reading lists

25 Famous Women on Their Favorite Books

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The dog days of summer are ideal for gulping down books in the park, dipping into nostalgic favorites, or finally cracking open classics that you’ve always planned to read. Below, 25 famous women from Zadie Smith to Ayanna Pressley share the authors and books that changed their lives. Read on for recommendations.

Zadie Smith

Middlemarch by George Eliot. A work of genius. But more important — and from a purely selfish point of view — a woman wrote it. That might seem ridiculous to male writers, but a man never has to think twice about the gender of genius. He’s got too many examples on his side of the fence. Eliot was the first woman I read who could go toe-to-toe with, say, Tolstoy. I was 15. Since then, I’ve learned how many grand achievements in the novel have been female, but when I was a teenager, that was news to me.”
O, The Oprah Magazine, October 2005


“I remember reading that [The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison] in high school and my mind being blown. I remember that book being really, really pivotal for me in actually getting me interested in reading.” —Essence, July 2019

Michaela Coel

“I am reading a powerful book of poetry by a young man Caleb Femi. Oh my God, he has a book called Poor and he’s just stirring me. Destroying me. I look up to him as a poet. And I’m reading the third book in a trilogy. It’s called The Three-Body Problem, and the third one is called Death’s End; it’s Chinese sci-fi.” —Paper, July 2020

Emily Ratajkowski

“bell hooks is a writer, activist, feminist, theorist. It’s [All About Love] one of her more recent books. She’s written a ton, some more famous than others. This is interesting because I don’t think I would read a book about love in general — it can get ‘self-helpy’ — but she is so smart and such a clear and concise writer. When she’s tackling something mushy and abstract, like love, it’s almost spiritual. It’s a book about how we can live in our lives in a more loving and better way. It sounds cheesy but it’s really not.” —GQ Happyhour, April 2020

Eva Chen

“Too many to name but The Age of Innocence is so poetic and has stuck to me years after reading it in school … and Hunger Games and Harry Potter :)” —Reddit AMA, 2015

Judy Blume

Them by Joyce Carol Oates. I had two small children. They were playing in the backyard sandbox. It was summer. Bath time came and went, suppertime came and went. But I could not put down this book. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. When my then husband came home and found me reading and the children still playing outside, he was not happy. But I was.” —Medium, May 2016

Sandra Cisneros

Ringside Seat to a Revolution is one of my favorite history books. I open it often for research and inspiration. How is it this book isn’t required reading for U.S. history? It has plenty of pictures; perfect for reluctant readers like our president.” —Recommended favorites page,

Nora Ephron

“I was in the middle of reading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge the day Strout won the Pulitzer Prize, and I almost felt I’d won a prize too. This is a magical, powerful book — 13 stories linked by a completely problematic, prickly, complicated woman named Olive Kitteridge. I loved it so much that when I finished reading it, I started at the beginning and read it over again.” —The Daily Beast, August 2009

Alice Munro

“I got interested in reading very early, because a story was read to me, by Hans Christian Andersen, which was The Little Mermaid, and I don’t know if you remember The Little Mermaid, but it’s dreadfully sad. The little mermaid falls in love with this prince, but she cannot marry him, because she is a mermaid. And it’s so sad I can’t tell you the details. But anyway, as soon as I had finished this story I got outside and walked around and around the house where we lived, at the brick house, and I made up a story with a happy ending, because I thought that was due to the little mermaid, and it sort of slipped my mind that it was only made up to be a different story for me, it wasn’t going to go all around the world, but I felt I had done my best, and from now on the little mermaid would marry the prince and live happily ever after, which was certainly her des[s]ert, because she had done awful things to win the prince’s power, his ease. She had had to change her limbs. She had had to get limbs that ordinary people have and walk, but every step she took, agonizing pain! This is what she was willing to go through, to get the prince. So I thought she deserved more than death on the water. And I didn’t worry about the fact that maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t know the new story, because I felt it had been published once I thought about it. So, there you are. That was an early start, on writing.” —Nobel Prize in Literature interview, December 2013

Malala Yousafzai

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I like it because it is hopeful and inspiring. It tells the story of a boy who embarks on a journey to find a treasure, but as he goes along, he learns from every part of his journey and every person he meets. In the end, he finds his treasure in a very interesting place. His story tells you that you should believe in yourself and continue your journey.” —The New York Times, August 2014


“Claudia Rankine’s Citizen really blew my mind. A friend of mine in Marfa, Texas, who owns the bookstore there gave it to me as an anniversary present and it is truly a beautiful, honest, and poignant book of poetry about black existence. I just lent it to a friend actually, but it’s the kind of book you want to read a few times to really let the words resonate …”
InStyle, September 2016

Patti Smith

“There are two kinds of masterpieces. There are the classic works monstrous and divine like Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus. And then there is the type wherein the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. Like 2666 or The Master and Margarita. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is such a book. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. For one thing I did not wish to exit its atmosphere. But also, the ghost of a phrase was eating at me. Something that untied a neat knot and let the frayed edges brush against my cheek as I slept.” —M Train, October 2015

Roxane Gay

“When the world is too much, I love to read thrillers and romance novels. I just want to lose myself in something either intriguing or ludicrously romantic. For inspiration, I go back to my favorite books, the ones I wish I had written. This seems sufficiently vague given that I haven’t listed any titles. My No. 1 go-to book is The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.”
The New York Times, January 2017

Jesmyn Ward

“I think that the first book that made me think that I could try to be a writer – or that made me aware that a young black woman from the South could write about the South — was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which I read for the first time when I was in junior high. Because I saw something of – not myself – but the experience of the people around me reflected in that book, because it’s set in the rural South and these people are poor, and just seeing that she could do that made me think, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ It just made me realize that it might be possible.” —Entertainment Weekly, November 2011

Gillian Flynn

“Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. My other comfort food; I read that one a couple times per year. It deals with every part of why we become fascinated with murder, which is that it deals with the people involved; it deals with the media and how it handles it and how certain personalities captured our interest. And that Garry Gilmore was a murderer for no good reason. He killed innocent people, and yet you find yourself inherently liking him and drawn to him because of his sheer charisma and personality. I like that cognitive dissonance that is involved with becoming fond of the cold-blooded killer.” —Vulture, September 2014

Stacey Abrams

“I actually have spent the most time reading Robert Caro’s compendium on Lyndon B. Johnson. I think President Johnson was an extraordinary leader and a deeply flawed man who made terrible mistakes and did extraordinary things. The Years of Lyndon Johnson [taught me] the best way to be a leader — whether it’s in politics, or in business, or in life — is to recognize that very few people are one dimensional. We are often comprised of tremendous capacity and terrible fears and failures. I’ve used his journey to really help remind me of how to be a better person, but also, what are the stakes and how far can we reach?” —CNBC Make It at the Riveter Summit, November 2019

Anne Lamott

A Wrinkle in Time saved me because it so captured the grief and sense of isolation I felt as a child. I was 8 years old when it came out, in third grade, and I believed in it – in the plot, the people and the emotional truth of their experience. This place was never a good match for me, but the book greatly diminished my sense of isolation as great books have done ever since. I must have read it a dozen times.” —The New York Times, November 2012

Mindy Kaling

“Isn’t [House of Mirth] freaking amazing? I love that book. It’s so current. I think that’s what makes it so timeless. Listen, I freaking love Jane Austen, love Charlotte Brontë, I love stories about frivolous families, and you know, sisterly rivalries — I love that. But House of Mirth so describes the feeling of being trapped in a time of not wanting to get married but sort of having to, and having one chance out of it and the tragic side of that. Because in the Jane Austen books, they usually end up getting married, right in the nick of time, and in House of Mirth, it’s what happens when you don’t. And she didn’t even want to! She would have been okay not doing it. Anyway, I just love that book. It’s just so good.” —Entertainment Weekly, October 2011

Ayanna Pressley

“I often begin my days with a verse from a book called The President’s Devotional by Joshua DuBois, which helps motivate me during more challenging times. One of my favorite affirmations from this book is entitled “A Gentle Battle.” To paraphrase, it says that each morning we awake to a gentle battle. Of all the negotiations and decisions of our day, this gentle battle is the most important. Will we go in the direction of worry, weariness, and indifference — or in the direction of joy, of peace, of equality and justice? Even through the most difficult times, I remain committed to the latter.” —Connection magazine, January 2019

Ling Ma

“I’m interested in how power works … [Franz Kafka] just knows, man. He knows how power works. In terms of lessons for young writers, they should read all of Kafka’s journals. They’re so depressing yet so relatable at the same time. It seems like he had no faith in his work, and then you look at the work he produced … I don’t know. Maybe talking down to yourself is a way of keeping the faith.” —Longreads, August 2018

Maya Angelou

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. When you are put down by the larger society and there’s a poet who compares the color of your skin to chocolate and brown sugar, you fall for it, because you need it. Paul Laurence Dunbar — who was one of the great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries — wrote about African-Americans, and he showed me the beauty of our colors and the wonder of our music.” —The Week, April 2013

Cheryl Strayed

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. I carried it the entire hike. On my first night, when I felt like I was in too deep, I read the first poem out loud to myself over and over.” —The Boston Globe, March 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Camara Laye’s The Dark Child and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart because they gave me a glorious shock of recognition. Until I read them, I was not consciously aware that people who looked like me could exist in books. I grew up in a Nigerian university town, and all the books I read before then were foreign children’s books with white characters doing unfamiliar things.” —Oprah, June 2010

Sonia Sotomayor

“My God, what an impact [1984] had on me. The idea of Big Brother was, and I may still, influence my thinking about democracy; the idea that we would have a government that was all-knowing and all-doing for human beings was frightening…That was a seminal piece in my waking up to the role of government in individual lives.” —NPR, January 2013

Laura Harrier

“I remember reading that book [Kay Thompson’s Eloise], and I’d never been to New York, and I was like, I want to move to New York, I want to live in New York some day, and I just made up my mind and decided that’s what was going to happen when I was very small, and it did.” —Marie Claire, May 2020

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25 Famous Women on Their Favorite Books