13 Books Our Moms Read That We Should All Read Too
John Greenleaf Whittier has a poem called, “The Books Our Mothers Read,” in which he beautifully notes that you can “find all that the sages said, / Is in the books our mothers read.” And he's so right; there are many books that were popular for our mothers’ generations that you can definitely get some great nuggets or two of wisdom out of.
Our mothers lived through the Civil Rights era and saw a new age of feminism that ushered women into the workplace and recognized them for the first time as sexual beings. They protested and homesteaded and crossed oceans and borders to make lives in totally new cultural surroundings. In short: They are pretty incredible women, and what we haven’t already learned from just being around their awesomeness, we might pick up from reading the books that appealed to them when they were our age.
After all, we’ve got a whole lot of protesting and world-changing and pioneering to do ourselves. It couldn’t hurt to be armed with some of the literary wisdom our mothers discovered when they were younger. So, try a few of these 13 books our mothers read that we should read, too. Or, if you're lucky enough, you could always just ask Mom.
1. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Fictional but largely autobiographical, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings captures many of the issues that black women growing up in the '60s would be all too familiar with — racism, frustrated intellect, self-loathing, identity crisis, rape and abuse, depression, and the coeval inspiration and trauma of the civil rights movements forming around them. Reading this book, you’ll get to know something of Angelou’s struggles as well as those of your own mother.
2. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
A woman journals her life in four different notebooks, each one with a different theme — one for her early youth in Africa, one for her political life, one for a novel based on an experience she lived through, and one a personal diary. She tries to bring all four of them together in the fifth golden notebook of the book’s title. At a time when everyone was eyeing communism in anxiety or in hope, The Golden Notebook made a huge impact, with some hailing it as the "feminist bible" and others probably hoping it would spontaneously self-destruct. Still, it was a pivotal work of the '60s and your mother probably either read it herself or else heard it talked and media-ed to death enough that she might as well have read it. Whether you agree with its social ideas or not, it’s a brilliant work that highlights how the personal is always political and vice versa. It was for Mom and it probably is for you too.
3. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
Even if your mother isn’t a sci-fi fan, it’s possible that she read this one. Set in a society where there is no male or female, it’s one of the most famous takes on gender in literature. And this thought experiment of Le Guin’s did a number on feminism, pushing social ideas about gender into whole new frontiers, frontiers that we are navigating today. It might’ve pushed your mom to think differently about gender back in the day, and now that this generation is seeing leaps and bounds in the ways we talk about gender, it might be just the time to borrow a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness from your mom.
4. Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks (1981)
bell hooks looks at the lives and struggles of black women in America throughout some of U.S. history’s biggest moments, including slavery, suffrage, feminist movements, the civil rights era, and black nationalism. But she doesn’t do this in a vacuum. Ain’t I A Woman takes a close look at the interrelations between white women, black women, white men, and black men. It’s a pretty revealing look at the how these groups worked together and against one another at a time when relations were racially and sexuality fraught. It is one of the most popular books to reassert the black woman in the feminist struggle. You’ll be surprised to see how some of those tensions live on in personal and social relationships today.
5. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk (1955)
This book has a woman struggling against the social requirements for women of her time, struggling to decide between the safe, comfortable, conservative life and the romantic, uncertain life of the stage. It spoke to women in the '50s as the glimmer of hope for a life outside of domesticity shined barely through, and it will speak to these women’s daughters in a very different way as they strive to break through all social barriers and have it all — the family, the stability, the career, and happiness.
6. A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney (1958)
It might have scandalized the theatre critics, but A Taste of Honey’s bold and gritty of portrayal of women, the working class, race, and homosexuality (topics often shunned by British theater) won over the audiences. Your mother might have been one of the cheering crowd, angry at the social issues facing England in the '50s and '60s and dutifully showing up when people like Delaney dared to say something about it. Rereading Delaney’s bold play today might conjure up some familiar feelings as new (and persistently old) issues piss off a whole new generation.
7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
Sexuality, gender, the internal oppression of women within other systems of oppression… The Color Purple probably made your mom cry, and it will make you cry and seethe with rage just the same as you explore the history of race and gender oppression in the United States through the stories of these fictional yet all too real characters.
8. The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)
The World According to Garp was a hit when it first came out in the '70s and has managed to capture the attention of generations since then. Its attraction may be in its unique viewing of different aspects of feminism through the eyes of a sympathetic (though still deeply flawed) male character, surrounded by feminists and liberated women. By turns ridiculous and profound, the book raises issues of rape, sexuality (and asexuality), lust, and death through scenarios that are equally hilarious and completely traumatizing and horrible. But maybe that’s why Mom liked it and maybe why you’ll like it too — because sometimes, when things are just horrible, you still need to laugh. It’s a great reminder that the world has always been a little crazy. The world your mother grew up in was a little crazy, and it’s certainly crazy now.
9. Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)
Our mothers weren’t just forever breaking through glass ceilings and burning their bras. Sometimes, just like you, they actually just squee-ed over the latest vampire series. Writing sympathetically from the viewpoint of the vampires, Rice created characters who were socially isolated or marginalized, and these characters won the empathy of women and many LGBTQ readers. Before Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, there was Lestat in Interview With the Vampire. Pick up Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and you and mom can squee together over your vampire addictions.
10. Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown (1962)
For you it was a marathon of all six seasons of Sex and The City. For your mother it was probably rereading Sex and the Single Girl cover-to-cover six times in a row. When even feminist icons like Betty Friedan called Gurley Brown’s book “obscene,” you know the book must’ve really struck a nerve. Sex and the Single Girl advocated for financial independence, which many feminists of the time also pushed for, but it was her encouragement of sex before or even without marriage that made the book controversial and revolutionary. Still, there are some outdated notions in the book that will clash pretty starkly with modern feminism.
11. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
If your mom rode (or still rides) the wave of Western Buddhism in the '60s, it might have begun with that tattered copy of Franny and Zooey on her shelf. Steeped in Eastern religious philosophy, the book marks the beginning a rise in eastern philosophies being adapted (and often misappropriated) in the West. But the story is also one of disillusionment and questioning one’s purpose. Giving this one a read might help you remember that your mother once suffered post-adolescent struggles like yours.
12. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987)
Remember back in 2010 when Arizona passed a law that banned Mexican-American studies courses in Arizona high schools? Well, Anzaldúa’s La Frontera, published 25 years earlier, was one of the books that were banned and removed from classrooms. Anzaldua’s semi-autobiographical book takes on colonialism, race, and gender in an incredibly interesting way, often using different forms of Spanish and English in order to impress on the reader the language difficulties she and others living in what she calls the “borderlands,” navigating different cultures. It was controversial and moving in the '80s when she wrote it, and as the Arizona law shows, it’s as controversial and crucial today.
13. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)
Your mother probably read this book and hated it. If you read this book, you’ll probably kind of hate it too. Roth has often been lambasted by feminists and others for the over-the-top misogynist characters in his super sexual books. Portnoy’s Complaint has been highly criticized above all others. So, why read this book about horribly misogynistic men treating women like brainless sex toys? Well, because while Roth writes these characters and from their perspectives, he also makes them utterly ridiculous. Any woman can attest to the real-life (if maybe maybe slightly less ridiculous) versions of these characters. Portnoy’s Complaint attempts to get into the minds of these absurd walking clichés and reveal the workings of their deeply flawed, ridiculous brains. So you could read it and then have a great haterade session with your ma over it.