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40 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She's 40

In life, there are just some things every woman should do before a certain age. Being well read is one of them. From undeniable classics to low-brow humor, we compiled a comprehensive list of all the must-reads to tackle before your fourth decade. Whether you skimmed it once in high school (hey, that counts!) or have pored over each page every year since high school, see how many you can check off our literary bucket list.

1. "THE BLUEST EYE" BY TONI MORRISON


Beloved is brilliant, but this reflection on the effects of white beauty standards on black identity is profound.

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2. "MRS. DALLOWAY" BY VIRGINIA WOOLF


Apart from flashbacks, Woolf's stream-of-consciousness account of a high-society woman (the titular Mrs. Dalloway) planning a party unfolds over the course of one day, drawing comparisons between it and James Joyce's Ulysses

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3. "MIDDLESEX" BY JEFFREY EUGENIDES


A poetic precursor to narratives like Transparent.

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4. "THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS" BY KIRAN DESAI


Desai alternates seamlessly between humor and tragedy in a story about love, longing, futility and loss through the lens of one family falling apart.

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5. "MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN" BY SALMAN RUSHDIE


Magical realism at its finest in a mind-swirling narrative about one boy, somehow responsible for the making of a modern, independent India.

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6. "ON THE ROAD" BY JACK KEROUAC


The ultimate beat generation novel that will inspire wanderlust and a longing for the road trips of your youth.

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7. "THE HANDMAID'S TALE" BY MARGARET ATWOOD


The makings of a true horror story—a dystopian world in which a woman’s only worth is her ability to breed. 

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8. "BOSSYPANTS" BY TINA FEY


After 30 Rock revolutionized TV, this book reinvented the celebrity memoir.

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9. "EAST OF EDEN" BY JOHN STEINBECK


Move over, Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck calls this book—inspired by the story of Cain and Abel—his magnum opus.

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10. "THE HOUSE OF MIRTH" BY EDITH WHARTON


Out of place in 20th-century New York, Lily refuses to marry for money and is too afraid to follow her heart. Ultimate commitment-phobe or before-her-time feminist?

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11. "INTERPRETER OF MALADIES" BY JHUMPA LAHIRI


A must-read collection of short stories that grapple with cultural identity and transformation.

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12. "JOY LUCK CLUB" BY AMY TAN


Consider this an artfully, character-driven introduction to mahjong.

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13. "THE STRANGER" BY ALBERT CAMUS


Dark and existentialist, but timeless.

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14. "THE METAMORPHOSIS" BY FRANZ KAFKA


Man or monstrous insect? We present to you Kafka’s extended metaphor exploring alienation.

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15. "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING" BY JOAN DIDION


Read this heart-wrenching memoir with a box of tissues. Actually, two.

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16. "WHITE TEETH" BY ZADIE SMITH


Smith’s ambitious debut put her on the map as an adept cultural commentator with an uncanny ability to inhabit a hybrid of voices.

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17. "THEM" BY JOYCE CAROL OATES


Three young women seeking the American dream. Yay girl power.

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18. "ANNA KARENINA" BY LEO TOLSTOY


The reigning queen of strong female characters.

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19. "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" BY JANE AUSTEN


Perhaps the most knocked-off novel in history with material ripe for rom-coms (we’re partial to Colin Firth in the TV mini-series).

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20. "THE FOUNTAINHEAD" by AYN RAND


An unwavering celebration of individualism. And red-hot architect Howard Roark.

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21. "THE BELL JAR" BY SYLVIA PLATH


It’s an emotional read, but this courageous novel based on Plath’s own experiences made it OK to talk about depression.

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22. "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD" BY HARPER LEE


You've probably read this one. But read it again. Read it ten more times.

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23. "BEL CANTO" BY ANN PATCHETT


It’s hard to imagine a novel about the Japanese embassy hostage crisis being described as beautiful, but you have to read it to believe it.

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24. "THE GOLDFINCH"BY DONNA TARTT


This coming-of-age story about a young boy who survives a terrorist bombing won a Pulitzer. NBD.

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25. "I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK" BY NORA EPHRON


If you read only one of Ephron’s smart, funny and poignant essay collections, make it this one.

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26. "DEAR LIFE" BY ALICE MUNRO


Short stories by the woman who practically reinvented the short story? We’re in.

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27. "AMERICANAH" BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE


A beautifully written epic about a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States.

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28. "THE COLOR PURPLE" BY ALICE WALKER


Yes, the movie and Broadway musical are good, too, but actually read this one, OK?

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29. "THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY" BY HENRY JAMES


Literary critics called it a masterpiece, but contemporary feminists aren’t too keen on the ending. You be the judge.

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30. "Personal History" by Katharine Graham


Graham led her family’s newspaper, the little known Washington Post, for more than two decades. She was leaning in before Sheryl Sandberg was born.

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31. "The Liars' Club" by Mary Karr


Karr’s memoir about her childhood in East Texas in the 1960s is haunting. Maybe give your mom a call when you finish.

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32. "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens


Read this so you know what people are talking about when they refer to things as "Dickensian."

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33. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston


Initially rejected for its unwavering frankness about racism in America, Hurston's story of Janie Crawford later (rightfully) became one of the most enduring works of the 20th century. 

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34. "Just Kids" by Patti Smith


Smith documents her epic collaboration with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in all of its dramatic, rock-and-roll glory.

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35. "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld


A thinly-veiled portrait of Laura Bush, it’s way more enjoyable than keeping up with the current political climate.

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36. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou


Angelou’s screed about the power of literature to overcome racism and trauma was on the NY Times best-seller list for two years. It’s that good.

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37. "The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir


Pretty much the OG word on feminist philosophy, this history of women’s oppression swiftly landed on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books.

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38. "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte


An exquisite coming of age that tackled controversial topics—sexuality, religion and classisim—way before it was cool. Plus, Jane is kind of the ultimate heroine.

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39. "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." by Judy Blume


Making middle school girls feel less awkward about getting their period since 1970.

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40. "My Life on the Road" by Gloria Steinem


A dizzying account of feminist icon Steinem’s worldly travels. Girl crush alert.

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