25 Women to Read Before You Die

Below you'll find our list — compiled following lively debate by Powell's staff — of 25 women you absolutely must read in your lifetime.
  1. Adrienne Rich
    This collection, especially the middle sequence, "Twenty-One Love Poems," contains some of the most beautiful and arresting love poetry written this century. Adrienne Rich is a feminist giant, and these poems, written in 1974, map and delineate the territory of women's love for women (sexual and otherwise) and the struggle of selfhood, consciousness, history, and art with strength, creativity, and fierce empathy.
  2. Alison Bechdel
    Bechdel narrates her childhood through diary entries that catapult the reader back in time, clever juxtapositions of literary classics, and artwork with a slightly gothic feel. The subtitle is "A Family Tragicomic," and Fun Home is exactly that, but so much more: the story of Bechdel's coming out, her relationship with her father, her father's death, and his own sexuality.
  3. Amy Hempel
    Hempel is one of the best story writers in America today, hands-down — her incredible, sharp-edged prose, her precise minimalist style, her devastating and often absurd humor and poignancy have made her a touchstone and influence for other contemporary writers. Hempel's Collected Stories is an abundance that will reward readers again and again.
  4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    Adichie's ability to write with compassionate, brilliant prose about topics such as civil war, political strife, immigration issues, race, cultural differences, and love has earned her well-deserved critical acclaim and many awards, including a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2008. Adichie's most recent novel, Americanah, parallels some of her own experience as a Nigerian coming to America for the first time to attend college.
  5. Clarice Lispector
    Lispector, a Jewish, Ukraine-born Brazilian author and journalist, is much-beloved throughout the world, but is sadly under-read in the United States. Her last (and most popular) work, The Hour of the Star, was originally published mere months before her death in 1977. Lispector's gifted prose frequently shimmers with an innocent beauty, and so many of her passages nearly radiate from the page. Lispector may well be one of the most brilliant writers you haven't yet had the honor of reading.
  6. Donna Tartt
    There's no living writer like Donna Tartt. Not since reading the Greek and Russian greats in college have I encountered a writer so gifted in weaving the melodramatic, even the supernatural, into the everyday; nor have I read prose so finely calibrated and opulent that the story's atmosphere quickly supplants my own.
  7. Edwidge Dandicat
    Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat's themes of mother-daughter relationships have exotic rhythms that feel as magical as they do earthy. There is honesty in her storytelling of the Haitian diaspora, of divided families; revealing love, loss, and longing. Her novels and short stories are of bittersweet memories and quick, violent societal injustices.
  8. Elizabeth Kolbert
    In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Sixth Extinction, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert confronts what may well be the most compelling, portentous, and defining characteristic of our modernity: the nearly inconceivable and irretrievable loss of earth's biodiversity at the hands of our own species.
  9. George Eliot
    Eliot is an author most people know from school or because they see her books on lists of "important literature." But reading Middlemarch, her extraordinary monument to early-19th-century provincial England, is far from a stodgy, academic experience. With a touch of satire and an incredible grasp on the intricacies of human nature, Eliot illustrates the patterns — and peculiarities — of the people inhabiting her fictional town of Middlemarch.
  10. Isabel Wilkerson
    From 1915 to 1970, almost six million African Americans left the South in search of better economic opportunities and a higher quality of life. It was one of the largest internal migrations in history and had a profound effect on the culture and politics of this country. To better understand this monumental yet underdocumented event, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson spent 15 years and interviewed more than 1,000 people researching and writing The Warmth of Other Suns.
  11. Jane Jacobs
    Jacobs was a writer, activist, and visionary whose work had a profound effect on the way we look at the urban areas around us. She was considered an outcast in the male-dominated world of urban planning, yet her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, remains a seminal text in this field. One of the great joys of this book is that Jacobs is not an academic, but rather a committed city dweller who obliviously derives much pleasure from living in an urban landscape.
  12. Joan Didion
    Didion is a true original. Her spare, no-nonsense style and acute observational skills completely changed the way we view literary nonfiction, and the influence she's had on generations of authors is immeasurable. It's been nearly 50 years since the first essays in Slouching towards Bethlehem were written, yet her unblinking portrait of America in general and California in particular remains as vibrant and relevant as ever.
  13. Karen Armstrong
    A History of God discusses the origins of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and explains how our concept of God has changed throughout the course of history. It is fascinating to learn how politics, philosophy, and various schools of thought have changed the way we think about monotheism. In A History of God, Armstrong gives the reader a wealth of information in order to better understand the big picture. It's a meaty book, full of big ideas and well worth the read.
  14. Lionel Shriver
    Shriver sent the manuscript of We Need to Talk about Kevin to her agent just after 9/11. Her agent found the book thoroughly distasteful and suggested an extensive rewrite. Shriver eventually found a new agent and published the book to great success. Twelve years later, We Need to Talk about Kevin continues to be a timely and necessary examination of evil in our society and what happens when that evil is under your own roof.
  15. Louise Erdrich
    While it's likely you've read her more recent titles, to get the keenest sense of Erdrich and her heritage, it's well worth it to return to the first novel of her Native American series, Love Medicine. Winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award, Love Medicine is heartbreaking, raw, and mesmerizing. The story exposes the heart and soul of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families living on a North Dakota reservation, across generations.
  16. Lydia Davis
    It can be hard to pinpoint what makes Lydia Davis's writing so magnetic. Her precise, no-nonsense language combined with her liberal definition of the short story? Her attention to the overlooked, the mundane, the clutter in our lives that holds so much meaning? Her understated sense of humor, so deeply ingrained in her observations about the absurdities of life? Whatever it is, you'll find it in spades in her Collected Stories.
  17. Margaret Atwood
    Atwood is a master at conveying the inner landscape of her characters, and her novels are frequently peppered with sharp and incisive social commentary. Adored by both readers and critics, she has published over 40 works, including many books of poetry, and has won countless accolades, including the Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
  18. Mary Shelley
    Shelley's gothic masterpiece, first published when she was only 20 years old, is far richer than the legacy it brought to life, a work of elegance and depth, more tragedy than monster story, exploring the dangers of hubris, the nature of so-called evil, the sorrows that lead us to our crimes, and the possibility that rejection and remorse are far greater horrors than any monster.
  19. Patricia Highsmith
    Highsmith is a master of stark, poetic prose, acclaimed for her relentless themes of murder and psychological torment. More than just a gripping thriller, Strangers on a Train asks the question: What is the dividing line between sanity and madness, between the hunted and the hunter?
  20. Rebecca Solnit
    Solnit is one of the most eloquent, urgent, and intelligent voices writing nonfiction today; from Men Explain Things to Me to Storming the Gates of Paradise, anything she's written is well worth reading. But her marvelous book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost might be her most poetic, ecstatic work. Field Guide is about the spaces between stability and risk, solitude, and the occasional claustrophobia of ordinary life.
  21. Susan Sontag
    Sontag was good at pretty much everything related to language — she wrote novels, stories, plays, and memoirs. But the best of her efforts were her essays and critical writings. It's difficult to narrow down a single collection to represent her nonfiction work, which ranged from horror movies to encapsulating "camp" to exploring illness as metaphor. On Photography is one of her seminal works, wherein she redefines and examines ways of seeing, representation, and reality.
  22. Toni Morrison
    Known for her powerfully evocative prose, her grand mystical tales steeped in black history, her haunting (and haunted) characters, Morrison is an author whose body of work demands attention. Her third novel, Song of Solomon — Barack Obama's self-proclaimed favorite book — is a magnificent, epic story following Macon "Milkman" Dead, along with an assortment of characters whose lives touch, and at times endanger, his own.
  23. Valeria Luiselli
    The Mexican novelist and essayist's first fiction entwines multiple narratives and perspectives, shifting between them with the ease and gracefulness of a writer far beyond her years (Faces in the Crowd was published when Luiselli was 28). The metafictional scaffolding of Luiselli's novel is seamlessly constructed, and its bibliocentric façade entrenches it within a rich tradition of referential Latin American literature.
  24. Virginia Woolf
    Reading Virginia Woolf is like stepping out onto a veranda, where the entire world unfurls before you in dazzling detail. Her unparalleled ability to paint a scene so exquisitely, and to inhabit her characters with such clarity and intensity, makes for an experience that is both awe-inspiring and deeply moving.
  25. Wislawa Szymborska
    Despite having published only a few hundred poems during her lifetime, Szymborska was regarded as one of the century's finest European Poets. Described as the "Mozart of Poetry," Szymborska was recognized by the Nobel committee "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." With rich imagery and a wide stylistic range, the profundity of Szymborska's poetry makes it personal, timeless, and universally relevant.