20 Books Every Woman Should Read in Her 20s

Recently, we stumbled upon this list of “fun” books that every woman should read in her 20s — needless to say, if you’re even a casual visitor to this space, the books (Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bitches on a Budget) aren’t exactly the ones we’d choose. So, perhaps rather predictably, we decided to put together our own list instead. Now, don’t forget, these are books for women in their 20s — we assume you’ve already read as much Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott as you care to, we expect that you’ve already tackled To Kill a Mockingbird and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Jane Eyre. And though women should read all books about all kinds of things and by all kinds of authors, this list sort of necessarily skews towards  both female writers and characters, given the topic of the day. Click through to check out our reading list — and since every woman should read more than 20 books in her 20s (hundreds, ladies!), add your own favorites in the comments.

Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill

Gaitskill’s now-legendary debut collection, full of longing, strange sex, dislocation and disillusionment, reminds us that no matter how damaged we may find ourselves, we are not alone. We have Mary Gaitskill.

The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s early protofeminist novel is a — ahem — delicious investigation into the interior life of a young woman engaged to the wrong man. Alienation, disassociation, and metaphorical cannibalism? That’s our kind of book.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Some may have read this classic in high school, but we didn’t get our paws on it until college. Woolf may be our most universally beloved female author — this is her (difficult, beautiful) masterpiece.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Smith’s witty, epic debut takes on race, gender, class, immigration, middle age, suicide, faith and everything in between. It’s also fun as hell. You’ll never look at your teeth the same way again.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

One of the pillars of feminist literature, Lessing’s 1962 postmodern novel examines the political climate (communism, women’s liberation) and the ever-changing gender constructs of modern life. If you’re not convinced, consider this: when awarding Lessing the Nobel in 2007, the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes

Difficult, schmifficult. Nightwood is an undisputed classic of lesbian literature (and of 20th century literature in general), boiling over with literary style and fierce feeling. Perhaps, as T.S. Eliot suggested, “only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it” — but that’s you, right?

Delta of Venus, Anaïs Nin

Superbly written erotica from one of our all-time heroines, an essential read even if — especially if — you’re squeamish about literary sex. You’ll never even think of 50 Shades of Grey again.

Self-Help, Lorrie Moore

This is the only self-help book you’ll ever need. Moore will teach you, in her wise, witty, playful way, everything it means to be a woman. These stories are tragic. They’re hilarious. They will not tell you the answers, exactly, but they will look up with you at the strange crack in the ceiling and commiserate.

The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker

Every girl could stand to read a little more Dorothy Parker, our patron saint of wit. Sure, you can trot out the quotes at parties, but we bet she’ll dig in a little deeper than that before she’s done with you.

The Complete Claudine, Colette

One of the most badass authors in history, Colette’s writing is just about as daring, sexy, gorgeous and smart as she. These four novels track the maturation of Claudine from a fifteen-year-old mischief maker to a young married woman who is, well, still sort of making mischief. Aren’t we all?

The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr

Well, we recommend all of Karr’s memoirs, but you’d better start here, with her darkly comic retelling of a grisly childhood. We also highly recommend her poetry. Even if that’s not your thing.

You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, Alice Walker

It’s amazing that Walker’s frank, politically-charged stories still ring so true even thirty years after this collection’s original publication. Abortion, sado-masochism, race, class — all these come to pieces in her capable hands.

The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm

If like us, you carry a permanent torch for Sylvia Plath, you must read Malcolm’s incredible postmodern biography, which dissects not only the Plath myth, but the way we read the Plath myth.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan is a wonder, and this novel-in-fragments a wonder’s wonder — funny, poignant, prescient. If anyone knows the way forward, it’s this lady.

Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link

We think women should read more literary fantasy. You’ll start to think so too if you read these incredibly weird, magical, wise stories, filled with hauntings, zombie anxieties, supernatural television shows. Indeed, it’s like if Buffy was a short story collection written by Flannery O’Connor. Yes people, it’s that good.

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Speaking of, we highly recommend getting through this volume before your 30th year. We all know you’ll be better (and darker, and smarter) for it.

Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag

Any girl interested in the arts at large should take Sontag as one of her teachers — and this provocative book of essays is the perfect place to start.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

This go-to of philosophical literature majors has a coterie of devotees for a reason. What is the difference between sex and love? Is there one answer? Who are we without each other? These are questions every girl in her 20s should think about.

Sula, Toni Morrison

One of the fiercest female friendships we’ve ever seen committed to paper — and one of the most tragic — this book will reverberate in your ears for years to come.

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

Oh Bone, we will never forget you. Terrifying, gorgeous and grotesque, Allison’s scorching tale of poverty, abuse, and girlhood in the American South has become a modern classic.