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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.

books bluest

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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books dalloway

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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books middlesex

3. "MIDDLESEX" BY JEFFREY EUGENIDES

A poetic precursor to narratives like Transparent.

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books inheritance

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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books midnight

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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books road

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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books handmaiden

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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books bossypants

8. "BOSSYPANTS" BY TINA FEY

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

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books steinbeck

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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books wharton

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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books lahiri

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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books tank

12. "JOY LUCK CLUB" BY AMY TAN

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

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books camus

13. "THE STRANGER" BY ALBERT CAMUS

Dark and existentialist, but timeless.

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books kafka

14. "THE METAMORPHOSIS" BY FRANZ KAFKA

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

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books didion1

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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books whiteteeth

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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books oates

17. "THEM" BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

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

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books tolstoy

18. "ANNA KARENINA" BY LEO TOLSTOY

The reigning queen of strong female characters.

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books austen

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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books rand

20. "THE FOUNTAINHEAD" by AYN RAND

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

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books plath

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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books mockingbird

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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books patchett

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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books goldfinch

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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books ephron

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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books munro

26. "DEAR LIFE" BY ALICE MUNRO

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

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books americanah

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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books purple

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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books portrait

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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books graham

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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books karr

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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books dickens

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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books hurston

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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books kids

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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books sittenfeld

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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books angelou

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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books beauvoir

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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books bronte

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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books areyouthere

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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books steinem

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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