Say! You know what happened to me last night? I got an e-mail! It was from someone named Lily (hi, Lily!) who reads the blog. And she had a very reasonable request, which was: can you, Sady, provide me with a list of books to read? Books that have seriously informed you, or that are otherwise enjoyable for a woman of your persuasions?
Well! Someone is fortunate that I am rearranging my bookshelves this week, is all I am saying. Because I have undertaken the task of compiling such a list, right here. It is kind of long, but I consider it fairly vital. And I ended up excluding a lot from it for space reasons, so. Deal.
I. A YOUNG LADY’S PRIMER: KNOW YOUR ANCESTORS.
So, first, you are going to want to cover The Basics. My knowledge of The Basics, sadly, is confined to the 20th century for the most part. So, read Deirdre Bair’s biography of Simone de Beauvoir, which is FUCKING GRIPPING and illustrative of the ambiguities of pre-second-wave feminist and/or lady life, then read The Mandarins (a novel, probably her best one, which also illustrates a ton of said ambiguities; I also like She Came to Stay, and really most of the novels) and as much of The Second Sex as you can handle – I recommend dipping in and out of that one, as it is a lot to take in and the early chapters are, sadly, boring. Read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, obviously, but also read the novels. Read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook – even though I find Lessing’s prose kind of flat, for my tastes, The Golden Notebook in particular becomes so interesting at a certain point, and opens up so much, that you can overcome it. Read Mary McCarthy’s The Group, about which I have the same reservations re: prose style but which is also a hugely great read and will blow your mind and educate you ever-so-much. If you want to really, REALLY go back into Ye Olden Times though, you could read Medieval feminist Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies.
Read Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes – it’s a great book, and a relatively early queer book, and the Doctor is one of the first genderqueer/trans characters in literature, I think, and though this is not always handled gracefully or in the manner I might hope, it is still more respectful than 99% of the portrayals of genderqueer folks today. Read Colette’s The Vagabond, in which a lady is rescued from her degrading job of dancing half-naked by a kindly rich man, up until the INCREDIBLE TWIST ENDING I won’t spoil, and also The Pure and the Impure, which is another queer book and touches on her relationship with a butch/genderqueer lady.
Picking up into the second wave: Read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Read Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. Read Adrienne Rich: I have a copy of Selected Poetry and Prose, which contains most of the major essays and poems, but Rich is a vast field for you to explore. Read bell hooks’ Feminism: From Margin to Center (and all of bell hooks, but this is a vital starting place), and Audre Lorde’s Collected Poems and Sister Outsider. Read, also, Diane di Prima’s poetry – I have Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems – and her memoir, My Life as a Woman, The New York Years. I am realizing that this list is getting kind of poetry-heavy, so why don’t you go on out and be a stereotype and buy yourself a copy of both the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath and the Collected Poems of Anne Sexton, both of which were hugely important to me although to be honest with Plath you really only want to read the work starting in ’61. Which will make you feel a bit of a douche.
The academically inclined may also go to Julia Kristeva, particularly Powers of Horror, and The Newly Born Woman by Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, which contains an epic piece by Cixous and something by Clement that is, sadly, not as good.
You may – and probably will – find a lot to contest, in some of these early works. That is fine! It is important to contest these things! That is how we move forward! So please, please keep that in mind as we enter our next section, which is:
II. A YOUNG LADY’S PRIMER: SEX WARS!
Know both sides of your Sex Wars. Or, more accurately, all 570 sides. There are A LOT of sides, is what I’m saying. Read Dworkin – in fact, go for broke and read Intercourse. Dworkin is a fun read, actually; not many people realize that about her. Much other background for Sex Warring may be found in the previous section. Also read Susie Bright, in particular a game-changer of a piece entitled “The Prime of Miss Kitty MacKinnon” which is available in its entirety as a PDF and is but a Google search away. Read Carol Queen’s Real Live Nude Girl. Read Pat Califia’s Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Read Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is a fan-fucking-tastic read, and also partially a reiteration of the more Dworkin-leaning arguments in the Sex Wars, which has spurred a whole new round of occasionally heated discussions which you owe it to yourself to be up on. And, hey, while we’re here: go ahead and read Camille Paglia. Sexual Personae and Vamps and Tramps. She’s often wrong – I mean, really, really, REALLY often – but she was a moment and you should know what that moment was.
No matter who you are, at least one of the selections on this list will drive you bonkers and make you throw it at the wall. You may find yourself unable to take sides, or switching sides frequently, or whatever. Hear me: this is fine. I am a person who does not fully agree either with Queen or with Levy. But holding space to hear both sides of the debate will make you smarter, and hopefully able to avoid re-enacting the same old fights.
III. A YOUNG LADY’S PRIMER: KNOW YOUR CONTEMPORARIES
So, here we pick up into the hits of the ’80s, ’90s… and today! Read the Bust and Bitch anthologies, respectively, and a book entitled A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution, another anthology, which will provide you with some info on the early-’90s feminist resurgence we’ve christened, vaguely, the “third wave.” Read every single damn thing Michelle Tea writes, in particular four of her novel/memoirs: The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia, The Chelsea Whistle, and Rent Girl. Each of these books concerns, at least in part, her experience as a sex worker, and her accounts of being a huge Dworkin fan who was also a call girl, or a passionate feminist who was also into BDSM knifeplay sessions, will bring necessary perspective, sanity, and even jokes to help you deal with those Sex Wars you just soldiered through. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home can go on this list, too – it’s showing up in a lot of decade-end top-book lists, and although the literary comparisons often come across as heavy-handed and like someone trying to prove that she actually does read and is not “just” a comic-book artist, the story is really beautiful and well-done. Read Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Read the second edition of Inga Muscio’s Cunt. These are your punk-rock hipster thirdwavey feminists, here.
I wouldn’t classify either Barbara Ehrenreich or Katha Pollitt as third-wave, but neither would I classify them as strictly second-wave, so they end up in this section. Ehrenreich, obviously, has done a lot, but my favorite thing she’s done is The Hearts of Men, a book about the sexual revolution and the rejection of “traditional” family structures from the male point of view, so read that. For Pollitt, Subject to Debate is a collection of pieces and a good primer.
Others who are difficult to locate in time and space and wave include: Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy you should read, and Lucille Clifton, from whom you should read every poem you can lay your hands on. Blessing the Boats is a good starting place.
And, obviously, the ladyblogging revolution is moving over into books, two good ones to start on being Jessica Valenti’s She’s a Slut, He’s a Stud (I know! It’s not Full Frontal Feminism! But it is my favorite, though) and Amanda Marcotte’s It’s a Jungle Out There, the cover of which caused some controversy (which Marcotte handled very well) but which is still a good read. The recent anthology Yes Means Yes was also pretty super-great. I am getting Kate Harding’s book for Christmas, so I will report back on that, but I’m pretty confident I can assert it will be awesome.
IV. READING… FOR FUN! (I KNOW, RIGHT?)
Obviously, all of the above books are fun. But these are the ones you can and should read regardless of ideology, although I have to confess my personal ideology is not exactly threatened by any of them.
Pride and Prejudice obviously tops the comfort-read list, as does most of Austen. Herein, Elizabeth Bennett provides your tutorial and complete ethical guide for ladyblogging:
“Oh! Shocking!” cried Miss Bingley. “I never heard anything so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?”
“Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination,” said Elizabeth. “We can all plague and punish one another. Tease him – laugh at him… Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!’ cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh.”
“Miss Bingley,” said he, “has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”
“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth – “there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
There you go! Post that on the billboard in your head and you are set.
Margaret Atwood is always an absorbing read, so go for both poetry and prose on that count, and non-fiction if you like. The Robber Bride is maybe not the best of the novels – that would be Cat’s Eye, also recommended – but it is one of the most fun, and the one I re-read most for some reason. The first volume of Selected Poems is amazing. Also, Joan Didion, both non-fiction and fiction: We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live collects most of the vital non-fiction, and Play It As It Lays is my favorite of the novels. Anne Carson’s poetry, particularly The Beauty of the Husband and Men in the Off Hours, is very much worth your time. Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales and Seven Gothic Tales are beautiful. Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document is a great one if you’ve survived being punk-rock and/or a hippie and/or are a feminist – I went through a phase where I was making everyone I knew read it, and one friend reacted by saying, “I feel like I’ve been every character in this book,” which is fairly accurate. And, also, Emily Dickinson. The un-Higginsonized version, naturally, which has a blue and brown cover last time I checked and looks far more bizarre on the page than any of the generic, heavily edited versions which people still sadly get conned into buying.
It makes you sound like a tool to say that Proust is your “favorite” writer, but he is at the very least in my top five, so read A la recherche du temps perdu and don’t let initial difficulty stop you: once you adjust to the rhythms, it’s one of the most beautiful experiences you’ll ever have, I promise. David Foster Wallace is also in that top-five or top-three or top-two list: check out the non-fiction, Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, move on to Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and then just go for it and read Infinite Jest which I swear to you is not as fucking intimidating as people keep unreasonably making it out to be.
And now we are over 2,000 words, and the list is still incomplete, and it is still shamefully short on contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and I am totally sorry, but here is where I stop. Suggestions? Obvious omissions? Include them, please!