20 Books for Your Twenties (and onward!)

After royally screwing up with their list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” and getting called out on it by the lovely Rebecca Solnit, Esquire magazine swallowed their man pride and admitted: “We Messed Up.”  To expiate their sins, Esquire chose ten lady literati to craft a new list.  In honor of this exciting new development, we decided to chime in with our own top picks for the most awesome books we’ve ever read.  We would never be so presumptuous as to say you should read them, but suffice it to say that they come highly recommended.

Hannah’s List:

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    • I would probably categorize this book as “the most well-written novel in the English language,” because Virginia’s sentences are devastatingly beautiful.  This is the first novel I ever read by her, and it is still my favorite.  “It was very, very dangerous,” Clarissa Dalloway tells us, “to live for even one day.”  I couldn’t agree more, and this novel will teach you why.  Also, shout out to Mrs. D for containing my favorite first and last lines of any novel, ever.  (Hint: the last lines of Mrs. D and The Prices of Salt are suspiciously similar… something to look into if you’re a nerd like me).  Also here’s a fun fact for today: Virginia was born Adeline Virginia Woolf, and I personally think Adeline would make a badass baby name.
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
    • So most people would say that this novel contains the best first line of any novel, ever.  It’s pretty good, but still not my favorite.  Sorry Tolstoy.  Anyways, if you’re going to read one book by a DWEM (look it up) in 2016, you should make it this one.  I know it’s long, but that’s part of the reason why I love it so much.  The world that Tolstoy creates gets under your skin and becomes a part of your everyday life in a way that few novels do, or can.  His character development is exemplary, his plot juicy, and his depiction of human love… breathtaking.  I recommend the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  And believe me, reading a good translation makes a big difference!
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
    • I almost put Swann’s Way, the first of Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece of autofiction, because I figure most people won’t commit to the whole 3000+ pages of a dead French man’s existential rants.  Swann’s Way is beautiful, and contains my favorite passage in all of literature (the madeleine), but the true beauty of Proust’s masterpiece is its length.  Reading it feels like living a long, complicated life.  Oftentimes, this means extreme boredom, frustration, and buckets of ennui.  But let me tell you, it is more than worth it by the time you reach the end.  I hear that Lydia Davis’s translation of the first volume is stellar, but C.K. Montcrieff’s 1920s translation is a classic, and has its own kind of flawed charm.  My recommendation?  Read 10 pages (or even 5) pages a day, every day, for as long as it takes you to finish.  The big secret nobody is telling you?  Proust was queer A.F., and the novel is littered with queer characters.  You’ll even get some steamy BDSM passages about halfway through.  Dead French man not seeming quite so boring to you anymore?  
  • The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
    • Suffice it to say that this book has saved my life on more than one occasion.  Adrienne’s words are as necessary to me as water, as ubiquitous as air.  Drink it in, breathe deeply… and read.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
    • Childhood is a notoriously difficult life stage to capture in fiction.  There’s the obvious limitations of a child’s awareness, her lack of vocabulary for what she is feeling, the smallness of her world.  Somehow, Harper Lee manages to weave these challenges into her novel, crafting a narrative that is at once limited and universal.  I luxuriate in the slowness of the first half of the novel, its willingness to face the banalities of Scout’s everyday life in a small town.  And then there’s the rest of the novel, the richness and complexity of Scout’s prise de conscience amid the race tensions and violence of her time.  A powerful novel, with lasting impacts.
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
    • A few months ago, I walked into Fiction Brewing Company in Denver, Colorado.  Their mission is to brew tasty beers with literary themes.  Sounds like my kind of place, right?  So I start chatting up the brewery-man-beer-maker-guy (his official title) and I say that I have a good idea for a beer.  A summer shandy called “Queer, Sultry Summer.”  A good idea, right?  I think so.  So he turns to me and he says “what book is that from?”  It comes from the first line of The Bell Jar, which I’ve memorized, and which I promptly recite to him.  “Never heard of it,” he responds.  DON’T BE LIKE THIS MAN.  READ THE BELL JAR.  KNOW YOUR SHIT.
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
    • First piece of advice: buy a lot of tissues.  Second piece of advice: wear waterproof mascara, or no mascara.  Third piece of advice: read this in a quiet place where you will be left to weep in peace.  
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
    • I have an existential crisis every time I reorganize/realphebatize my bookshelves at home because of Beloved.  I could just as easily place it in the poetry section as the literature section.  Every word is a revelation. I could read and reread this book for years, and I still don’t think I would be done reading it.
  • The Collected Works of William Shakespeare
    • I was talking to my friend Dawnielle on the phone the other day, and she said “as Shakespeare teaches us, human life is infinitely complex, whether you’re a madman or a king.”  Truer words were never spoken.
  • Selected Stories by Alice Munro
    • So I’m trying to hit most of the genres here: novels, poetry, drama.  And who better to round off that list than one of the best living short story writers, Alice Munro?  Pick a story, any story, and prepare to be gently blown away.  It will feel something akin to standing on a moving walkway, and not realizing you’re at the end until bam! she hits you with a profound truth about the human heart.


Marnie’s List:


  • The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
    • Junot Diaz is a nerd. He is funny and nerdy and snarky and tragic, sometimes all on one page. He knows about love and being young. He doesn’t take your shit.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    • A coming-of-age story for women! There are so very few, and this one is a classic for a reason. It deals with loss and love and ambition and family. Also originally Jo was not supposed to get married, so can you say queer?
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    • This two-part autobiographical graphic novel is another coming-of-age story, taking place against that backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In direct, clean prose, it tells the story of a political awakening as well as a personal one.
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
    • A stunning memoir about growing up in an abusive, evangelical home in an industrial town in England as a young woman discovering her lesbian identity. This book traces the story of Oranges are not the Only Fruit, and goes beyond it. Jeanette Winterson’s writing is brutally honest poetry.
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
    • A retelling of Goethe’s Faust and also a retelling of the bible and also a commentary on Soviet Russia. Master and Margarita is comic and unwittingly feminist and taught me so much about grace and forgiveness.
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
    • The book that inspired Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to write! Things Fall Apart tells a story of English Colonialism from the perspective of Okonkwo, a leader in the fictional Nigerian village, Umuofia. This book has received international acclaim for its critique of colonialism and inspired a generation of African writers. It’s stuck with me since I read it in high school, and everyone should read it probably.
  • Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
    • Excerpts from Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar. The advice is honest and empathetic and a call to action. Cheryl Strayed’s personal approach to giving advice is what makes it so relatable. She makes room for grief and pain and heartbreak and love and fear, and treats each one as valuable and important messages that need to be heard and responded to.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
    • James Baldwin writes sentences that could make you cry. Giovanni’s room is a tragic love story, as well as a rumination on homosexuality and masculinity. James Baldwin’s use of language is an artform, and even if you don’t read this book, you should read at least one of his novels.
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
    • OSC is a pretty terrible person which is ironic because this book is about empathy and humanity, and how our preconceptions of “alien” can keep us from truly understanding each other. It’s beautiful and also great scifi. Maybe get it from the library though and don’t support assholes.
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
    • I’m a sucker for books by women that explore the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters and this is one of the best. But it’s not just about mothers and daughters. It’s also about marriage and divorce and friendship and success and the cultural divide between immigrant parents and their first generation children.


We hope you like our list! It was hard to choose just 10 books! Marnie recommends you also check out the brilliant work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Sandra Cisneros, bell hooks, and Ursula K Le Guin!  Hannah recommends Marguerite Duras, Annie Ernaux, Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson and Elena Ferrante.

Also check out this list of free pdfs on texts that are more academic than what we listed above that discuss gender, race, sexuality, and class. And this list of free pdfs of the works of bell hooks.


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