In college, my major was basically "reading." It was called the Program of Liberal Studies, and at its core was a series of seminars in which we read, discussed, and wrote papers about a large selection of Great Books. I'm not capitalizing for effect—there is an official list of the Great Books of the Western World, upon which curriculums like this are based.
Enrolling in the program is without a doubt one of the best decisions I've ever made. I had to sit down and engage with the texts that shaped our civilization, from The Illiad to Kant's Metaphysics (ugh) to The Invisible Man. Unfortunately, too often in lists like the one I'm about to present to you, writers rely on rounding up some version of these "classics" and calling it a day.
There is a reason almost all of the Great Books are authored by white men, and it is not that white men have had the smartest things to say (If you think it is, please see #1 on this list immediately). I would recommend reading the classics to anyone who wants to, because it explains how we got here. But right now, I'm talking about a list of essential reads for the millennial woman, and you best believe white men will be solidly in the minority. No Infinite Jest here.
1. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Again, if you are somehow under the misconception that white men have produced the most literature/art/whatever because they have the best brains, there is no book better than this one to disabuse you of that notion. This book is so much more complex and interesting and timely than people think it is—just please trust me and read it.
2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I will always recommend this earth-shattering novel, but if you happen to live in NYC, there is no better time to read it than right now. Americanah was chosen for New York's One Book initiative, which means that you'll be seeing it on the subway constantly over the next few months. And even better? They're giving the audiobook away for free. To see if there's a One Book program in your city (there probably is!), check out Read.gov.
3. Get A Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner
I just recently read this book cover to cover, and I am so grateful that I did. This should be required reading for anyone coming out of college and starting a job, but there are plenty of twenty-somethings (including me) who need to sit down and get their financial ish together. (Spoiler: investing isn't nearly as complicated as it seems!)
4. Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit
Based around the essay that launched the term "mansplaining" into the national consciousness, Men Explain Things To Me is essential feminist reading. You will recognize and re-contextualize events of your own life within its pages, and it will enrage you in the best way. After that, go read everything else Solnit has ever written.
5. Any novel by Pat Conroy
Yes, this choice is personal, but every book list is necessarily personal, so just shut up and get on board. I'll go to my grave arguing that Pat Conroy is one of the most underappreciated novelists of the 20th century. The man is a master storyteller and a legend of the American South. Read almost anything he has put on paper and your life will be better for it. Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Lords of Discipline, South of Broad—they are all exceptional.
6. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I love this classic modern novel as much as anyone, but even I can admit that it is best experienced as close to your college years as possible. (In recommending this to those over 40 I've found that they have a hard time getting past the pretentious insufferability of its young characters).
7. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Another book that should be required reading for anyone, but especially sheltered, naive white millennials like I was coming out of high school (if I'm being really honest, probably college as well). Bad Feminist is a wake-up call that you should experience as early (and often) as possible.
8. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Why wouldn't you read this hilarious gem of a book? No celebrity essay collection will ever come close.
9. I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: How to Ask for the Money, Snag the Promotion, and Create the Career You Deserve by Kate White
If there is a book that could be held responsible for any successes I've achieved in my career so far, it is this one. There are so many career books out there written by "career experts"...who have never actually achieved anything in business. Kate White ran five major magazines, including 14-years as the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmo at its peak. The woman knows what she's talking about—listen up.
10. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Another infuriating, heartbreaking wake-up call that is best experienced and internalized as soon as possible. Written as a series of letters to Coates' young son, Between the World and Me is just as brilliant and heart-wrenching and insightful as everyone says it is. Just read it already, it's 150 pages for crying out loud.
11. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Similar to The Secret History, The Interestings is another book that may be best experienced in your twenties—and certainly, most loved by creative people. It follows six friends who meet at a summer camp for the arts in high school, all the way through to middle age. It's beautiful, it's messy, it's intimate, and for me it's the crème de la crème of books about friendship.
12. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
If you haven't read this because you find books like Wild or Eat Pray Love just a little bit insufferable or think advice columns are hopelessly lame, THIS IS NOTHING LIKE WHAT YOU THINK IT IS. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of some classic and some new editions of "Dear Sugar"—an advice column anonymously written by Strayed for The Rumpus. But again, it's nothing like any advice column you've ever read. The title comes from a letter about what she would tell herself as a twenty-something if she could, so read that now, fall in love, and go get the book.
13. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Two Virginia Woolf books on one list?? Damn straight. No one writes about the interior lives of women or the delicate bonds of family like Virginia Woolf, and she was way way ahead of her time in doing it. But this stunning little novel is about much more than that—it's about the struggle of art and life, creativity and creation, human progress and change. I just looked back at my Goodreads review and it just says "Life changing."
14. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides completely blew me away with this novel when I read it three years ago. My review from 2014: "Why the hell does this only have a 3.93 average? People are idiots. The best statistic I can come up with for the sales of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is “over 3 million copies by May 2011.” Whatever that number has reached now, it’s not nearly enough." I stand by this.
15. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
There will never be another Maya Angelou. If you don't understand why, go watch Oprah and Michelle Obama pay their respects at her funeral.
16. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I know, I know, I'm sure you've read them all four times. But just in case you're one of those people who feels like she missed the boat on these as a kid and think it's too late to get started, I'm here to tell you that it is absolutely not. I felt that way, finally cracking the first book at age 22, and devoured them all in one summer. People are obsessed with HP for a reason.
17. Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks
For a lesson in intersectionality, look no further than legendary writer and cultural critic bell hooks. Like all of bell hooks's work, Ain't I A Woman explores the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, and has become a fundamental work of modern feminism.
18. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I'll admit it—I have not yet read this book. But I certainly will before I turn 30, and it stands on the list based on the wisdom of others. Like, for example, Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who calls The Year of Magical Thinking "an indelible portrait of loss and grief."
19. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The mere title of this classic novel tears me apart. Little Pecola Breedlove will break your heart and make you take a step back and examine our obsession with beauty and conformity.
20. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
For whatever you think you know about Lolita, Nabokov's controversial masterpiece in the GOAT conversation because it damn well deserves to be. Read it to experience the discomfort of a deeply disturbing tale so told beautifully it'll make you weep.
21. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This classic novel is about race and "color-blindness" and empathy and identity. It's also about the power of language to shape meaning and identity. That is to say: without a voice to tell own our stories, who are we?
22. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Recency bias? Maybe. But this novel about marriage and the unknowability of another person (even if you spend your entire life with them) is just too fantastic to ignore. I haven't stopped thinking about it since reading it over a year ago.
23. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
HEAR ME OUT HEAR ME OUT. If I had to make an argument for "greatest novel of all time," it would be War and Peace. But I'm no one. Know who else thinks War and Peace is the greatest novel of all time? Pat Conroy, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, and plenty of others. Please, just listen to Pat: "Once you have read War and Peace, you will never be the same. This is my promise to you."
24. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
I believe that Alison Bechdel is a genius, and that belief comes directly from reading Fun Home. It's the most unique and exhilarating memoir you're likely to read, ever.
25. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you read it in high school, sorry, it just doesn't count. Jane Austen changed the world with her biting (and often hilarious) social commentary in the form of novels, and you'll appreciate it oh-so-much more now.
26. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I feel like every third novel I read these days is heavily and openly influenced by The Bell Jar. You need to experience the genuine artifact to understand why it is a modern classic.
27. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Of course, there are "better" books in the world, but how many have launched a global phenomenon within your lifetime? You owe it yourself to experience a truly great psychological thriller, so that when publishers try to compare their debut authors to Girl on the Train, you'll know the difference. Another exceptional thriller writer: Liane Moriarty.
28. Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
After adding a top-shelf psychological thriller, I felt I needed to give a few other genres their due. I defy anyone to read this epic fantasy and dislike it. Sure, you'll want to strangle the narrator at times, but for newbies to the fantasy genre, I can't think of a better introduction.
29. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Rachel Bloom will explain this one.
30. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This has been on my NEED TO READ list for far too long, and writing this list is the kick in the pants I needed to start. One Hundred Years of Solitude is the gold standard of magical realism, so let's dive in together.