30 Books Every Woman Should Read by 30
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Survey Says1 of 31
How do you even begin to select just 30 books that every woman should read by 30? To start, we rounded up our favorites in 15 categories (including memoir, mystery and sci-fi), all from the past 30 years, then we asked Glo's readers to weigh in. More than 500 of you voted. The results? A combination of readers' and editors' picks, one for each category. There are books you may already know and love, along with books you've probably never heard of. The one thing they all have in common: their ability to entertain and inspire, making your 20s—and beyond—that much better.
Memoir2 of 31
Readers' Pick: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
In one of the most riveting memoirs of the last decade, Walls chronicles her and her three siblings' turbulent, poverty-stricken upbringing by damaged parents: their dreamer of a mother and their alcoholic father. The adventures and horrors of this family will alternately appall and move you, and you'll remember the resilience of the Walls children long after you finish reading.
Memoir3 of 31
Editors' Pick: Wild From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed's memoir about hiking alone from the Mojave Desert to Oregon in the aftermath of her mother's death is one of the most riveting books of the last five years. Soon to be a film starring Reese Witherspoon, this inspiring story will make you feel brave just by reading it: Soon you'll be ready to tackle any challenge, heavy backpack or not.
Celeb Memoir4 of 31
Readers' Pick: Bossypants by Tina Fey
Tina Fey is responsible for creating one of the funniest sitcoms in television history, and she remains a role model to legions of smart (and dorky) women everywhere. Her memoir, which covers everything from her relationship with her father, to her rise to fame, to makeup tips, is by turns funny, charming and inspiring. Liz Lemons of the world, unite!
Celeb Memoir5 of 31
Editors' Pick: Just Kids by Patti Smith
The singer responsible for the rock anthem "Because the Night" takes you inside the underground world of the New York art and music scene the late '60s and early '70s. Smith may be referred to as the Godmother of Punk now, but back then she was just a poetry-loving college dropout living at the Chelsea Hotel, selling used books to pay the rent, and trying to find herself, alongside constant companion and sometimes lover Robert Mapplethorpe.
Biography6 of 31
Readers' Pick: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Combining the history of Henrietta Lacks and her family with the history of HeLa cells (the ones taken from Lacks and cultured for scientific research), writer Rebecca Skloot creates a narrative that's compelling and heartbreaking. Reading it is both a lesson in science and bioethics, as well as a more intimate glimpse into a family's loss and its perseverance.
Biography7 of 31
Editors' Pick: Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
You may not know the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, but the words from her poem "First Fig" will probably sound familiar: "My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light." The passionate Millay moved to New York's Greenwich Village and lived just as her poem suggests. This book is both an introduction to Millay's work (she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923) and a roller-coaster ride through her volatile life.
Literary Novel8 of 31
Readers' Pick: Beloved by Toni Morrison
There's a reason this book won the 1988 Pulitzer and was named the best novel of the last 25 years in a 2006 New York Times survey: It's a moving, masterful story about the persistent trauma of slavery in America, told only as Toni Morrison can, every paragraph a poem.
Literary Novel9 of 31
Jennifer Egan is one of our literary crushes, so it's no surprise that her 2010 bestseller held us in its thrall. The book is both epic and intimate, moving back and forth in time and changing narrators, with each section giving a close, personal glimpse into the lives of its characters. From a high-end safari in Africa to the streets of Naples, Italy, this is a true adventure you don't want to miss.
Historical Novel10 of 31
Readers' Pick: Atonement by Ian McEwan
Beginning in 1935 on a sweltering summer day on an English countryside estate, McEwan's novel quickly turns dark, as a single lie told by 13-year-old Briony sets events into motion that will condemn an innocent man to prison. The story spans the decades, following the characters through World War II and eventually picking up with Briony's story in 1999, when, as a writer, she attempts to correct her wrong, or at least make sense of it in some small way.
Historical Novel11 of 31
Editors' Pick: The Little Bride by Anna Solomon
It's the late 1800s and Minna is a 16-year-old girl from Odessa who heads to the Middle-of-Nowhere, South Dakota to marry a man she's never met. Her husband turns out to be much older than she expected, with two grown sons to boot, and Minna is thrust into a world unlike any she has ever known, complete with a sod hut and unforgiving weather. This compelling and sensual tale renders a little-known slice of history vivid and intimate.
Science Fiction12 of 31
Readers' Pick: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Kudos to our readers for selecting this Atwood classic. If you read it so long ago that you only vaguely remember the plot, we urge you to revisit it. The narrator, Offred (literally "of Fred," her "Commander"), is the titular handmaid, stripped of her own identity and separated from her husband and daughter. The most haunting aspect of the book is Offred's memories of her life before the theocratic Republic of Gilead, and the all-too-familiar events (book-burnings, feminist backlash) that led to the new regime.
Science Fiction13 of 31
Editors' Pick: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Similar to The Handmaid's Tale, this haunting novel imagines a scenario that's frighteningly plausible. In it, cloned children are raised in an isolated, boarding school-like setting and groomed to be "carers" and then "donors." The exact nature of their lives is revealed in subtle ways over the course of the novel. (Yes, Never Let Me Go was made into a movie, but the quiet, careful unfolding of this story is far more powerful as a book than as a film.) Ultimately, it asks the question of what it means to be human, to love and to be loved.
Literotica14 of 31
Readers' Pick: Henry and June: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs Nin
Published in 1986, back when shades of gray meant "not black or white," this work of nonfiction was a bestseller. The Henry and June of the title refer to Henry Miller and his wife June. Nin's feelings for both are overwhelming and complicated, as she embarks on a yearlong affair with Miller, while being enamored with his wife. While the book is about Nin's sexual awakening, the writer's constant self-analysis make it as complicated as the woman herself.
Literotica15 of 31
Editors' Pick: Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
Gaitskill is a pro at candidly revealing the darker sides of our desires, writing about prostitution and pornography without any hint of hesitation or shame. There is nothing to hide—at least not from the author or the reader—as Gaitskill turns us into voyeurs, carefully watching the very real, often lonely characters who populate her 1988 short-story collection.
Mystery16 of 31
Readers' Pick: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This twisted and plot-twisty crime novel, about the disappearance of Nick Dunne's wife, Amy, is not only impossible to put down, it's also a thought-provoking look at intimacy, marriage, and just how malleable identity really is. Every woman should cherish at least one book with a difficult female protagonist, and Gone Girl's Amy Dunne is the most difficult of them all.
Mystery17 of 31
Editors' Pick: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This isn't a straight-up mystery—the whodunit is revealed in its prologue—but Tartt's vivid portrayal of a murderous group of college students in the 1980s is just as chilling as any juicy crime novel. It's also a thoughtful rumination on fate, human connection, and the damage wrought by dangerous secrets.
Young Adult18 of 31
Readers' Pick: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
If you're in your late 20s now, then you probably grew up on Harry Potter. Chances are, you still drop words like "Muggle" into everyday speech and consider Hermione your secret best friend. Rowling's fantasy series is a literary touchstone for the under-30 set, and this first book set off a hunger for YA that still hasn't been sated after all these years. It's time to do some re-reading.
Young Adult19 of 31
Editors' Pick: Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
This dreamlike tale of teenagers in a magical version of Los Angeles called, appropriately, Shangri-L.A., was groundbreaking when it came out in 1989 for its adult subjects like premarital sex and abortion. These topics may be de rigueur for YA nowadays, but the whimsy of Block's world, and the unconventional families she depicts, still feel bold and necessary today.
Graphic Work20 of 31
Readers' Pick: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
With its black-and-white drawings and feisty heroine, this graphic memoir is an accessible and engaging look at Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. Satrapi captures the bewilderment of growing up during the Islamic Revolution as the only child of Marxist parents, and her story proves that the personal is always intertwined with the political.
Graphic Work21 of 31
Editors' Pick: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel was an indie comic goddess when she published this brilliant graphic memoir about her upbringing in a rural Pennsylvania funeral home with a distant father who was also a closeted gay man. With honesty and dark humor, Bechdel chronicles their complex relationship as well as her own sexual coming-of-age as a lesbian. It's a contemporary classic, graphic or otherwise.
Short Stories22 of 31
Readers' Pick: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
Alice Munro's stories are so seamless, so convincingly rendered that it almost seems as though she must have experienced every moment in them firsthand. Of course, that's not possible, as she writes about a philandering husband whose wife has dementia, or a female cancer patient's profound encounter with an adolescent boy. Munro's writing is vivid, but not heavy-handed, which is why so often you don't see what's coming—in a good way.
Short Stories23 of 31
Editors' Pick: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
A woman accidentally drops a friend's baby when the bench she is sitting on suddenly snaps. Another woman ("a minor movie star once nominated for a major award") has an affair with a mechanic. And a family's game of charades reveals the alliances and animosity felt among the grown siblings. These are Lorrie Moore's stories, deceptively simple, darkly humorous and always smart.
Essay Collection24 of 31
Readers' Pick: I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
There's nothing wrong with watching When Harry Met Sally repeatedly, but you'd also be wise to read the late writer-director Nora Ephron's final essay collection. Her sharp depictions of aging and vanity are as witty as they are illuminating. You'll laugh (and take notes) when she tells you to wear a bikini and don't take it off until you're 34.
Essay Collection25 of 31
Editors' Pick: Consider the Lobster & Other Essays by the David Foster Wallace
So you haven't tackled Infinite Jest, or even considered The Pale King, Wallace's posthumous final novel. Find out what made the innovative and ingenious writer so beloved with this entertaining collection, which considers (in addition to the lobster) a contentious presidential race, the rivalry between dictionary writers and more, all with Wallace's trademark wit and compassion.
Life Advice26 of 31
Readers' Pick: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
As the subtitle suggests, Lamott's "instructions" are about more than just writing. Her insights on being honest (with yourself and in your writing), getting out of a rut and dealing with jealousy are universal, whether you're trying to write the next great American novel or not.
Life Advice27 of 31
Editors' Pick: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
One glance at the cover and you know this is not your prim-and-proper advice book on being a good girl, a good mother, and a good wife. British writer Moran has been called "a feminist heroine for our times," but don't let the f word scare you away. Moran is irreverent, self-deprecating and hilarious. In one chapter, she writes how she and her siblings used the term navel for a woman's private parts for years. "One corollary of this was finding the phrase 'naval officer' almost unbearably amusing," writes Moran.
Social Issues28 of 31
Readers' Pick: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
In 1998, Ehrenreich, an accomplished writer, left home and began a year of working in minimum-wage jobs, first as a waitress, then a cleaning lady, a nursing home aid, and a Walmart employee. Today, this may seem like a stunt, an attempt by some blogger to land a book deal. But back then, we were a little less jaded. Ehrenreich's account of cleaning other people's toilets and living in residential motels proves that pulling yourself out of poverty is not as easy as the American dream makes it seem.
Social Issues29 of 31
Editors' Pick: Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Piper Kerman, whose prison memoir Orange Is the New Black was made into your latest Netflix obsession, has said that LeBlanc’s eye-opening account of poor Puerto Rican families in the Bronx was one of the most popular books among inmates when she was incarcerated. And no wonder: This book tells a story that's rarely told, and it sheds light on what it means to be a poor person of color in contemporary America.
Poetry30 of 31
Readers' Pick (tie): Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
This spare and magical novel-in-verse will seduce even the most poetry-allergic. Carson has reimagined the ancient Greek myth of Geryon, so that instead of a red monster who is killed by the heroic Herakles, Geryon is a lonely, gay teenager who's into photography and hopelessly in love with a too-cool Herakles. Carson weaves surreal imagery into an otherwise recognizable world, and the contrast is bewitching.
Poetry31 of 31
Readers' Pick (tie) & Editors' Pick: Wild Iris by Louise Glück
Glück writes about nature, time, mortality—all concepts too big to be articulated fully, but ones that can live in a poem. In this Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, flowers have feelings (but not a mind); they contemplate the beginning and the end of things, while the gardener-poet feels alternately guilty, inadequate and defiant against God. Glück's language can be sparse, and her tone bitter, but it's these qualities that make her writing entirely approachable.
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