Some books are frivolous — you power through them on the plane and never think about or re-read them again. And some books you buy in hard copy, display on your bookshelf, and read over and over again, noticing something different and more inspiring about them each time. These are those books. Grab a mug of tea and maybe a box of tissues, and prepare to curl up for a very, very long time.
If you want your heart to melt, read:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Francie uses books to escape her impoverished upbringing in an apartment in Brooklyn. Her mother earns the majority of the family’s income cleaning houses, and her dad, an alcoholic, earns what he can as a singing waiter. The book chronicles Francie’s life through early adulthood in a heartwarming, magical way that few novels do. Get ready to cry by the time you reach the end.
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
The most relatable book about friendship of all time, this book follows the main characters from adolescence well into adulthood. It gets better with every re-read through the years.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Beloved is amazing. There is love, heartbreak, ghosts, murder, betrayal, cliffhangers, and reunions. Mostly, though, it deals with the insane things a mother will for her daughter, and it will never not make you thankful for how cool your mom is.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Oscar is a fat Dominican nerd; this is the story of his family, interwoven with Dominican history. The narrator changes, and the text is speckled with copious footnotes. This is a hard look at love, family and what it means to be a man.
If you’re going through a breakup, read:
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
The story of four Dominican sisters in the time of the Trujillo dictatorship, the book moves in reverse chronological order from their lives in the U.S. to their childhood in the DR. Weaving together different tales of immigration, loss, love, identity, and culture in short vignettes, this book will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to pick up and start all over at any stage of their lives.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
This is the best breakup book of our time. Eff all the haters who made fun of this book! Anyone suffering the despair that comes with ending a long-term relationship will absolutely identify with Gilbert crying on her bathroom floor and feel comforted by how she managed to turn her life around.
If you want motivation or inspiration:
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Before Cheryl Strayed was world-famous for her memoir Wild (and for the film version of it starring Reese Witherspoon), she was the anonymous advice columnist for the website the Rumpus, known to readers only as “Sugar.” This book is a collection of her “Dear Sugar” columns as well as some that were not previously published. Strayed answers questions about grief, love, ambition, and much more in a straight-talking, no-B.S. tone that’s also remarkably nurturing.
Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker
Wrote Dorothy Parker, “That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.” Witty, crass, and never one to turn down a strong drink, Parker was a founding member of the literary group the Algonquin Roundtables and a writer for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. She’s bitchy and pithy and always seems to be writing with one eyebrow raised — in other words, you’ll want her to be your friend and your partner in skepticism.
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
“No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees,
sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air,
dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding,
our animal passion rooted in the city.”
…Don’t you want to read more?
If you just need to escape, read:
Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell
It’s the book that made being single well into your 30s and beyond OK, and made generations of women want to move to New York and run around the West Village, eating cupcakes and wearing weird outfits.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Besides the fact that it’s fun to go, “Haha, oh,” when you catch all the colorful drug references long after you first read this as a child, Alice in Wonderland is simply one of the best escapist stories for when you need a break from everyday life.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
This book is Sex and the City before Sex and the City. A group of early twentysomething women run around Mad Men-era Manhattan, navigating how to advance their careers beyond secretarial work and how to hook up with guys without being labeled a hussy. So basically, problems early twentysomethings still have today. The women in The Best of Everything will make you feel like every woman in the world just gets you.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
The story of a fresh-to-New-York Smith and her best friend (and sometimes-lover and muse and roommate), the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, this memoir is a time capsule of a particularly magical era in art and music, and an ode to friendship, bohemian existence, and the innocence of “wild, feral children” — “country mouse” Patti and beautiful Robert. Raw and lovely, it will make you want to embrace your own inner wild, feral child — and find your own wild, feral best friend.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins
A girl born with such oversized thumbs she becomes a professional hitchhiker. A sexually libertine cowgirl named Bonanza Jellybean. A ranch owned by a man who made his wealth selling douches. A takeover by women sick of hearing their bodies are shameful. Sexy, feminist, and utterly bizarre — a perfect psychological escape from your family over the holidays.
If you want to deepen your understanding of feminism, read:
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay’s ability to write so clearly about complex issues is truly impressive. Her essays about feminism, race, and class are hilarious, moving, and yes, educational, but never in a way that feels tired or boring. She really nails the tension between being a feminist and still enjoying anti-feminist entertainment like hip-hop and reality TV. As she says, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”
Backlash by Susan Faludi
This seminal feminist text looks at the cycle of women’s achievements and the inevitable regression right after. It remains relevant in a world where for every step forward women take, it seems like we’re pushed two steps back.
This feminist primer is exactly what the title says: A manifest(a) on why feminism is a crucial movement for social justice, for every single person. Read it, get inspired, fight on.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Feminism is for everybody, but its gains have mostly favored white, straight, upper-class women. Here, Lorde speaks as one of the many women pushed to the margins, reclaiming sisterhood and feminism for those long excluded.
Postwar by Tony Judt
Don’t be scared by its heft or the seemingly boring topic (Europe after WWII). The late Judt writes engagingly so you’re never bored, and you’ll learn a hell of a lot not just about how Europe rebuilt itself, but how WWII paved the way for feminism, social democracies, national health care, welfare states, and ongoing conflicts about land, colonialism and religion. You’ll want to read this one with a pen and a highlighter in hand.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
An OG feminist, Beauvoir argues compellingly for women’s equality, spelling out all the ways women have historically been second-class citizens — most crucially because they were expected to bear children. Expect to be nodding along with her, and then disturbed that we haven’t made nearly enough progress, considering Beauvoir wrote this book in France in the 1940s.
The Essential Ellen Willis by Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis was a badass journalist and brilliant feminist thinker, and this collection of her writings on music, culture, and women will help you to remember that feminism — and sexism — is everywhere.
Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy
A book you won’t be able to put down about the rise of raunch culture, and how we ended up in a world where women so often turn themselves and other women into sex objects. Levy takes readers, depressingly, behind the scenes of Girls Gone Wild, and asks what it means that Olympic athletes are flaunting Brazilian waxes in Playboy.
If you’re grieving, read:
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion describes the year after her husband died, during which her daughter also fell terribly ill. If you’re going through a loss or trying to cope with grief and looking for someone who gets you, Didion is that someone.
If you’re going through a hard time and want a voice that understands, read:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about moving to New York City to work at a magazine, The Bell Jar‘s outsider protagonist descends into mental illness, just as its author did — Plath committed suicide soon after its publication.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The story of two friends in London, White Teeth is a sprawling look at race, religion, and identity. What does it mean to have roots in a place? Is assimilation about joining something bigger or forsaking your own identity? White Teeth, both funny and cutting, will make you think about who you are and what it means to adhere to anything bigger — a race, a nationality, a religion, a set of beliefs.
Wasted by Marya Hornbacher
Hornbacher’s memoir of struggling with anorexia and bulimia throughout her life is as unapologetic, gripping, honest, and darkly funny as it gets.
Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Kaysen’s memoir of her time spent in a mental hospital as a young girl was turned into an incredible movie for good reason: It’s an incredible relatable story featuring compelling, intelligent characters who happen to have mental illnesses.