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.
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.
3. "MIDDLESEX" BY JEFFREY EUGENIDES
A poetic precursor to narratives like Transparent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8. "BOSSYPANTS" BY TINA FEY
After 30 Rock revolutionized TV, this book reinvented the celebrity memoir.
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.
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?
11. "INTERPRETER OF MALADIES" BY JHUMPA LAHIRI
A must-read collection of short stories that grapple with cultural identity and transformation.
12. "JOY LUCK CLUB" BY AMY TAN
Consider this an artfully, character-driven introduction to mahjong.
13. "THE STRANGER" BY ALBERT CAMUS
Dark and existentialist, but timeless.
14. "THE METAMORPHOSIS" BY FRANZ KAFKA
Man or monstrous insect? We present to you Kafka’s extended metaphor exploring alienation.
15. "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING" BY JOAN DIDION
Read this heart-wrenching memoir with a box of tissues. Actually, two.
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.
17. "THEM" BY JOYCE CAROL OATES
Three young women seeking the American dream. Yay girl power.
18. "ANNA KARENINA" BY LEO TOLSTOY
The reigning queen of strong female characters.
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).
20. "THE FOUNTAINHEAD" by AYN RAND
An unwavering celebration of individualism. And red-hot architect Howard Roark.
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.
22. "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD" BY HARPER LEE
You've probably read this one. But read it again. Read it ten more times.
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.
24. "THE GOLDFINCH"BY DONNA TARTT
This coming-of-age story about a young boy who survives a terrorist bombing won a Pulitzer. NBD.
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.
26. "DEAR LIFE" BY ALICE MUNRO
Short stories by the woman who practically reinvented the short story? We’re in.
27. "AMERICANAH" BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
A beautifully written epic about a young Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States.
28. "THE COLOR PURPLE" BY ALICE WALKER
Yes, the movie and Broadway musical are good, too, but actually read this one, OK?
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.
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.
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.
32. "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens
Read this so you know what people are talking about when they refer to things as "Dickensian."
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.
34. "Just Kids" by Patti Smith
Smith documents her epic collaboration with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in all of its dramatic, rock-and-roll glory.
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.
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.
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.
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.