What Do Women Want (to Read)? The Huffington Post’s Good Books for Every Woman

Do you ever wonder what literary internet gals grouse about over their coffee? (OK, I didn’t think so, but bear with me a minute anyway.) This morning fellow blogger Elizabeth hit me up over Gchat with the Huffington Post’s Good Books Every Woman Should Read, and we both fell into similar reveries, over our respective cups of joe, as to just what exactly about that article was so annoying.

Because even though the HuffPost likes to wear its annoying like an ironic bad band t-shirt—which is to say proudly and often—it wasn’t quite apparent, at first read, what it was that managed to rub both of us the wrong way. Was it the gender reductionism? The should?—we’ve all had that “well-behaved women seldom make history” pillow our aunts needlepointed sitting on the couch for years now. Or was it the weird lack of an ethos? The 37 titles offered, while obviously meant to spark discussion, made up an odd assortment of books to push on someone just because she happens to own a vagina.

Even more than any of those, though, is the fact that the women of HuffPost can’t decide what kind of article it really is. The title is authoritative, but then they go and posit it as being more of a slumber-party game:

Try just mentioning one of your favorite books the next time you’re with a group of female friends. Whether it’s “Little Women,” “The Bell Jar,” or your favorite Judy Blume, someone in the group is almost guaranteed to recognize it and say something along the lines of “god, I looooved that boooook.” Which may devolve—no, evolve—into a conversation about all the books you’ve mutually loved and when you read them and why they moved you at that time in your life. It’ll be an instant “love, loss and what I read” party. Please do try this at home.

And then, you know, we all strip down to our bras and panties and have a pillow fight.

Which is what bothers me, I think. While the books listed are all certainly by or about women, reducing the conversation about them to a girl thing is pretty marginalizing. I have the kind of conversation mentioned above with male as well as female friends, minus all those squealy “oooo”s, thanks. Sure, I consider some of those books important ones for women to read—The Handmaid’s Tale, A Room of One’s Own, Nickel and Dimed, The Feminine Mystique. And for the same reasons, they’re important books for men to read. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret is a book every woman should read when she’s 13; The Lovely Bones is a book for every woman who’s interested in undemanding fiction where, as Elizabeth so eloquently puts it, “someone dies tragically, and people mourn.” The editors suggest women check out Twilight “just to know what 500 million girls got so excited about,” a criterion that would also include Justin Bieber and ponies. Honestly, I’m not real sure what they’re getting at here. And maybe that, above all, is what pisses me off. Is this a real article, or fluff with a serious headline? Make up your mind, ladies.

They do invite us to come up with our own list. And not to break up the pillow fight vibe, but I’m going for serious—if I had a daughter, these are books I’d be pressing on her at some point:

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir—the ur-feminist text, worth reading to get situated in history.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, if only for “On Self Respect.”

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, because it’s good to see the word “vagina” that many times.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath—the HuffPost suggested The Bell Jar, but I say just cut to the chase.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, because the more things change the more they stay the same.

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. This one’ll fuck you up. And if you’re among the 75% of women who’ve never been abused, remember: The flip side of 75% is 25%, which is a huge, huge number.

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter—OK, this one’s a gimme, but there’s some great stuff here.


17 Comments to What Do Women Want (to Read)? The Huffington Post’s Good Books for Every Woman

  1. March 30, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    BRAVA! I love love love love your take on HuffPo:
    ” even though the HuffPost likes to wear its annoying like an ironic bad band t-shirt—”

    And the pillow fight killed me! Killed me!!!

  2. Amy's Gravatar Amy
    March 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Eh. I get tired of any “should” kinds of instructions. A friend once invited me to join her book club, and I asked what they read, and she said: “Only books written by women.” I opted out. I don’t want to pass up a good book because of the gender (or any other demographic) of the author. Same goes for the HuffPo list.

    As to your list? I’d add Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.

  3. March 31, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    YES, Harriet!

  4. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    March 31, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Love this, Lisa. There are lots of books I hope my daughter will read, and I’d love my son to read them too. There’s this tediously endless assumption that books by / ‘for’ / about men are universal and books by / ‘for’ / about women are not. Lists like this (and the fairly vacuous discussion that goes with it) don’t help at all. I can’t think of a book I consider essential reading for my daughter simply because she has a vagina except Our Bodies, Ourselves: gotta take care of what you’ve got!

  5. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    April 2, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Three more books for your list, Lisa (that would be YOUR list, not the Huffing):

    The Natural Superiority of Women by Ashley Montagu
    The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Mating by Norman Rush

  6. Karen Wall's Gravatar Karen Wall
    September 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I have to read the article but yeah, the premise is so condescending. When I was in junior high I read a YA book about teenage pregnancy called Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones.. The protagonist , who was supposed to be really smart, tells her brother boys should not have to read the Brontes or Austen, can’t remember which and that girls shouldn’t have to read Joseph Conrad? What?

    And Lisa, since it has the word vagina in it, are you going to read the new Naomi Wolf?

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