Biographies of famous women

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25 Recommendations For Life Changing Biographies For The Voracious Reader In You

Ryan HolidayFollow Oct 18, 2017 · 16 min read

Smart people read biographies. Generalizations are usually worthless, but you can pretty much take this one to the bank.

Look at their libraries and you’ll see, one biography and memoir and autobiography after another. Of course, they read other things–it’s called being well rounded–but biographies are usually the core.

There’s a reason — it’s some of the most actionable and educational reading you can do. Think about it, a biography is a sweeping portrait of a life or a career. It covers vast swaths of material that the author must make immediately understood within the context of an individual and their life.

To understand George Washington, you have to understand the American Revolution. To understand Rockefeller, you have to explain the Gilded Age. To understand Amelia Earhart, the author must make real to the reader what it was like to be a woman in the early 1900s. Often times, they do it better than books specifically about those topics–because there is a narrative and a lens through which to access the themes.

Of course, a powerful biography — or autobiography — always has a moral. Whether it’s a rise and fall story, a story of redemption, a story of power corrupting, a story of love — every biography of a man or a woman teaches the reader. It teaches us to be like the subject or often, to be nothing like the subject.

I have not lived many years so my selection of biographies is only just getting started. I imagine I will take and add to these favorites the older I get and the more I read:

1. Plutarch’s Lives Volumes One & Two by Plutarch

There are few books more influential and ubiquitous in Western culture than Plutarch’s histories. Aside from being the basis of much of Shakespeare, he was one of Montaigne’s favorite writers.

His biographies and sketches of Pericles, Demosthenes, Themistocles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Fabius, are all excellent–and full of powerful anecdotes.

2. The Power Broker by Robert Caro

Could the biography of the former parks commissioner of New York be the definitive study of power and legacy? Apparently, because this book is it. It’s 1,000+ pages and you’ll read and learn from every single one.

It is incredibly long, but as one of the first books someone gave me when I moved to Hollywood, it holds a special sway over me. Like Huey Long and Willie Stark, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power and was transformed by power. We can learn from him–mostly what not to be and who not to become.

3. Socrates: A Man For Our Times, Napoleon: A Life, and Churchill by Paul Johnson

These are short, clear, but eye-opening biographies from Paul Johnson as part of a series. I strongly suggest reading all of them. Each is a fascinating figure for their own reasons.

Paul Johnson is the kind of author whose sweeping judgements you can trust, so you leave this book with what feels like a very solid understanding of who his subjects are a people.

4. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

The book has sold something like 5 million copies in Japan, which is insane. Totto-Chan is a special figure in modern Japanese culture — she is a celebrity on par with Oprah or Ellen, with a magazine, news show and exalted position to boot.

The book describes a childhood in pre-WWII Japan as a poorly misunderstood girl who obviously suffered from attention disorders and excess energy. It wasn’t until she met a special school principal — unlike any I have ever heard of — who finally GOT her.

And I mean understood and cared about and unconditionally supported her in a way that both inspires me and makes me deeply jealous. If only all of us could be so lucky…

5. All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt by John Taliaferro

I had this recommended to me by a random old lady in an elevator in Austin. I suppose you never know where good book recommendations come from but this one turned out to be fascinating surprise.

In his early 20s, John Hay started as a teenage legal assistant in the law office of Abraham Lincoln. He ended his career as the Secretary of State for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

How nuts is that?

You can basically understand the entire period of American history from the Civil War through WWI through one man who saw it all. Great biography of politics, the press, and American society.

6. Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

I did not fully appreciate what a strategic and political genius Eisenhower was until this book. He won WWII, ended Korea, kept us (mostly) out of Vietnam, twice prevented the use of nuclear weapons (which sent a world changing precedent), and those are the big ones in the book. He was a master of making it all look easy–which is why I think we forget to study him.

7. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

Boyd was a world class fighter pilot who changed warfare and strategy not just in the air, but on the ground and by sea. His concepts pioneered the modern concept of maneuver warfare (and were used for the First Gulf War). His method of problem solving and problem analysis — known as the OODA Loop — is now used in boardrooms and everywhere else.

He also perfected the art of “Getting Things Done” whether that was in war or in the bureaucracy of the Pentagon. You need to know and understand John Boyd.

8. Edison: A Biography by Matthew Josephson

Older biographies are better in my experience. This one is 50+ years old and that’s right in the sweet spot. It didn’t have to be trendy, it didn’t have to psychoanalyze, it didn’t have to be political correct or controversial. It just had to be a sweeping, conclusive picture of the man.

Modern enough to be historically accurate, old enough to still have respect for ambition. No question, this is a big book but I learned a lot. For instance, I had no idea that Edison had been mostly deaf (and that that deafness fueled and improved many of his sound inventions).

I didn’t know about his friendship with Henry Ford or what a shrewd businessman Edison was. If you like big biographies, read this.

9. Eleanor Roosevelt Volume One and Volume Two by Blanche Weisen Cook

The prospects Eleanor Roosevelt faced when she entered the White House were not good. First Ladies hadn’t done anything in decades besides party planning and a few of her predecessors had had nervous breakdowns. She wanted to do something different.

This is a book about her political and social acumen–her ability to turn a meaningless position into a powerful platform for change and influence. I read this book and came away so impressed. We can learn a lot.

10. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen

The book sucked me in completely. The subject, Samuel Zemurray, is fascinating and compelling. The writer has a voice that is utterly unique. Since reading this book, I have explored all of this further: I studied Zemurray (whose house was not far from mine in New Orleans and still stands) and use his story in my latest book The Obstacle Is The Way.

I interviewed the author, Rich Cohen. The book has all sorts of things going for it: it’s the American Dream, it’s history via microcosm, it’s drama/violence/intrigue, and it’s a course in business strategy and leadership.

11. Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zack O’Malley Greenburg

Just because I didn’t want this list to be all stuffy old classics, I thought I’d put this interesting (and unofficial) biography of Jay-Z on here. This is a biography that also functions as a business book.

It shows how Jay applied hustling techniques to the music business and eventually built his empire. And related to that, I also recommend The 50th Law, which while not technically a biography tells the stories of many such individuals and will stick with you just as long.

12. No Hiding Place: An Autobiography & Asylum: An Alcoholic Takes the Cure by William Seabrook

In 1934, William Seabrook was one of the most famous journalists in the world. He was also an alcoholic. But there was no treatment for his disease. So he checked himself into an insane asylum.

There, from the perspective of a travel writer, he described his own journey through this strange and foreign place. Today, you can’t read a page in the book without seeing him bump, unknowingly, into the basic principles of 12-step groups and then thwarted by well-meaning doctors (like the one who decides he’s cured and can start drinking again).

On a regular basis, he says things so clear, so self-aware that you’re stunned an addict could have written it–shocked that this book isn’t a classic American text. Yet all his books are out of print and hard to find. Two of my copies are first editions from 1931 and 1942.

It breaks your heart to know that just a few years or decades later, his options (and outcome) would have been so very different (he eventually died of an opium overdose). No Hiding Place and Asylum are indescribably good. So good that a dying Fitzgerald wrote of how he related to them in his book The Crack Up.

13. Cyropaedia (a more accessible translation can be found in Xenophon’s Cyrus The Great: The Arts of Leadership and War) by Xenophon

Xenophon, like Plato, was a student of Socrates. For whatever reason, his work is not nearly as famous, even though it is far more applicable. Unlike Plato, Xenophon studied people.

His greatest book is about the latter, it’s the best biography written of Cyrus the Great (aka the father of human rights). There are so many great lessons in here and I wish more people would read it. Machiavelli learned them, as this book inspired The Prince.

14. Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddell Hart

There is no better biography of a military genius, period. B.H. Liddell uses Sherman to not only explain the Civil War, but strategy itself.

It’s impossible to reduce a book down to just one thought or line, but Hart’s strategic explanation of attacking, always “along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance” will change your life. Read about Sherman not because you want to learn about how the Civil War was won (though you will learn that), but to learn how wars are won, period.

15. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

The world needs more men like Pat Tillman. Ostensibly the story of a professional football player who gave up a $3M NFL contract to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hills of Afghanistan, Where Men Win Glory is in its own way, a book about everything that is right and wrong with the military.

On the one hand, there is the honor and selflessness and bravery.

On the other, there is its inability to truly appreciate the individual, and of course, its shameful history of politics, ass-covering, and lack of accountability. Pat Tillman wasn’t perfect, but he was a man we could all learn a thing or two from.

16. The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans

One of the first books I read when I started working in Hollywood was Robert Evans’ classic The Kid Stays In The Picture (It’s also a great documentary). Evans is nuts.

I’m not sure how much there is to learn from the biography but it is a fascinating life story–better than fiction. I think it shows you how far hustle and hype and heat contribute to success. And that faith in yourself–deserved or not–goes a long way.

17. My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

A man is born a slave. Man teaches himself to read. Man decides he will no longer consent to being whipped, realizes that slavery is dependent on this consent and then leaves it.

In fact, his self-education was so complete that he went on to become one of America’s foremost intellectuals. That is the life of Frederick Douglass. You need to read it.

18. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters by Ulysses S. Grant

Written by Ulysses S. Grant while at death’s door (and edited by Mark Twain), these are the thoughts of the man who won the Civil War through grit and determination and persistence (shockingly, traits lacked by almost all the generals who proceeded him).

He calls the Mexican-American War one of the worst and most pointless wars, and the Civil War one of the most important and justified. There is a moment in the book early in Grant’s career as a soldier where he was sent to hunt down a band of guerrillas, shaking with fear as he arrived at their camp only to find they had run away.

It was then that he realized the enemy was often as scared of you as you were of them. It changed his approach to battle forever. I think about that line often.

19. Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel by David Fraser

It’s going to feel weird reading a book about a German general in WWII but for Rommel we must make an exception. Yes, he fought for a terrible cause. But he did so brilliantly — as a soldier, strategist, and leader. His victories in North Africa were the stuff of legend, and had the US and British troops not ultimately had better resources, the whole thing might have turned out very differently. Y

ou cannot read about Rommel and not like and admire the man. I’m saying this so you’ll be prepared and ready to remind yourself that that doesn’t excuse his actions. But you can still learn from him.

20. Hurricane: The Life of Rubin Carter, Fighter by James S. Hirsch

Hurricane Carter’s biography is about a man who refused to be anything but himself — even in prison. There are great parallels to his personal struggles to maintain the sovereignty of self amidst awful circumstances and the lessons of Stoicism.

My favorite: how he refused to sue the government after his wrongful conviction was overturned because it’d be saying that they’d taken something from him, that he was still dependent on them which even after decades in prison he refused to resign himself to accepting.

21. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow

A biography has to be really good to make read you all 800 pages. To me, this was one of those books. Since reading it last year, I’ve since found out it is the favorite book of a lot of people I respect.

I think it says something about the quality of the writing and the empathic understanding of the writer that the main lessons you would take away from someone like Rockefeller would not be business, but life lessons. In fact, when I went back through and took notes on this book, I filled out more cards for Stoicism than I did for Strategy, Business or Money.

I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get WORSE as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. Rockefeller did neither of these things, he grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference.

Does that excuse the “awful” things that he did? Well, the things he did really weren’t that awful so yes. (By that I mean I’d certainly choose him over the robber barons of this age like Zuckerberg or Murdoch.)

22. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

I forget who said it but I heard someone say that Catcher in the Rye was to young white boys what the Autobiography of Malcolm X was to young black boys. Personally, I prefer that latter over the former.

I would much rather read about and emulate a man who is born into adversity and pain, struggles with criminality, does prison time, teaches himself to read through the dictionary, finds religion and then becomes an activist for Civil Rights before being gunned down by his former supporters when he tempers the hate and anger that had long defined parts of his message.

23. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt & Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

When I was younger I would ask any smart or successful person I met to recommend a book for me to read. Dr. Drew recommended that I read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. It immediately became a lifetime favorite that I have reread several times (Amazon tells me I bought it Oct 26, 2006).

It ends the day he is telegraphed that McKinley has been assassinated–so the book focuses on everything before that from his unusual childhood and struggle with asthma to his love nature to his trip west after the simultaneous death of his wife and mother. I’m not sure why I took so long to read this sequel but it is just as good, if not better.

Focusing on Roosevelt from the end of presidency to the end of his life, there is enough material just in that portion of his life to put everyone else to shame. It covers his retirement, his safari in Africa, his exploration of the River of Doubt, his run as a third party candidate and finally his heartbreaking struggles with WWI and his son’s death. Goddamn, TR was a good man.

24. Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington’s status as an icon shamefully understates his genius as a strategist. The man had an impeccable intuition for timing, for gestures, for politics, for the moment to strike, not just on the battlefield but in relationships, in office and in his private life.

We must study Washington not only for his nearly unbelievable military victory over a superior British Army, but also for his strategic vision which quite literally was responsible for many of the most enduring American institutions and practices.

I admit this book is long, but it is so good. It is packed with illustrative examples, analysis and stories. Read it.

25. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

It’s unusual for modern biographies to be this good. It’s especially unusually for the subject of the biography to approach the biographer in the way that Steve Jobs did (thinking that he was the intellectual heir of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein).

But despite those two things, this bio is and will likely forever be a classic. It shows Jobs at his best–determined, creative, prophetic–and at his worst–petty, selfish, tyrannical and vicious. You can learn just as much about what kind of leader you probably don’t want to be from this book as you can from anything else. That’s what is so strange about Jobs and this biography.

You read it and you’re blown away and impressed but I think very few of us think: yeah, I want to be that guy. I want to treat my kids that way, I want to be obsessed with trivial design things that way,

I want to hate that way, and so on. You admire him but you also see him as a tragic figure. That’s how you know that Isaacson did an amazing job with this book.

Bonus: Fictional Biographies Bonus—These are not real biographies/autobiographies, so I won’t go into detail but I think they are great studies of people and life: Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Check them out.

Personally, I try to read at least one biography a month (if you’re looking for regular recommendations here). If you have any favorites or suggestions–pass them my way.

This article was originally published on Thought Catalog.

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This post is sponsored by The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Mileva Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mileva is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.

When I was a little kid, my mother was a town librarian. So as you can imagine, I spent most of my time in the library, reading my way through the shelves. For some reason, of all the books I had at my disposal, my favorite was a biography of Nellie Bly, the journalist, that I found when I eight. The book itself was in horrible condition: the jacket was missing, the pages were yellowed, and the metallic embossing had worn almost completely away. But I loved that book about Nellie and her adventures. I was sure that I had discovered some old treasure that detailed the life of someone no one remembered, and I read it again and again. Surely, if I had never heard of her, then no one else had either. (Again, I was eight.)

Nowadays, we have the whole world and all its history right at our fingertips, which makes it easier to learn about important women from the past who have been forgotten for decades or even centuries. But even then, some of them deserve even more time in the spotlight. So here are eleven great books that give props to some of the most fascinating, important women from history.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

This is a stellar collection of stories from Bergman’s imagination about real women from history on the periphery of fame, including aviator Beryl Markham, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, and Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly. MMB is a fantastic writer.

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen

Working from the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich adage “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” this is a gorgeously illustrated collection of short bios about famous and lesser-known historical figures, including Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American movie star, and Aphra Behn, the first female professional writer.

Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous by Marlene Wagman-Geller

My friend’s mother had a pin on her coat that said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.” This is a look at those women who were like Ginger Rogers, who worked just as hard (or harder) and were just as smart (or smarter) than the men in their lives, but were held back simply because they were women.

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph

When you say “famous feminists,” sure, everyone thinks of Gloria Steinem, but not nearly enough people have heard of Kennedy, who was often right beside her. Among her MANY achievements, Kennedy brought radical ideals to feminism, helped found the National Black Feminist Organization and the National Organization for Women, and was the lawyer who represented Valerie Solanas during her trial for the attempted murder of Andy Warhol.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

If the title sounds familiar, it’s because a movie based on this book was just released into the world. It tells the true story of a group of amazing black female mathematicians at NASA whose work was invaluable in getting the space program off the ground (ha) but, despite their help, were still subjected to racism and segregation at work because of laws in place at the time.

The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader by Ida B. Wells

Long before America heard of Rosa Parks, Wells was forcibly removed from a train for refusing to give up her seat. This experience shaped her career as a journalist and led to her anti-lynching campaigning work throughout her remarkable life. This collection covers her most essential works. (I first learned about Wells in Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe, which is the true story of a sensational case that shocked the world. Not because of the gruesome murder, but because the women involved were lesbians. It’s an astonishing book. And soon to be a movie!)

Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History by Kate Schatz (Author), Miriam Klein Stahl (Illustrator)

From the awesome team that brought us Rad American Women A-Z comes a broader look at cool women from all over the globe! Featuring such important historical figures as Egyptian ruler Hatshepsut, polar explorers Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft, and punk rocker Poly Styrene.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Attenberg’s wonderful novel (and soon-to-be television series) is a smart, compassionate fictionalization of the life of Mazie Phillips, a bighearted woman who owned a theater in NYC in the early 20th century and was widely known for her generosity towards fellow citizens in need of help.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua

Oh oh oh, this book! It is a stupendous graphic novel about Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who is credited with inventing the world’s first computer. The amount to detail and research Padua put into this book is breathtaking, and it is presented in such a fun way. It’s an epic nerdpurr.

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

A wondrously illustrated look at women in science, most of whom the world doesn’t acknowledge on the regular, including engineers, biologists, mathematicians, doctors, astronauts, physicists, and more. And, seriously, the art work is AMAZING.

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs

And finishing up our list: MORE KICKASS WOMEN! (Holy cats, there have been a lot of incredible books about women in history released this year.) Maggs, author of such amazing books as The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks, tells the tales of intrepid women throughout time, including chemist Alice Ball, inventor Huang Daopo, who revolutionized weaving technology, and rocket scientist Mary Sherman Morgan.

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It is hard to believe that this piece is still necessary. We long for the day when we don’t have to single out authors – or anyone of any walk of life, for that matter – for their gender, but here we are again. Last weekend, author and New Journalism father Gay Talese was asked to name women writers who had inspired him at a Boston University event, to which he answered: “None.” He reportedly went on to say that “educated women don’t want to hang out with anti-social people,” according to what journalist Amy Littlefield, who was in the audience, told the Washington Post.

Undoubtedly, the hashtag #womengaytaleseshouldread started bubbling on Twitter, and plenty of suggestions were made – here is a tiny selection from authors:

Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself)

Women writers who inspired me: Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, PL Travers, Margaret Storey, Ursula LeGuin, Baroness Orczy, Diana Wynne Jones

April 5, 2016 Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself)

More women writers who inspired me: Wilmar Shiras, Shirley Jackson, Lisa Tuttle, Mary Shelley, Anne Rice, Scheherazade, Judith Merrill…

April 5, 2016 Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself)

Even More Women Writers Who Inspired Me: Joanna Russ, Hope Mirrlees, Joy Chant, Angela Carter, Madeleine L’Engle, James Tiptree Jr, Kit Reed

April 5, 2016John Scalzi (@scalzi)

And Now, An Incomplete List of Women Writers Who Inspire Me:

April 4, 2016 roxane gay (@rgay)

I hope no one expected Talese, who doesn’t wear jeans, to think well of women. IDGAF about his opinions.

April 2, 2016

We have celebrated female authors on the Books site before, but we contacted some of our readers and asked them to tell us which female writers shaped their lives. Here are 10 of the most mentioned authors, in no particular order, and what our readers had to say about them:

1. Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013)

Doris Lessing working at a typewriter, circa 1950. Photograph: Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

In my twenties, I was a foreigner in London. Reading Lessing’s subtly brilliant short story Out of the Fountain, I had that Keatsian feeling of a new world coming into view. As I read my way into the books of this fellow exile, her range and depth emerged – from psychological portraits in granular detail, to vast explorations of cataclysm and survival. Class, sex, old age, childhood, the inner workings of politics, the wilder shores of the psyche – she embraced complexity and got under the skin of the human condition with piercing acuity. This was writing from the frontiers of experience and utterly mind-stretching.

The two landmarks, for me, are Shikasta, her monumental portrait of humanity, and The Four-Gated City (part of the Children of Violence series), Lessing’s visionary mapping of London and the no-man’s-land between psychosis and sanity – this book opened doors for me. Her understanding of resilience and transformation in the midst of upheaval is profound. In our obfuscating times, we continue to need that eye. –barbkay.

Start with: The Golden Notebook – “Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force,” wrote Robert McCrum.

Further reading:

  • “I was the cuckoo in the nest” – Writer Jenny Diski tells the story of how she lived with Lessing as a teenager
  • My hero: Doris Lessing by Margaret Drabble – “Doris would invite herself to lunch with me in Hampstead, when the mood took her. I never dared to say no”
  • Doris Lessing in her own words on the Guardian books podcast
  • ‘She helped change the way women are perceived, and perceive themselves’ – by Guardian Review editor Lisa Allardice

2. Toni Morrison (born 1931)

Toni Morrison in a 1982 image. Photograph: Reg Innell/Toronto Public Library

When we asked readers for their favourite books by women, many replied with “anything and everything written by Toni Morrison.” Here are but a few.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best book I have ever read. A horror story in every sense. I re-read it as soon as I had finished it. Chilling, difficult, painful, but absolutely brilliant. –afiercebadrabbit

Beloved. It’s odd reading a book at which you are simultaneously repulsed at how you feel and yet you understand exactly why you feel that way. She’s a terrific writer. –getebi

I love every word she’s written, with Beloved at the top of my list. I’m also sad to see few writers from non-Anglo Saxon cultures listed as there are so many superb writers from other traditions. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is my favourite book of all time, and I also adore Elif Shafak, whose fiction and essays as well as her talks are outstandingly fresh and insightful. Read The Flea Palace and The Bastard of Istanbul. –spraos

Start with: Beloved – “If Beloved represents the terrible pain and suffering of a people whose very mother-love is warped by torture into murder, she is no thin allegory or shrill tract. This is a huge, generous, humane and gripping novel,” wrote A S Byatt

Further reading:

  • ‘I’m writing for black people … I don’t have to apologise’ – interview by Hermione Hoby
  • Tea with Toni Morrison, by SL Bridglal
  • Toni Morrison on her novels: ‘I think goodness is more interesting’
  • Her 1993 Nobel lecture

3. Ursula K Le Guin (born 1929)

The Earthsea trilogy is absolutely magnificent: poetry, wisdom, sadness, satisfaction, fantasy, realism. Far better dragons than Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s, far better written – the whole shebang, except for humour. But then, Tolstoy didn’t go in for jokes much either. She taught me that there is nothing wrong with life or with death: the one is to be delighted in, the other accepted – Daniel Mccormick in Coatbridge, Scotland

The Earthsea books by Ursula K Le Guin, which as an adult I find have greater moral depth than Tolkien and are better written and more focused than George RR Martin’s. –QuesoManchego

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin has been something of a personal bible since I was a child. –punkmonkey

Ursula Le Guin during an interview in San Francisco in 1985. Photograph: M. Klimek/Bettmann/CORBIS

Start with: The Earthsea series or The Left Hand of Darkness – “they are some of the very few titles which I would be confident enough to name as true classics, novels that will endure well beyond our lifetimes,” wrote Alison Flood

Further reading:

  • My inspiration: SF Said on Ursula Le Guin
  • Ursula Le Guin: ‘Wizardry is artistry’
  • ‘Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here’ – her fantastic 1987 letter, responding to a request asking her to write a blurb for a science fiction anthology that contained no female voices

4. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Orlando, Jacob’s Room. Virginia Woolf. Because you can taste every word. –Lope82

Mrs Dalloway, elegant and lyrical stream of consciousness that I prefer to Joyce. –alloleo

Virginia Woolf. Photograph: George C. Beresford/Getty Images

I would like to put in a word for Virginia Woolf, and especially for the under-appreciated Orlando, where the long-lived protagonist starts out as a young nobleman before becoming a wife and mother. The book runs from Elizabethan England to 1928 and says a lot about the position of women while being both clever and funny. Perhaps Woolf is a bit too “literary” for some tastes, but Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse , The Waves and A Room of One’s Own must surely speak to many. I think (hope) she will come to be recognised as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. –JackSchofield

To The Lighthouse, it had a huge impact on me when I first read it. It really made me consider and reconsider how I think and find direction. I loved Lily Briscoe and that devastatingly matter-of-fact middle chapter/section that splits the novel. There are so many books by women that I love, but TTL is my favourite. –daveportivo

Pretty much all of Woolf, whom I read voraciously during the late 90s and still dip into now and then for a quick dose of writerly inspiration. Hard to pick any one favorite, fiction or non-fiction. But A Room of One’s Own changed my life.–Jenny Bhatt

Start with: Mrs Dalloway – “Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness,” wrote Robert McCrum

Further reading:

  • Portraits of Virginia Woolf: here, the true face of the modern writer
  • Virginia Woolf should live on, but not because of her death, by Holly Williams
  • Woolf it down: on how the Bloomsbury set shows they were almost as obsessed with eating as with art

5. Clarice Lispector (1920 – 1977)

If a writer such as Clarice Lispector is to be considered significant from a feminist point of view, then it would probably be due to the absence of anything in her work or life which could be said to resemble the stereotype of the “Lady Novelist”. As well as living like a sort of secular hermit, her writing is elusive and mystical, being much less concerned with plot and character than with abstract ideas, such as The Apple in the Dark’s consideration of the nature of artistic creation or Agua Viva’s obsessive focus on trying to isolate single moments in time. Although she could write movingly about women’s experiences (especially in The Hour of the Star), her almost stubborn unworldliness otherwise gives the lie to the awful old cliché that women are somehow deficient in considering the abstract, and shows that women are as unrestricted in subject matter as men. She really is one of the oddest and most individual writers I’ve read. –Jacob Howarth in Oxford

Clarice Lispector. Photograph: Courtesy Paulo Gurgel Valente

I heard of her just a month ago, from a Korean American friend. All I can say about her at this stage is that she knows me better than I do. I am reading The Complete Stories published 2015, which is full of lovely and shocking surprises. I finish one of her stories with a huge grin that lasts all day, another story may leave me arguing with myself … each one is having an profound impact on me.

She inspires me more than any other author in this second half of my life. Her uniquely fluid style reveals a mind so perspicacious, so permissively poetic … and utterly radical. As a feisty feminist, I find peace in Lispector’s reveries; she defies convention at every level by writing from deep within her psyche, embracing human flaws and foibles as perfectly natural. Her trademark self-acceptance is so refreshingly robust that I have found myself at times interrupting my reading with whoops of awe and admiration for her freedom of thought and spirit. –Mars Drum

Start with: The Hour of the Star – all the Brazillian author’s talents and eccentricities come together in her most famous, final novella about a poor typist in Rio, says Colm Tóibín

Further reading:

  • A brief survey of the short story, part 56: “This darkly addictive Brazilian writer is more concerned with perceptions of objects than conventional plot structures”, wrote Chris Power
  • The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser for the New Yorker
  • Brazil’s Virginia Woolf, by Brenda Cronin for the Wall Street Journal

6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 1977)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory. I would describe it as transformational because it provided an insight into the reality of what it means to be a young, ambitious, highly intelligent, sometimes single black woman in contemporary America. It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home. I was also moved by the story because it touchingly describes the loving relationship between the two central characters, showcasing that neither space nor time can erase love.

We usually go back to the same desires and preferences we had as 15-year-olds, and Americanah captures this sentiment. Moreover, it is a transformational book because it portrays Nigeria as a place that is mythical, marvellous, chaotic and slightly dangerous, yet also wildly fascinating, with a magnetic power to attract its brightest emigrés back to its shores. Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West. —beograd

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, photographed in 2007. Photograph: Felix Clay/The Guardian

Start with: Americanah – “a superb dissection of race in the UK and the USA,” wrote Elizabeth Day

Further reading:

  • ‘I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist’ – her world-famous TED talk
  • ‘Don’t we all write about love? When men do it, it’s a political comment. When women do it, it’s just a love story’ – interview by Emma Brockes
  • Every 16-year-old in Sweden will receive copy of We Should All Be Feminists

7. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She predicted all that is happening today in that book. –shofmann

Everything about it is scarily easy to imagine. Her descriptions of how women began to be punished for abortions reminds me of legislation happening right now in the USA, for example. –getebi

Start with: The Handmaid’s Tale – “Atwood’s chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America is more vital than ever,” wrote Charlotte Newman

Further reading:

  • Haunted by The Handmaid’s Tale – Atwood on the legacy of her iconic novel
  • Margaret Atwood webchat – her answers to your questions
  • ‘I set myself a schedule of three to five pages a day’ – Atwood on writing

8. Zadie Smith (born 1975)

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Could read it over and over again. –Sarah Hassam

Zadie Smith, photographed at the Edinburgh books festival in 2001. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is absolutely brilliant. Smith is often categorized first by race and gender and thus is never considered the peer of other modern literary fiction writers like Franzen and Rushdie, but she easily beats them at their own style. –emason1121

Start with: White Teeth, a novel on the lives of various multicultural families living in London; “an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror,” wrote Caryl Philipps

Further reading:

  • Fail better: “What makes a good writer? Is writing an expression of self, or, as TS Eliot argued, ‘an escape from personality’?” Thanks to Jenny Bhatt and MildGloster for pointing us towards this 2007 essay.
  • Windows on the Will: Smith’s essay about watching the new Charlie Kaufman film Anomalisa, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was recently published on the New York Review of Books. “I went to see Anomalisa, largely because of how interesting Smith made it seem,” shared MildGloster.

9. Elena Ferrante (born 1943)

Of the many beautifully wrought themes explored in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Neapolitan series, one that especially speaks to me, as a woman, is the question of what it means to attain presence versus what it means to disappear. Lila and Lenú, the central characters, each struggles to not disappear, despite the forces of class, history, and violence conspiring against them as women. Each tries to avoid what Lila loathingly describes as the problem of “dissolving margins,” when “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” Reading Ferrante has led me to wonder: How many times have I, as a woman, faced being erased – in relationships, in career, in the larger social order? How many far less-privileged women, in hostile corners of the world, face the threat of vanishing completely, dissolving into the boundaries of others without a trace? –Veronica Majerol, New York, NY

Start with: The Days of Abandonment, a short novel Ferrante wrote before her famous Neapolitan series – a great taster, and brilliant in its own right.

Further reading:

  • Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows
  • Elena Ferrante: ‘Anonymity lets me concentrate exclusively on writing’ – an interview by Deborah Orr

10. Angela Carter (1940 – 1992)

When I was at university I saw someone give a paper on Angela Carter’s dystopian masterpiece The Passion of New Eve. It was probably another year or so before I got my hands on a copy but I was not disappointed.

The premise alone – a man captured by radical feminists and surgically transformed into a woman so that he may bear the messiah – was enough to pique my interest, but it was Carter’s hallucinatory prose and rich symbolism that made this novel unforgettable. –elbartonfink

Start with: Nights at the Circus – the story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers’s travels through 19th-century Europe, that was named the best-ever winner of Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award.

English novelist Angela Carter sitting on a park bench in Paris in 1988. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Corbis

Further reading:

  • Angela Carter: a portrait in postcards
  • A brief survey of the short story: Angela Carter, by Chris Power
  • Femme fatale: Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, wrote Helen Simpson

We are painfully aware that this list could go forever. So, please, add more authors to the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments.

50 of Our Favorite Books by Women

Choosing just 50 of our favorite books by women authors—from Anne Patchett to Zadie Smith—was no easy task, but there are worse problems than weeding through an endless sea of incredible works. Below are stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that cover everything from friendship to vampires and everything in between. You can thank us later for creating your reading list for the next five years.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!


If you didn’t read L’Engle’s classic 1962 work as a young adult, pick it up now before it becomes the movie everyone is talking about. (An adaptation directed by Ava DuVernary is slated for a 2018 release.) The book follows 13-year-old Meg Murry, whose scientist father has disappeared, and whose life is about to take a series of strange, unexpected turns. Along with her younger brother Charles Wallace and a neighbor named Calvin, and with the help of three mysterious women, Meg embarks on a harrowing journey, where she learns incredible things about her family, the world, and herself.

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When her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died in 2003, Didion’s daughter Quinta Roo was lying unconscious in a New York hospital—in septic shock following a case of pneumonia. The following year Quinta collapsed due to bleeding in her brain and died at the tragically young age of 39. Didion’s reflection on the incredible grief of those losses, and the sort of irrational, hopeful (“magical”) thinking they inspired, is a meditation that—much like grief itself—is at once deeply personal and all too universal. It’s a rare look at the interior life of one of America’s best authors, and thus, absolutely essential reading.

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In this coming-of-age graphic novel, cousins Mariko (writer) and Jillian (illustrator) Tamaki tell the story of Rose—a young girl who spends her summers at a lake house in Ontario with her parents. Against the backdrop of a single season, we see Rose and her friend Windy navigate the complicated world of post-childhood and pre-adulthood, where problems range from fighting parents to the boys at the local convenience store. It’s funny, sad, beautiful and heart-wrenching; a lot like adolescence itself.

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You may remember this book for the movie it inspired, but beyond the ruffly shirts and a tiny, wise-beyond-her-years Kirsten Dunst, Interview with the Vampire is a heartbreakingly existential tale that shows how life can lose meaning when it never ends. One brave interviewer learns about vampires Louis, Malloy, and Claudia as they attempt to find purpose in their existence while toeing the line between enlightened scholars and bloodthirsty monsters.

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High schooler Kel Keller is just a poor kid in Yonkers, New York trying to find a future in baseball. Former teacher Arthur Opp is a shut-in who hasn’t left his Brooklyn home (or even explored the top floor of his house) in years. The unlikely pair is suddenly linked together when Charlene—Kel’s mother and Arthur’s former student—calls her teacher begging for help. This story follows the two heroes as they realize that family and friendship can come from unexpected places.

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Zadie Smith’s breakout novel takes place in London and follows the families of two war veterans who have become unlikely friends. On a larger scale, it is a story about multiculturalism in Britain and how younger generations balance the cultures of their families with the new cultures of their surroundings. White Teeth fills its pages with eccentric characters as they navigate modern life, and only narrowly avoid complete chaos.

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Jane Austen’s most famous novel put an iconic twist on the boy-meets-girl trope. In this case, it’s more like wealthy-aristocrat-meets-independent-minded-woman-and-the-two-take-an-instant-disliking-toward-one-another. But over the course of the novel, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet realize that despite the pride (his) and prejudice (hers) that have kept them at odds, they’re a perfect romantic fit. Cue the wedding bells. The idea of a free-spirited woman making her own decisions was pretty revolutionary in 1813, when the novel was first published, and has made Elizabeth Bennet one of literature’s great heroines to this very day.

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Despite having published only two novels in her lifetime, Harper Lee—who passed away on February 19, 2016—is one of America’s most celebrated novelists. She owes that reputation to her debut novel, 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a coming-of-age tale in which a young girl named Scout is forced to confront the realities of racism in the American south as she watches her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, fight for justice in the courtroom. In 1961, the book earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize—and a permanent place near the top of the list of great American novels. (Lee’s second novel, 2015’s Go Set a Watchman, was initially touted as a sequel, but was later revealed to be a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.)

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In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence. Set during New York City’s Gilded Age, the novel details a love triangle in the upper echelons of society as Newland Archer, heir of one of the city’s most prominent families, finds himself torn between the commitment he has made to his fiancée, May Welland, the passionate love he feels for May’s cousin, the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska, and the duty he has to his family to uphold the conventions of polite society.

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Jennifer Egan’s avant-garde fiction was once described by The New York Times as “ as freely flung as a bag of trash down a country gully.” Which is to say: Goon Squad’s narrative structure does not lend itself particularly well to summary. Nevertheless, its many interlocking stories—all of which connect in some shape or form to the aging music exec Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha—arrive at profound conclusions about the digital age.

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The greatest mystery of Olive Kitteridge is how this collection of short stories manages to pack a punch with such spare and even austere sentences. Elizabeth Strout’s examination of a small town in Maine and the ways in which depression and mental illness have manifested in the lives of the townspeople—notably, in that of its tough-loving protagonist, Olive—is one that sticks with you forever. As does its HBO mini-series adaptation, helmed by the always pitch-perfect Frances McDormand.

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Dept. of Speculation

lays out a brutal, hilarious, and, ultimately, rewarding puzzle of insights into motherhood, marriage, and creative writing. Don’t be fooled by its slim appearance; Offill’s sharp wit cuts deep into the human condition and leaves you with more than enough to chew on.

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Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild is part edge-of-your-seat adventure story, part commentary on grief and inner strength (and, to be fair, outer strength, too). At the age of 26, four years after her mother’s death, Strayed set off on a 1100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. In her chronicle of the trip, Strayed makes her physical and emotional journey come alive with her edgy sense of humor and unfiltered, insightful observations on the human condition. After reading Wild (and watching the Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed), check out online archives of “Dear Sugar,” the advice column Strayed wrote anonymously for years.

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The conceit of British author Kate Atkinson’s ninth novel could be kitschy: Ursula Todd is born in 1910; when she dies, she is born again—and again and again. But thanks to Atkinson’s boundless imagination and empathy for her characters, the result is a sensitive and thought-provoking commentary on how the decisions we make shape our lives—and the course of history.

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Italian writer Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym) captures the complexity of female friendship (the tangle of love, jealousy, competition, and admiration) in her stunning quartet of Neapolitan Novels. In the first, My Brilliant Friend, we are introduced to best friends Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, who struggle to succeed in their poor neighborhood outside of Naples.

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Claire Massud’s 2013 novel follows Nora, a third-grade teacher who, in her late 30s, is simmering with quiet, fiery discontent, and lamenting the artistic dreams she put off in favor of being a dutiful daughter and employee. When a charismatic couple comes into Nora’s life, she finally finds a way to explore the passions she has spent years repressing. She becomes immersed in their lives, but even she recognizes it’s not an entirely two-sided relationship. The Woman Upstairs is a compelling exploration of art and a haunting look into the (sometimes furious) minds of the type of meek, unobtrusive older women who rarely get a voice in popular entertainment.

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In Truth and Beauty, author Ann Patchett tells the story of her deep friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, tracing their intense bond from their first meeting at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to Grealy’s death. It’s a complex portrait of the kind of passionate relationship that we normally only talk about in terms of lovers and marriages, not friendships—plumbing the highs and lows of their journey through the literary world, and their attempts to grapple with professional success and personal tragedy.

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The Book of Unknown Americans

is a love story told through many eyes. Taking place inside a single Delaware apartment building filled with immigrant families from Latin America, it follows two families: the Riveras, who come to the U.S. from Mexico seeking help for their teenage daughter’s brain injury, and the Toros, their Panamanian neighbors. The chorus of neighborly voices that weave the tale together presents a panoply of immigrant experiences that are united by the desire to forge a better life far from home, despite the difficulties—and often, the indignities—of doing so.

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Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a totalitarian theocracy as seen through the eyes of Offred, a woman in the new Handmaid class whose sole purpose is to produce children for the ruling class, has seen a resurgence of late. A new Hulu series based on the book premieres next month, and Atwood recently revisited her most famous story in an essay for The New York Times. The Canadian author describes writing longhand while living in West Berlin, years before the fall of the Berlin Wall: “I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.” Born during World War II, Atwood writes that she’s seen how “established orders could vanish overnight,” a point that is made clear numerous times throughout The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Toni Morrison won a Pulitzer for her allegorical portrayal of the novel’s namesake, who encompasses the collective horrors, trauma, and grief of slavery. Inspired by the true story of an escaped slave who killed her toddler daughter rather than see her returned to captivity, Morrison’s story about a now-free mother being haunted by both her repressed memories and the physical manifestation of her daughter serves as a powerful indictment of forced enslavement and a humanization of the lives that were lost or irrevocably altered because of it.

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She’s probably best known for her 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl (about Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary), but Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series (including The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, and three others), which follows key Yorkist and Lancastrian women on both sides of the medieval War of the Roses, illuminates a long, dark period of English history. Written as historical fiction, Gregory pulls from countless historical sources, making her timelines and characters’ traits, relationships, and motives as accurate as possible. But she’s also adept at weaving in the romances, unspoken courtly dealings, and rumors of mystical powers that followed certain women into the stories—all of which makes their scheming and bids for power fascinating and relatable, and makes you wonder why history was ever so focused on the men in the first place.

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In Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, a returning World War II veteran named Hazel Motes finds himself desperate to rid his life of religion by founding The Church of God Without Christ and preaching throughout small towns in Tennessee. This peculiar Southern gothic odyssey touches on subjects as fundamental as life, death, and faith, but it does so with a streak of dark humor that makes it hauntingly memorable.

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Naomi Klein’s No Logo is a non-fiction tear-down of our commercialized world and the brands that have infiltrated nearly every inch of our lives, including our communities, our schools, and even our news. The invisible influence of corporate branding and consumerism is exposed through Klein’s investigative journalism, and her writing dares readers to take a deeper look into the companies we support on a daily basis.

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Houston, Houston, Do You Read?

is a sci-fi novella by Alice Sheldon, who spent her career using the pen name James Tiptree, Jr. The story involves a space shuttle with a three-man crew coming into contact with a mysterious craft staffed solely by women following a run-in with a solar flare. Throughout the story, Sheldon calls the very idea of a patriarchal society into question as the male crew unravels the mystery of this rival ship.

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What does it mean to be an African-American or an American-African in this country? Nigeria-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie masterfully takes on the complicated question in her third title, Americanah. Equal parts love story and satire, the 588-pager follows Nigerians Ifemelu and Obinze as they navigate taking their grade school romance into adulthood while struggling with the loneliness of the immigrant experience.

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The argument that women need (literal and figurative) spaces of their own in order to unleash their creativity—spaces away from the demands of domestic life and societal pressure to defer to others—feels as relevant today as it did in 1929.

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Dating has probably always been awful, but you will never be able to convince me that it’s always been as awful as it is here and now, in the 21st century. Waldman skewers a specific kind of man you’ll meet if you’re a straight woman attempting to date in New York City, or L.A., or San Francisco—pseudo intellectual, attempting to make it as a “writer,” shallow as hell (despite his protests to the contrary). Read it and weep, ladies. And then immediately delete Tinder from your phone.

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Ward reflects on the deaths of five young Black men she grew up with, all of whom died in the same five-year period. This moving (and gorgeous) memoir serves as both a celebration of their lives, and an attempt to make sense of the uniquely dangerous condition that is being Black and poor in America.

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Most of these short stories feature characters who don’t quite feel at home. Some are immigrants; some are trying to mend broken marriages; all of them will break your heart. The tales in this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection explore what it means to try to know another person, and the feelings of estrangement that so often result.

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“Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color.” Thus opens Maggie Nelson’s heart-swelling poem-essay-dispatch from the frontlines of obsession. Raw, sprawling, yet simultaneously sharp as a needle, Bluets might just be the greatest breakup book of all time.

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A 2009 finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, which recognizes “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic,” White Is for Witching is master novelist Helen Oyeyemi’s most gripping work yet. The Gothic tale seamlessly intertwines deep-seated cultural fears about race, sexuality, immigration, and isolation, weaving a fabric that is as moving as it is unsettling.

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There’s a good chance this book will make you angry, as page after page reveals information about the human body that we all should have been taught in middle school. “Why didn’t they tell us any of this?!!??” you might yell, waving a fist at the sky. Then you’ll pick the book up again and continue reading—because it’s just that fascinating.

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Just 16 when she wrote it, Hinton chose to use her initials so book critics wouldn’t discriminate against a woman writing about male class warfare in 1950s Oklahoma. A favorite of grade school libraries for decades, it remains a poignant, powerful story regardless of the reader’s age.

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A classic mediation on depression, Plath’s only novel is for anyone who’s felt the weight of the world on their shoulders. Her semi-autobiographical lead, Esther, attempts to navigate an inhospitable Manhattan while struggling with her curious lack of interest in success.

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Science writer-slash-humorist Roach travels the globe in search of tangible evidence of life after death, profiling people both peculiar and credible. She may not convince you one way or another, but Spook is likely to have you thinking about your ectoplasmic epilogue.

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A novel that bounces between the inner life of a melancholic boy who’s lost his mother and a thriller premise involving a missing painting, The Goldfinch is that rare literary novel: a Pulitzer Prize winner than can keep you turning the pages long into the night.

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In the opening essay of The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison recounts her experience as a “medical actor,” playing at being a patient to teach medical students how to find the true cause of people’s ailments. The young doctors are supposed to dig past rote answers and misleading information to find that in fact, the young woman experiencing seizures is grieving the death of her brother, or that the bruised victim of a minor car crash has a major drinking problem. The med students are supposed to use their powers of empathy to suss out truths that the patients either don’t know themselves or are hesitant to reveal. In the subsequent essays, Jameson performs this same procedure on the world at large, putting herself into others’ shoes to examine what happens when we try to feel another person’s pain.

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The poet Audre Lorde called her 1982 book not a memoir but a “biomythography”—a mixture of history, biography, and myth. In it, she chronicles her journey from a legally blind, bookish child growing up in the Great Depression to a gay activist and “warrior poet” of Greenwich Village. Recounting tales from her childhood in Harlem and her awakening to racism, sexism, and homophobia in the world, Zami is a rich history lesson on the life experiences that formed the backbone of Lorde’s most famous writings.

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“The City of Light” wasn’t always so. Back in the mid-1600s, it was a cesspool of muck, crime, and black magic. Tucker tells us how Nicolas de la Reynie, first police chief of Paris, enlightened the city both literally (he installed the first street lamps, earning the city its famous nickname) and figuratively: by untangling a foul network of real-life witches, poisoners, and back-stabbing nobility hell-bent on social climbing at any cost.

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Joanne Rowling was a single mother surviving with the help of government assistance when she wrote the novel that would change her life—and the lives of millions around the world. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997 under the byline J.K. Rowling because the author’s publishers thought that young boys would be less likely to buy books by a female author. They shouldn’t have worried: All told, Rowling’s seven-book series about The Boy Who Lived has sold 450 million copies and been translated into a whopping 78 languages. Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States) is certainly meant for younger readers, but Rowling’s books got more mature as Harry grew, and her writing about life, death, love, and sacrifice is some of the most beautiful—and moving—you’ll ever read.

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A piece of popcorn on a roped-off chair at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art started it all for E.L. Konigsburg. “For a long time after leaving the museum that day,” she wrote later, “I thought about that piece of popcorn on the blue silk chair and how it got there.” The New York City-based writer turned that kernel of inspiration into From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which follows siblings Claudia and Jamie Kincaid as they run away, take up residence in the Met, and attempt to crack the case of a mysterious statue that may or may not have been sculpted by Michelangelo. The book, which won a Newbery Award, became the subject of many questions to Met employees and a staple on elementary school reading lists. If you were one of those students, consider making time to rediscover Mixed-up Files—either by yourself or with your kids.

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While grieving the death of her father, Helen Macdonald sought solace in nature. Namely, she bought a hawk. For a story about falconry, this 2014 memoir—which earned Macdonald the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year award—is strikingly human.

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After finding success as a chef in New York City, Gabrielle Hamilton didn’t let her creative writing MFA go to waste. She wrote Blood, Bones & Butter, a memoir tracing her life from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania to her success as chef and owner of the restaurant Prune. The brutally honest account provides the perfect antidote to today’s glitzy celebrity chef culture.

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A teenage Mary Shelley was prompted to write Frankenstein after a vision of a scientist kneeling beside his monstrous creation came to her in the night. Two hundred years later, the gothic tale of man attempting to defy nature still reigns supreme over the horror genre.

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A frustrated writer finds the diary of a bullied Japanese girl washed up on the shore of British Columbia, and it galvanizes her curiosity, research skills, and creative vision. Their parallel stories and family histories—as well as meditations on time itself—drive this multilayered story.

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This intimate story of a biracial family in America begins with the death of teenage Lydia and spirals out in time and place, exploring both racial and family dynamics in the Midwest of the 1970s. Ng’s first novel, it will perfectly break your heart.

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Seven-year-old Claire goes missing the day before her father plans to let a local shopkeeper adopt her as a way to give Claire a better life. The novel delves into the story of her family—and of Haiti—in gorgeous, succinct prose.

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A biography that seems like it should belong on fiction shelves: Hillenbrand paints a vivid portrait of Olympic athlete and World War II soldier Louis Zamperini, who was shot down and spent years as a prisoner of war. Zamperini’s life is one in a billion, and Hillenbrand captures every astounding moment with insight.

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In a classic series of essays, novelist Oates explores the world of prizefighting as few journalists ever have, offering some remarkable thoughts about the men who risk their lives for sport and profit and the audiences that subsidize them.

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We live in a culture obsessed with goal-setting, forward movement, and “finding oneself.” But what about the pleasures of getting lost? Solnit, in her lucid, lyrical style, weaves together memoir, philosophy, and cultural history to deliver a moving tribute to the necessity—the reality—of not always knowing where you’re going. Her writing just might change your life.

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By Erika Berlin, April Daley, Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Colin Gorenstein, Kate Horowitz, Bess Lovejoy, Beth Anne Macaluso, Erin McCarthy, Rebecca O’Connell, Jen Pinkowski, Jake Rossen, Caitlin Schneider, Jay Serafino, Abbey Stone, and Jenn Wood.

  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty. Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty―a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre―took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes.
  • Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro. A successful freelance writer living in Manhattan, Susan Shapiro was in the midst of a midlife crisis. Married for five years, she was beginning to wonder if she’d remain book- and babyless forever. Then the phone rang, and it was a college flame who’d become a Harvard scientist with a book coming out. Susan offers to interview him, and she winds up launching into all the intense, invasive questions she’d always wanted to ask him. This ignites a spark that sends her on a cross-country jaunt back through her lust-littered past.
  • Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah. Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother. Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States.
  • Madam Secretary: A Memoir by Madeline K. Albright. For eight years, during Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms, Albright was a high-level participant in some of the most dramatic events of our time—from the pursuit of peace in the Middle East to NATO’s intervention in the Balkans to America’s troubled relations with Iran and Iraq. Albright reflects on her remarkable personal story, including her upbringing in war-torn Europe and the balancing of career and family responsibilities, and on America’s leading role in a changing world.
  • Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical by Sherie M. Randolph. Rather than simply reacting to the predominantly white feminist movement, Kennedy brought the lessons of Black Power to white feminism and built bridges in the struggles against racism and sexism. Randolph narrates Kennedy’s progressive upbringing, her pathbreaking graduation from Columbia Law School, and her long career as a media-savvy activist, showing how Kennedy rose to founding roles in organizations such as the National Black Feminist Organization and the National Organization for Women, allying herself with both white and black activists.
  • Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn. From the stubborn sixteen-year-old studying science at night while working as a governess, to her romance and scientific partnership with Pierre Curie—an extraordinary marriage of equals—we feel her defeats as well as her successes: her rejection by the French Academy, her unbearable grief at Pierre’s untimely and gruesome death, and her retreat into a love affair with a married fellow scientist, causing a scandal which almost cost her the second Nobel Prize.
  • Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn. A warm, intimate account of the love between Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena Hickok—a relationship that, over more than three decades, transformed both women’s lives and empowered them to play significant roles in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
  • Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis De Veaux. During her lifetime, Audre Lorde (1934-1992), author of the landmark Cancer Journals, created a mythic identity for herself that retains its vitality to this day. Drawing from the private archives of the poet’s estate and numerous interviews, Alexis De Veaux demystifies Lorde’s iconic status, charting her conservative childhood in Harlem; her early marriage to a white, gay man with whom she had two children; her emergence as an outspoken black feminist lesbian; and her canonization as a seminal poet of American literature.
  • Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950’s by Jennifer Worth. Jennifer Worth came from a sheltered background when she became a midwife in the Docklands in the 1950s. The conditions in which many women gave birth just half a century ago were horrifying, not only because of their grimly impoverished surroundings, but also because of what they were expected to endure. But while Jennifer witnessed brutality and tragedy, she also met with amazing kindness and understanding, tempered by a great deal of Cockney humor.
  • Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Most Famous & Infamous Men by Marlene Wagman-Geller. This witty, illuminating book reveals the remarkable stories of forty captivating females, from Constance Lloyd (Mrs. Oscar Wilde) to Carolyn Adams (Mrs. Jerry Garcia), who have stood behind their legendary partners and helped to humanize them, often at the cost of their own careers, reputations, and happiness. Through fame and its attendant ills―alcoholism, infidelity, mental illness, divorce, and even attempted murder―these powerful women quietly propelled their men to the top and changed the course of history.
  • Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman. So often viewed in her relationships with men, the Virgin Queen is portrayed here as the product of women—the mother she lost so tragically, the female subjects who worshipped her, and the peers and intimates who loved, raised, challenged, and sometimes opposed her.
  • Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in Their Twenties by Marion Meade. In her exuberant new work, Marion Meade presents a portrait of four extraordinary writers-Dorothy Parker, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St.Vincent Millay, and Edna Ferber- whose loves, lives, and literary endeavors embodied the spirit of the 1920s.
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shatterly. Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
  • Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and At War by Helen Thorpe. Helen Thorpe follows the lives of three women over twelve years on their paths to the military, overseas to combat, and back home…and then overseas again for two of them. These women, who are quite different in every way, become friends, and we watch their interaction and also what happens when they are separated. We see their families, their lovers, their spouses, their children. We see them work extremely hard, deal with the attentions of men on base and in war zones, and struggle to stay connected to their families back home.
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    150 Memoirs and Biographies of Women, by Women

    I did this last year, but it feels like the day to do it again: 1 Like = 1 biography of a woman’s life written by a woman for u to read

    — #rachelsyme (@rachsyme) March 8, 2017

    International Women’s Day was on Tuesday. To celebrate, the writer Rachel Syme did something amazing: in the thread linked above, she tweeted 150 memoirs and biographies of women, by women. We gathered all the titles together in the list below and linked them to their Booklist reviews.

    Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic, by Jennifer Niven

    Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal

    Alice James, by Jean Strouse

    Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, by Phoebe Hoban

    Alice Walker, by Evelyn White

    All We Know: Three Lives, by Lisa Cohen

    American Eve, by Paula Uruburu

    American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood, by Marie Arana

    Angela Davis: An Autobiography, by Angela Davis

    An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

    Anne Sexton, by Diane Middlebrook

    Annie Oakley, by Shirl Kasper

    The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, by Lucette Lagnado

    Art and Madness: A Memoir of Love Without Reason, by Anne Roiphe

    Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy

    Barbara Jordan, by Mary Beth Rogers

    Beryl Markham, by Mary S. Lovell

    Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, by Margot Mifflin

    Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore

    Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, by Louise Erdrich

    Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt

    The Bronte Myth, by Lucasta Miller

    Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

    Candy Darling, by Candy Darling

    Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, by Leonie Frieda

    Christina Stead, by Hazel Rowley

    Clementine, by Sonia Purnell

    Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff

    Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, by Natalie Dkystra

    Confessions of an Art Addict, by Peggy Guggenheim

    Country Girl, by Edna O’Brien

    Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back, by Janice P. Nimura

    Dearest Friend, by Lynne Withey

    Diana Vreeland, by Amanda McKenzie Stuart

    Diane Arbus: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth

    Dietrich and Riefenstahl, by Kristin Weiland

    The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande

    Dorothy Parker, by Marion Meade

    Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee

    Eleanor of Aquitane, by Alison Weir

    Ella Baker, by Barbara Ransby

    Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, by Jung Chang

    Evita, by Eva Peron

    The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West, by Lorna Gibb

    The Firebrand and the First Lady: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, by Patricia Bell Scott

    The First Lady of Hollywood, by Samantha Barbas

    First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, by Loung Ung

    Frida, by Hayden Herrera

    Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, by Lauren Elkin

    Florynce Kennedy, by Sherie Randolph

    Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life, by Caroline Moorhead

    Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner, by Brenda Wineapple

    Georgia O’Keeffe, by Roxana Robinson

    Girls Like Us, by Sheila Weller

    The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis, by Julie Kavanagh

    Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, by Constance Rosenblum

    Great Catherine, by Carolly Erickson

    Hannah Arendt, by Anne C. Heller

    Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics during World War II, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

    Harriet Jacobs, by Jean Fagin Yellin

    Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton

    Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

    The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson: Aviatrix, Sportswoman, Journalist, Publisher, by Alice Arlen Ida: A Sword among Lions; Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching, by Paula Giddings

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

    I Married Adventure, by Osa Johnson

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

    Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, by Katherine Frank

    Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle, by Lois Banner

    I Said Yes To Everything, by Lee Grant James Tiptree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips Jane Austen, by Claire Tomalin

    Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison

    Katherine Mansfield, by Claire Tomalin

    Kiss Hollywood Goodbye, by Anita Loos

    Lady Sings the Blues, by Billie Holiday

    The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldston

    Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog

    Lee Krasner, by Gail Levin

    Lee Miller, by Carolyn Burke

    Lena, by Lena Horne

    The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired, by Francine Prose

    Louise Bogan, by Elizabeth Frank

    Madame du Pompadour, by Nancy Mitford

    Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, by Helene Cooper

    Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, by Rhonda Garelick

    The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, by Sarah Churchwell

    Marie Curie, by Susan Quinn

    Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy, by Elizabeth Winder

    Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir

    Men We Reaped, by Jessmyn Ward

    Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson

    Negroland, by Margo Jefferson

    Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, by Shelley Dewees

    On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Bundles

    Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith

    Pain, Parties, Work, by Elizabeth Winder

    Painted Shadow, by Carole Seymour-Jones

    The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72, by Molly Peacock

    Paula, by Isabel Allende

    Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

    Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, by Eileen Whitfield

    The Pope’s Daughter, by Carolyn Murphy

    Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, by Caroline Weber

    The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court, by Anna Whitelock

    Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John, by Sally Cline

    Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse, by Francine Gray

    Ranger Confidential, by Andrea Lankford

    Red Azalea, by Anchee Min

    Redefining Realness, by Janet Mock

    Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, by Kate Evans

    Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams

    Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter, by Cathy Curtis

    Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, by Nathalia Holt

    Romaine Brooks, by Cassandra Langer

    The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, by Helen Rappoport

    Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon

    Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox

    Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford

    Searching for Calamity, by Linda Jucovy

    Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, by Judith Thurman

    Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, by Patricia Albers

    She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, by Helen Castor

    The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson

    Slow Days, Fast Company, by Eve Babitz

    The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Vivian Gornick

    Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, by Anita Anand

    That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by Anne Sebba

    The Tigress of Forli: The Life of Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici, by Elizabeth Lev

    To the River, by Olivia Laing

    Trans, by Juliet Jacques and Sheila Heti

    Two Lives: Gertude and Alice, by Janet Malcolm

    Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, by Stacy Schiff

    Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird

    Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee

    When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up under the Khmer Rouge, by Chanrithy Him

    Where I Was From, by Joan Didion

    The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Secret Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey

    The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston

    Women in Dark Times, by Jacqueline Rose

    Working Girl Blues: The Life and Music of Hazel Dickens, by Hazel Dickins

    Wilde’s Women, by Eleanor Fitzsimmons

    Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

    Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, by Cari Beauchamp

    Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd

    Zelda, by Nancy Milfrode