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The Life-Changing Books Every Woman Should Read

The Life-Changing Books Every Woman Should Read

As any avid reader knows, books are everything. The right book can guide, educate and inspire; a book can help you nurse a broken heart or awaken a sense of adventure, leading you to discover people and places you never dreamed you would.

Even in a world that's saturated with tech — and an endless stream of TV shows, games and apps at our fingertips — nothing can replace the pleasure of a good book, whether it's giving your imagination a spin on your daily commute or having you rethink your career plans and take a risk.

While reading is, of course, subjective, some books are essential — and you'll want them on hand through all the stages of adulthood. Check out these life-changing books every woman should read.

"The Second Sex" by Simone de Beauvoir
This feminist tome is as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1949; de Beauvoir is often credited in part with launching feminism's second-wave with this work. The existentialist author explores the treatment of women throughout history and gave birth to that immortal phrase: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant
A beautifully written work of historical fiction, "The Red Tent" expands on the Old Testament story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. A celebration of womanhood, the red tent of the title refers to the sisterhood of relationships formed when women take refuge in the tent for their monthly menstrual cycles and while giving birth.

"Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" by Sheryl Sandberg
Sheryl Sandberg has faced her share of criticism for the consciousness-raising messages in the book that spun out of her 2010 TED Talk (namely, that not all women are in a position to "lean in," either because they're single parents or need to work multiple jobs to keep themselves afloat). Even if you don't agree with every word of hers, the overall themes of empowerment and equality send a powerful message to women everywhere, and the book focuses on the ways that women are held back in the workplace, encouraging the reader to put themselves forward for that pay rise or next top promotion. The book also addresses the ways that women can inadvertently self-sabotage themselves at work, like the anecdote Sandberg gives about a woman thinking about stepping away from more demanding work and promotion-potential because she is planning to have a baby... several years in the future.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini
This harrowing read from the bestselling author of "The Kite Runner" explores the beautiful, powerful and enduring friendship forged between Mariam and Laila, set against the backdrop of war-torn Afghanistan.

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
This multi award-winning dystopian tale paints a terrifying picture of a world where a majority of the population is sterile and the few fertile women remaining have no autonomy and are only allowed to do one thing: breed. Chilling and completely addictive.

"The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath's only novel is a must-read, not only for its exploration of mental illness and intimate recounting of the descent into crippling depression (based on Plath's own experiences), but also because of the portrait it paints of women in the 1950s/early 1960s and the opportunities they had - and didn't.

"The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf
A 1990s feminist handbook, "The Beauty Myth" explores how far women are willing to go in their pursuit of physical perfection — and how they are victimised by the barrage of beauty images and advertisements they consume on a near-constant basis. Just as relevant now as when it was first published.

"Bossypants" by Tina Fey
Hilarious, touching and fervently feminist, Tina Fey's autobiographical book touches on love, career, relationships and parenthood. Particularly brilliant? Fey's "Mother's Prayer for Her Child," in which she dispenses precious advice like the following: 

"Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels. What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit."

"A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf
First published in 1929, this book of essays is essential reading for anyone who ever wanted to be, anything at all. Musing on the barriers that women writers face, Woolf memorably conjures up a female Shakespeare — William's sister, Judith — who, blessed with a talent for the tune of words, couldn't get an education or a job in theatre, and ended up killing herself after becoming impregnated by an actor-manager.

As Woolf writes in the book of women given a chance: "Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days."

"Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to quit your life and explore the world — not to mention go on a journey of self-discovery — it's inspiring to read about someone who's done it already. And to realize that every once in a while it's OK to spend weeks eating ice cream in Italy, all day, every day.

"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan
A mid-century feminist tome that looks at why women in the 1950s were unhappy with their roles as housewife and mother, Friedan fervently argues for the pursuit of education and other meaningful work for women. It is widely credited with sparking second-wave feminism in the USA, and the book first appeared in 1963 - the same year that the Equal Pay Act was signed into law. 

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou's coming-of-age tale describing focuses on identity, racism, trauma and life in the American South in the 1930s, and tells of how a young girl learns to overcome prejudice and hardship to become a strong and independent adult. 

"The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion
This masterful, devastating book on grief sees the author's introspective eye and powers of analysis at work as she attempts to make sense of an impossible year, in which she lost her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, to a massive coronary. Simultaneously, her daughter, Quintana, fell victim to a flu, then pneumonia, then septic shock and a hematoma, never recovering from her illness (she tragically died in 2005). 

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot
A must for anyone interested in science, ethics and medicine, this book also touches on race and class issues and the life of one woman, Henrietta Lacks. Born a poor, tobacco farmer, Lacks's cancer cells changed the future of medicine. One small issue: they were used without her permission.

"Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong
Because every woman needs to know where the phrase "zipless f**k" originated from — and why it matters.

"Complete Stories" by Dorothy Parker
Witty, pithy, brash and unafraid to expose the foibles of the New York high-society milieu which was the backdrop to her life, Parker's staunchly feminist stories can't fail to put a smile on your face.

"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
This 19th century novel which tells the story of four sisters during the American Civil War has one of literature's best female characters: the strong-willed Jo March, known for her fiery temper, love of literature and utter disinterest in anything romantic.

"Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen
Austen's tale of early-1800s manners and morality in England is light-hearted, fun and utterly timeless. This story of love, marriage and not doing what other people want you to (we love you, Lizzy Bennet!) feels as contemporary, and addictive, as flipping through the latest edition of Grazia magazine.  

"The Second Shift" by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Originally published in 1989 (and updated with new figures in 2012 to reflect the changing workforce makeup), this book is as essential a read now as it was three decades ago. It sheds light on dual-career households and the domestic duties that women are still expected to perform after the workday is done: sociologist Hochschild found that working mothers put in a month of work a year more than their spouses.

NEXT: 12 Empowering Books Every Girl Should Read »

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Photo Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images