Have you ever finished a book and thought, Wow, I wish everyone would read that?
An avid reader myself, I love hearing about the books that inspire strong reactions in other readers—the ones they finish thinking the world would be a better place if every single person would read it.
But here’s the funny thing about these books we consider “must” reads: every reader has a different list. I asked on Instagram for you to share the books you think are so good that every woman has gotta read them. And WOW, did you deliver: the comments, both public and private, contained an astonishing variety of literary works.
I’m sharing the most frequently cited books in two blog posts: today, I’m listing the ones that can reasonably be considered classics (which is good timing if you need a classic to read for the 2018 Reading Challenge). Later this month I’m sharing 50(!!!) contemporary works that many women consider must-reads. (Subscribe for blog updates to get that list when I publish it.)
Readers, I hope you enjoy getting to see the variety of books many different women consider to be must-reads. Are YOUR must-reads on this list? If not, please tell us all about them in comments.
Morrison takes her title from her dark-skinned protagonist's deep desire to have blue eyes, because that is the standard of beauty in the 1941 Midwest. Through the eyes of this girl, Morrison explores the ideas of beauty, love, and what it does to a person to internalize hate. Remarkably, this was Morrison's first novel. More info →
This 1930s Gothic classic is an un-put-down-able, curl-up-by-the-fire mystery. Du Maurier's approach is unusual: the woman of the title is dead before the action begins; the young second wife, our narrator, is never given a name. Because she doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. And by the time you find out what really happened, you may find yourself one of the many readers who feel almost complicit in the crime. Suspenseful, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. More info →
First line: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day." So begins this groundbreaking classics featuring one of literature's most beloved (and relatable) heroines. Gothic mystery, psychological thriller, and love story, all rolled into one; its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847. More info →
When I asked what books every woman's gotta read, Alcott's 1869 novel about New England sisters growing up in the Civil War Era was an overwhelming crowd favorite. I only recently learned that Alcott herself didn't want to write Little Women: when a publisher asked her to write a book for girls, she put aside the thrillers she'd been writing and wrote about the only girls she knew— her sisters. The book's unexpected success changed her life and literary career. More info →
Eliot’s hefty masterpiece combines her “study of provincial life” with a close look at several young couples who fall (or think they fall) in love. Who will find lasting happiness, and who won’t, and why? By focusing on the narrow disappointments and particular joys of this small community, Eliot cuts to the heart of human nature. A novel about love, happiness, and second chances. More info →
This one is still on my reading list. Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the story of her heroine in 14th century Norway with great love and attention to detail. Book-of-the-Month Club famously said, "We consider it the best book our judges have ever selected and it has been better received by our subscribers than any other book." My friend (who's been urging me to read this for ages) tells me she'd give it ten stars if she could. More info →
L’Engle begins her groundbreaking science fiction/fantasy work with the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges you headlong into the world of the Murray family, who must travel through time to save the universe. I wanted to be Meg, of course. Wrinkle is the first—and most famous—of the Time Quintet, but I read them all, again and again. More info →
This is Sayers’ tenth Lord Peter novel, the first told from the perspective of Harriet Vane, and undoubtedly one of her finest. (They needn’t be read in order.) When Ms. Vane returns to Oxford for her college’s reunion (the “gaudy” of the title), the festive mood on campus is threatened by an alarming outbreak of murderous threats. Sayers makes this much more than a crime novel, though it's a good one—through her character Harriet, she grapples with questions of love and friendship, life and work, gender and class, and the writing life. More info →
If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience, wistful, satisfying, and heart-wrenching. More info →
This is the only novel by poet Sylvia Plath; it was published in 1963, just one month before her death by her own hand. In it, she draws heavily on her own experience with depression. She told her mother, "What I’ve done is to throw together events from my own life, fictionalising to add colour – it’s a potboiler really, but I think it will show how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown… I’ve tried to picture my world and the people in it as seen through the distorting lens of a bell jar." More info →
Cather herself considered this to be her finest novel. This is the story of the life of an immigrant woman, who struggles and prevails in the midst of near-overwhelming hardship, and also the story of America, which was built by countless immigrant men and women who worked hard in a country that often didn't welcome them. More info →
Woolf's long essay about society and art and sexism is thoroughly of its time and timeless. She argues that a woman must have money and a room of her own (literally and figuratively) in order to write well. This is one of Woolf's most accessible and rewarding works. At 112 pages, if you're doing the 2018 Reading Challenge, this could be "a book you can finish in a day." More info →
Widely considered one of the most influential books of the century, for its role in sparking second wave feminism when it was first published in 1963. Friedan's book—originally intended to be no longer than a magazine article—is part manifesto, part social critique. She put words to "the problem that has no name" and encouraged women to strive to fulfill their potential. More info →
Equal parts memoir, meditation, and practical guide, this one is worth coming back to again and again: you'll discover new insights with each reading. Lindbergh muses on womanhood, solitude, busyness, contentment, growing older, and more. This short book was first published in 1955 yet still feels fresh and relevant for today. More info →
In 1942, in occupied Holland, Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in a tiny attic for two years. After an informer gave them away to the Gestapo, they were discovered and sent to the concentration camps. This is Anne's diary that she kept during that time. It was discovered in the attic, after her death. More info →
Beryl Markham was an amazing woman, and one of the first people to successfully cross the Atlantic by plane. Yet she's not nearly as well known as others who share her arial accomplishments. In her autobiography, she preserves the moments that meant the most to her—from her childhood, spent in Africa with her British colonial family, to her adult years, when she became the first professional pilot in Africa and successfully crossed the Atlantic, alone. The title refers to the fact that when she flew, she was mostly in the dark. More info →
Corrie Ten Boom lived an ordinary, uneventful life as a watchmaker—for the first 50 years. But when the Nazis invaded and occupied her home country of Holland in World War II, she and her family became leaders of the Dutch Underground, built a room in their home to hide Jewish people from the Nazis, and risked their lives to help Jews and underground workers escape. A moving story, inspiring and insightful. The title refers to both the hiding place where the ten Boom family hid Jews, and also to Psalm 119:114, "Thou art my hiding place and my shield: I hope in thy word... " More info →
In her debut, the first of six autobiographies, Angelou tells the haunting story of her childhood in the American South in the 1930s. The prose is incredible, and the story is by turns heartwarming ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") and utterly heartbreaking. If this is one you've been meaning to read, give the audio version a try: Angelou narrates her own work, and her lilting voice brings this powerful, touching story to life. More info →
When I first read Pilgrim as a college freshman, I'd never encountered anything like Dillard's genre-defying reflections on the changing seasons in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. (I talked about this as a life-changing book in the Ask Anne Anything episode of What Should I Read Next.) More info →
Anyone who can coin a phrase like “the tired thirties” and admit that her kids told her to sit down at the typewriter and write when she got cranky is worth listening to. Reading these pages, in which L'Engle muses on her life and her career, it's clear that L'Engle sees herself as a work-in-progress. But she's working it through, and this peek into her thought process gives women hope that they can work it through, too. More info →
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help them on their farm, but their messenger mistakenly delivers a girl to Green Gables instead—an 11-year-old feisty redhead named Anne Shirley. She brings compassion, kindness, and beauty wherever she goes; she's a hopeless romantic, committed to her ideals, and guided by pure intentions—though that doesn't keep her from completely upending Marilla and Matthew's quiet life. More info →
This story about a spoiled, loveless orphan and a coddled, cantankerous invalid bringing a forgotten garden to life has been called the ultimate children's classic, but don't let that stop you from reading it now if you never read it as a child. Children will be intrigued by the actual garden, but adults recognize the story is ultimately about the power of learning to love, and be loved. More info →
For two hundred years this has remained one of the most popular novels in the English novel; Jane Austen herself called it her "own darling child." If you've never read Jane Austen, start here, with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and you'll see why, like Anne, devoted readers keep picking this one up again ... and again and again. If you don't fall in love with her writing (although I certainly hope you do), at least you'll know what the fuss is about. More info →
In this 1960 classic, small-town attorney Atticus Finch attempts a hopeless defense of a black man unjustly accused of rape, and to teach his children, Scout and Jem, about the evils of racism. A moving story about an iconic character, and the powerful effect he has on his community. (I talked about my significant high school experience with Mockingbird here.) More info →