52 Books by 52 Women

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. In fact, I’ve been thinking about doing this for at least a year. I thought about starting it at the start of the new year, but I immediately got the flu or something and pretty much everything fell by the wayside. Since then I’ve been aware that although it’s a year-long project, that year can start at any point; there’s no reason that it has to start on January 1. And when I realized all of a sudden that it’s International Women’s Day, I thought, that’s it; it’s a sign.

I'd love to properly credit this painting, but I have no idea what it is, only that it's all over the internet.

title unknown, by Henry Clive. Thanks to Megan Lynch for tracking down the credit. 

My project is to read 52 books by women authors this year. That averages one book a week, so that’ll be my benchmark, although if I read two in one week and it takes me a couple of weeks to read another, that’s fine too. My plan at this point is for them all to be fiction, although I’m going to give myself a little flexibility there. What’s not flexible is that they all have to be by different female authors, and they all have to be authors whom I’ve not read before. (Or I haven’t read an entire book of their work, anyway; I’m not going to rack my brain about whether I read one of their stories in the New Yorker or in junior high or something.) A lot of these are going to be “classics” that I’ve never got around to reading, but I definitely want to read contemporary authors too, and for them to be a pretty diverse mix in terms of nationality, ethnicity, time period, subject matter, genre, et cetera.

Mind you, there are plenty of women authors I already know I like, and when I was first conceiving this project I thought I’d allow myself one of their books every now and then as a sort of treat, but I think this project will be far more interesting if they’re all authors who are new to me. So no Jane Austen or Aimee Bender, no Simone de Beauvoir or Ruth Ozeki, no Dorothy Sayers or Ágota Kristóf, no Ursula Le Guin or Flannery O’Connor, et cetera, et cetera. But there are so many authors I’ve never read that there won’t be any trouble thinking of 52 of them; the trouble will be paring it down.

I’m not going to go into this with a finished list of 52 books to read, and I’m going to give myself a lot of flexibility about what book to read next, so as not to mess up my momentum by dragging by heels because I’m really not feeling up for Gone with the Wind that week. With that in mind, I’m not going to worry too much about the overall balance of the finished list; I’m not going for the 52 Greatest Books by Women of All Time (particularly because I’ve no doubt already read a lot of the books I’d put on that list). I just want a good mix of books to keep the project going.

So why am I doing this, anyway? It’s not as if I can’t just read books by women any time I want, and I do. It’s not like my reading list is some big boys’ club to begin with, though historically it certainly hasn’t been 50/50 either. These days I’m lucky if I have any time to read books at all if they’re not for work, so the idea of reading 52 books in a year to begin with feels incredibly ambitious alongside all the other stuff I have to do. But I always relish a chance to catch up on a lot of the books that I felt like I should have been required to read but never was, and also with a lot of the new literature that I read about but don’t get around to reading. And privileging works by women just feels like something I’d like to do for a while.

As a theater journalist, I’m very, very aware that there aren’t enough works by women being produced on the stage, and as a comic fan I know that the non-indie scene still feels very much like a boys’ club. I’m not nearly as plugged in to what goes on in the literary world that’s more germane to what I’ll actually be reading, but all in all it just feels like a good time to immerse myself in works by women.

I want to be careful to say that it’s not that I’m only going to read books by women this year, because there are always things I need to read for work, and comics I like to keep up on, and stuff like that. But if I can make it to 52 books by March 8 of next year, well, that will feel pretty darned good.

So what’s first? The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. It being first doesn’t necessarily signify anything; it’s just that I was talking about this with my wife recently, and she recommended The House of Mirth–which I’d like to read sometime, but I was reminded that when I saw The Age of Innocence I thought man, that wasn’t a good movie, but I have a strange feeling that I’d really like the book. So, perhaps perversely, I decided to read that one first and leave Mirth as a treat for later, sometime after this project. So far I’m only a couple of chapters into Age of Innocence, though, so we’ll see how that goes. I plan to report back with impressions of each book as I go–not a review, certainly,  just a response of some kind.

I  welcome suggestions of books I should read, although of course I may or may not choose those. If they’re by authors I’ve read, for instance, they wouldn’t qualify for this project. As I said, I’m inclined to stick to fiction, at least for now. And if anybody wants to play along at home, well, the more the merrier.

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  1. 3 / 8 / 2014 6:25 pm

    Some suggestions (any of which I can lend to you, btw):
    Ceremony or The Almanac of the Dead / Leslie Marmon Silko
    Bad Dirt or The Shipping News / Annie Proulx
    Love Medicine or The Beet Queen / Louise Erdrich
    Possession / AS Byatt
    The House on Mango Street / Sandra Cisneros
    Tripmaster Monkey or Woman Warrior / Maxine Hong Kingston


  2. Marisela

    3 / 8 / 2014 10:30 pm

    I read Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda almost every year. And if you’re up for short stories there’s Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros. And if you fancy poetry: Mint Snowball by Naomi Shihab Nye.


  3. 3 / 15 / 2014 4:21 pm

    Bravo, Sam.

    I don’t know if I ever shared this with you, but I have a “no new contemporary fiction by straight white men” rule that’s been in place for several years. Strangely, this rule only applies to novels–not movies, not plays, not non-fiction, not poetry. More than any form–for me anyway–the novel stands as a citadel, a breathing philosophy on how the world works, on how people work–and at a certain point, I could simply no longer bear another white man telling me what the world was like (of course, the great classics are exempt).

    Off the top of my head, some favorite favorites:
    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
    Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
    Room by Emma Donahue
    The White Album by Joan Didion
    Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alicia Nutting

    And may I suggest works that leave the realm of literary fiction but might be a nice way to round it out?

    In the delicious well written pure pleasure trash:
    I’ll Take Manhattan by Judith Krantz
    Outlander by Diane Gabaldon

    And from another direction:
    The Emily of New Moon Trilogy by L.M. Montgomery (given the outsized impact of Anne of Green Gables books on female readers of the past century, I think you’d get something out of reading these–she’s quite brilliantly insightful about small town life and human nature. This series is darker than the Anne books, it’s about growing up as an artist, and I continue to find something in them even after all these years)


    • 3 / 15 / 2014 8:06 pm

      As a straight white male who sometimes writes fiction I have mixed feelings about the rule, but yeah, we should make more freaking room.

      And those are some great suggestions; thanks!


  4. 3 / 23 / 2014 9:06 am

    Are you open to genre?
    Sci-Fi Any of Octavia Butler’s work. Ursula K LeGuin’s Left Hand Of Darkness is her best known, but she wrote many sci-fi novels (not just the Earthsea books – which are aimed at young readers). Also Connie Willis’ earlier works.
    The Tale of Genji written in (not about, but in) medieval Japan by a lady of the Heian court is considered to be the first novel written. Murasaki Shikubu (translated by Royal Tyler) is excellent.
    Similarly (talking about firsts) The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts is possibly the first American novel written by a slave.
    As a younger woman I loved Banana Yomomoto though I haven’t read her in years.
    I, Iago by Nicole Galland
    Autobiography, but excellent is Just Kids by Patti Smith
    Stones From the River by Ursula Helgi
    And I am surprised but happy to be enjoying JK Rowling’s latest (small town British politics and absurdly mundane personalities)


    • 3 / 23 / 2014 10:22 am

      Great suggestions! I have read Le Guin, Rowling, and The Tale of Genji in the past, and in fact I’m just finishing an Octavia Butler book for this week’s installment. I’ll take a peek at some of these others. Thanks!





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