the books enjoyable for all ages.” -Shelby
“I think part of what makes this unique for YA/Middle Grade is that Katniss is sort of cold. She puts her family and survival before all else and is almost feral in trying to survive. Her feelings for Peeta and Gale are also immensely complicated, something I appreciate — she doesn’t just fall in love, woe is me, she struggles to interpret how to love or not love two very flawed individuals.” -Jessica
9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
“Another end of the world novel that is completely different from all the rest. Unlike many tackling similar ideas, Mandel focuses on the things that make life beautiful: theatre, music, communication with others. How do those things come into play when rebuilding a society? What matters, and what should be left behind?” -Jessica
10. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
“Robinson writes this novel from the perspective of an aging minister, looking to leave behind his thoughts on life for his young wife and son. Robinson writes about faith in a way that is both quiet and inspiring. She’s another author whose lovely discussion of faith and relationships will make you look at the world in a different way.” -Jessica
11. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
“I am a sucker for a good WWII novel, but this one is different. This one is told from the perspective of two sisters, ‘separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn, France — a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.’ The writing is good, the story compelling, and the characters rich. Read this book.” -Shelby
12. Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff
“I think maybe 70% of my female friends growing up went as Cleopatra or a more ambiguous “Egyptian queen” for Halloween. This Pulitzer prize winning biography is a great, accessible work of history about one of the most famous historical figures that few of us actually know much about.” -Jessica
13. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali
“This is the story of a young girl from Yemen who is forced to marry a man three times her age, but managed to escape and obtain a divorce. Her story inspired many victim’s of child marriage to do the same and gave momentum to the movement against forced and child marriage. Her actions were praised by prominent women including Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.” -Shelby
14. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
“Raw, unflinching true story of one woman’s struggle to climb out of the downward spiral her mother’s death sends her into by hiking the PCT. It’s a tough but unapologetic look at the terrors, humor, and joy of recovering from loss.” -Jessica
15. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Often, it is easy for us to get caught up in feminism as it applies to American life. Of course we have a long way to go here, but it is easy to forget about the international need for feminism. Based on her fantastic TEDx talk of the same name, We Should All Be Feminists discusses what it looks like for both men and women to be advocates for equality in our current day and age. Also, this is the talk Beyonce samples in Flawless, if you need another reason.” -Jessica
“What a powerful speaker and writer the world has gained in Adichie. A couple quotes from the essay I enjoy are, ‘The word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage,’ and ‘Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.’ She explains how both men and women are to blame for the way things are now and all should be concerned with what this means for our future and how we can do better.” -Shelby
16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
“This is the autobiography of beloved American writer and poet, Maya Angelou. The novel deals with the authors metamorphosis from racially abused, insecure, and troubled youth to confident, self-aware, proud young woman, ready to take on prejudice. More than a coming-of-age novel, it is an empowering and raw account of finding her voice against all odds.” -Shelby
17. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
“I started reading this series last year and am currently on the 6th out of 8 installments (thanks to Jeff who feeds my addiction). While I am the first to admit that Gabaldon is not the best writer to have ever penned a novel, the story is compelling. The historical, cultural, medical, and epic aspects of the tale are so fascinating, and I love the characters! (SPOILER ALERT!) The lead protagonist, Claire, is a huge feminist, not just for 18th century Scotland, where she finds herself transported after falling backwards through time, but to her native WWII ravaged 20th century!” -Shelby
“And the TV show is ground breaking because it is written and filmed for the female audience. We are shown intimacy from a female perspective, and it isn’t condescending towards us as though all we need is an attractive man. Claire is complicated, flawed, and not afraid of her desires or needs.” -Jessica
18. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
While Jessica and I agree that every literate human should already have read Harry Potter by now, I realize that there are those poor pitiful creatures who have not yet come to their senses and picked up The Philosophers (or Sorcerers) Stone. I beg you, do so now! If something is quite wrong with you and the wizarding world hasn’t yet piqued your interest, do it for Hermione. One of the brainiest, bravest, and most loyal characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know, you will not regret reading this amazing series (and watching the movies doesn’t count!).
We hope you enjoy this list and that it expands your literary horizons. I know I enjoyed working on it, even though it is still intimidating! If you’d like a challenge, try to read the entire list in a year! I think it’s definitely doable. I would absolutely love to have feedback so please feel free to comment and share your thoughts! Thank you for reading (both this post and in general).
As always, live healthy and love hard!