74 Essential Books for Your Personal Library: A List Curated by Female Creatives

virginia woolf list

Public domain image originally taken by George Charles Beresford.

When Open Culture recently published Jorge Luis Borges’ self-compiled list of 74 ‘great works of literature’, commissioned by Argentine publisher Hyspamerica, I, along with many others, saw one glaring issue in the otherwise fantastically diverse list: it included no works by female writers.

Whether intentional or not, the fact that women are excluded from Borges’ noteworthies (and in 1985, no less) means that a vast number of historically and culturally significant books and writings have been overlooked. While this ought not to discredit the works listed in any way, after witnessing the immense popularity of Borges’ list I certainly felt that for his selection to be relevant today it needed to be accompanied by a list of works which had been overlooked due to the gender of their respective authors.

I decided to put a suggestion to a group of international women writers, artists and curators, and we compiled our own list of 74 ‘great works of literature’ — one just as varied, loose and substantial as that of Borges, but made up solely of writers identifying as women or non-gender-binary. Over two days we amassed many suggestions, which I’ve now curated to form the list below. It’s not intended to invalidate the original, but rather to serve as an accompaniment to highlight and encourage a dialogue on gender imbalances in creative and intellectual realms, as well as to provide a balance by actively ‘equalising’ that of Jorge Luis Borges.

  1. Agatha Christie – The Mousetrap
  2. Albertine Sarrazin – L’Astragale
  3. Alice Walker – The Color Purple
  4. Anaïs Nin – Little Birds
  5. Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
  6. Angela Davis – Are Prisons Obselete?
  7. Anita Desai – Clear Light of Day
  8. Anne Carson – Autobiography of Red
  9. Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl
  10. Anne Sexton – Live or Die
  11. Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things
  12. Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen
  13. bell hooks – Ain’t I a Woman?
  14. Beryl Bainbridge – Master Georgie
  15. Beryl Markham – West with the Night
  16. Buchi Emecheta – The Joys of Motherhood
  17. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  18. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
  19. Charlotte Roche – Feuchtgebiete
  20. Chris Kraus – I Love Dick
  21. Colette – Chéri
  22. Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
  23. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
  24. Edith Wharton – Age of Innocence
  25. Eileen Myles – Inferno
  26. Elfriede Jelinek – Women as Lovers
  27. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
  28. Flannery O’Connor – Complete Stories
  29. Françoise Sagan – Bonjour Tristesse
  30. George Eliot – Silas Marner
  31. Gertrude Stein – The Making of Americans
  32. Gwendolyn Brooks – To Disembark
  33. Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition
  34. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
  35. Hillary Mantel – Wolf Hall
  36. Iris Murdoch – The Sea, The Sea
  37. James Tiptree Jr. – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
  38. Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea
  39. Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies
  40. Joan Didion – Slouching Towards Bethlehem
  41. Joyce Carol Oats – A Bloodsmoore Romance
  42. Jung Chang – Wild Swans
  43. Kate Zambreno – Heroines
  44. Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
  45. Leonora Carrington – The Hearing Trumpet
  46. Leslie Feinberg – Stone Butch Blues
  47. Lorrie Moore – Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
  48. Louise Erdrich – The Beet Queen
  49. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
  50. Marguerite Duras – Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein
  51. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
  52. Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Women
  53. Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  54. Michelle Cliff – Abeng
  55. Miranda July – No One Belongs Here More Than You
  56. Monique Wittig – Les Guérillères
  57. Murasaki Shikibu – Genji Monogatari
  58. Muriel Spark – The Driver’s Seat
  59. Octavia Butler – Kindred
  60. Rachel Carson – Silent Spring
  61. Roxane Gay – An Untamed State
  62. Sappho – Fragments
  63. Sara Stridsberg – Darling River
  64. Sei Shōnagon – The Pillow Book
  65. Simone Weil – Gravity and Grace
  66. Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
  67. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha – Dictée
  68. Toni Morrison – Beloved
  69. Tove Jansson – Mumintroll series
  70. Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions
  71. Ursula K Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
  72. Virginia Woolf – The Waves
  73. Willa Cather – The Song of the Lark
  74. Zadie Smith – On Beauty

Lulu Nunn is a London-based artist, writer, curator and editor of HOAX, an international journal publishing creative work incorporating text. You can follow her at @lulu_nunn and HOAX at @hoaxpublication.

 


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  • Cindy says:

    Wonderful. Thank you for this marvelous list!

  • R C Douglas says:

    I agree with many of the authors, but I’m puzzled by some of the works chosen. Case in point: Octavia Butler? yes! “Kindred,” not “Parable of the Sower”? say more, please.

  • Cathryn says:

    Alice Munro???

  • lulu nunn says:

    great – not necessarily ‘greatest’; it’s not intended as a competition.

  • Alexandrine says:

    Marguerite YOURCENAR – Les Mémoires d’Hadrien

    Valerie SOLANAS – SCUM Manifesto

  • Lola Rogers says:

    Yes, where is Alice Munro? And why not Middlemarch? Not that Silas Marner isn’t a good book, but… ?

  • elgordo says:

    Where are the Latin American writers like Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Isabel Allende, etc.? Biases go all different ways.

  • Renata says:

    ALICE MUNRO and ELSA MORANTE!!!

  • pepette says:

    agatha christie ? i went no further. your list instantly lost all credibility.

    she has no cultural artistical or intellectual value. it’s not enough to be a woman, in spite of what you might think, to be talented. geez. you feminists drive me nuts. and i’m a woman. a very irate one, at that.

  • Susan says:

    Interesting list, but would have been nice to know the names of those who helped you compile it.

  • Mike says:

    No Jane Austen?

  • gemma says:

    Faltarian los diarios de Emma Goldman, por poner un ejemplo.

  • Nanine says:

    No Isabel Allende? No Jane Austen? Barbara Kingsolver? Important voices missing. Make room by dropping Agatha Christie.

  • Itaí says:

    As a feminist, I sincerely thank you for bringing this issue to the public’s attention. It should be mentioned that Borges himself translated Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of one’s Own” and “Orlando” into Spanish early on in the 1930s. These translations were of utmost importance in the development of the feminist movement in Latin America, and informed the work of writers such as Rosario Castellanos, Rosario Ferré and Isabel Allende –conspicuously absent from this list. Perhaps Latin American women writers should have “A List of Their Own.”

  • blend says:

    putting feuchtgebiete on one list with anything written by toni morrison is like… i don’t even know. i can’t believe it.

  • Bernardo says:

    My missing personal favs:
    de Beauvoir, Simone – Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée
    Tristán, Flora – Peregrinaciones de una paria
    Sand, George (Aurore Dupin)- Consuelo
    Riesco, Laura – Ximena de dos caminos

  • JBT says:

    Here’s some that I would add:

    Amelie Nothomb – Loving Sabotage
    Yoko Ogawa – Revenge
    Marguerite Yourcenar – The Abyss
    Goliarda Sapienza – The Art of Joy
    Eileen Chang – Love in a Fallen City
    Dorothy B. Hughes – In A Lonely Place
    Eudora Welty – The Robber Bridegroom
    Dulce Maria Loynaz – Woman in her Garden
    Ursula K. Leguin – The Earthsea Quartet
    Marina Tsvetaeva – Art in the Light of Conscience
    Clarice Lispector – The Hour of the Star
    Nomi Prins – All the Presidents’ Bankers
    Ruth Benedict – Patterns of Culture
    Dee Brown – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
    Freya Stark – Perseus in the Wind
    Marguerite Duras – The Sailor from Gibraltar
    Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend
    Emma Goldman – Anarchism and Other Essays
    Sylvie Germain – The Weeping Woman on the Streets of Prague
    Cynthia Ozick – The Puttermesser Papers
    Isabelle Eberhardt – The Oblivion Seekers
    Wislawa Szymborska – Poems: New and Collected
    France Stonor Saunders – Who Paid the Piper?
    Tatyana Tolstaya – White Walls: Collected Stories
    Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy
    Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Irene Nemirovsky – Suite Francaise
    Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle
    Joan Mellen – Farewell to Justice
    Mary Renault – The King Must Die
    Joan Didion – We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live
    Cheri Seymour – The Last Circle
    Djuna Barnes – Nightwood
    Anna Akhmatova – The Complete Poems Of Anna Akhmatova
    Mary Midgely – Science and Poetry
    Irmtraud Morgner – The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura
    Gabriela Mistral – Madwomen
    Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr. Ripley
    Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others

  • Francesco Mariani says:

    We need another list: great works of literature by female Canadian writers – I can’t believe Alice Munro is not included.

  • Rafaëlle R. says:

    Elsa Triolet – Le cheval blanc.
    Edwige Danticat – The Farming of Bones.
    Sue Monk Kidd – The Mermaid Chair

    I am not at all disappointed that the list seems incomplete. I love that names are coming out that were not there. Thank you, JBT. Why don’t we all just continue the list? It’s wonderful.

  • Sophie G says:

    Also, can we do an accompanying list of great modern works of literary NONFICTIOn by women?

  • Beverley Fitzgerald says:

    I agree with Rafaelle R – wonderful to have started the conversation – and it’s great to have all the ‘extra’ lists and ideas. Many thanks.

  • Christopher Denny says:

    How embarrassing to misspell both the writer AND her work. I’ve never cared anything for her or her writing–which makes her the female John Updike in my book. But at least I know how to spell her name and her title: A Bloodsmoor Romance by Joyce Carol Oates.

  • panayotis ioannidis says:

    [i know this will sound like just another whine – nevertheless, it can’t be helped:]

    many, many, extremely welcome -and loved- authors and works – but such a list seems positively odd without any jane austen, and any marguerite yourcenar…

  • Anastasia Vronski says:

    Thank you , this is a great list .
    Like others I miss Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar , Anna Akhmatova and Mariama Ba : une si longue lettre , such a long letter . She is African .

  • mlouise says:

    I agree!! Must have Alice Munro.

  • Perrel says:

    For those of you who think this is a list of fiction titles,this includes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. And I think it’s great that this list includes Agatha Christie as well as Anne Carson. There are others, however, that I think are flavors of the month, plus one old timer who with a lack of rhytm who churns out a novel a year with language so stilted that I develop migraines. For the most part, however, I think it’s a fine list that could be enhanced by the addition of Adichie and her short story collection.

  • Catrina says:

    Chiminanda Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Janisse Ray, Bailey White, Sue Monk Kidd, Winona LaDuke, Fannie Flagg, Harriette Arnow, Geraldine Brooks, Barbara Ehrenreich, Billie Letts, Kathryn Stockett, Leslie Marmon Silko, Haven Kimmel, Emma Donoghue, Anne Tyler, Ann Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle, Azar Nafisi, Jane Hamilton, Lee Smith, Kay Redfield Jamison, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth George Speare, Mary Karr, Lisa Genova, more….

  • Sarah says:

    This list is a great beginning and I’ve really enjoyed the additional recommendations in the comments. However, perhaps there is a deeper (and even more recent) issue here than Borges’ failure to include writers who are women on his list. Of the fifteen famous people whose lists of favourite books are included on the Open Culture home page, thirteen are men. There is one woman (Marilyn Monroe) and this list, compiled by Lula Nunn and an otherwise anonymous collective of ‘female creatives’. The list of Great Lectures and Great Recordings fares little better.

    OpenCulture, you are wonderful, but surely there are more Book Lists and works by women that could be linked to on your front page? For instance, as a counterpart to David Bowie, what about Patti Smith’s list of favourites? This seems to be readily available on the internet, and would make a good start.

  • Jane says:

    Sarah, that was my first thought, also.

    And yes, do add to the list, that’s why we have them – for discussion and enrichment.

    And, as the whole website shows a bias, please everyone, don’t limit your suggestions to just this page.

  • Max says:

    I would include Jetta Carlton’s The Moonflower Vine. Also, perhaps something by E.M. Forster?

  • mila says:

    Anna Kavan & Djuna Barnes

  • JewelDole says:

    Where’s MFK Fisher? She even wrote “How to Cook a Wolf” in something like a month!

    In 1963, W. H. Auden called her “America’s greatest writer.” And he didn’t say: “greatest food writer” or “greatest woman writer” – just, greatest writer.

    As one of her biographers noted, she used food as a lens and milieu to consider and talk about people, life, death…

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