25 Essential Reads From The Last 50 Years

by E. Ce Miller

Here are some of the bestselling books from the year 1967: The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton, The Arrangement by Elia Kazan (which spent the longest amount of time at the top of the New York Times bestseller list that year — 23 weeks,) The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder, and The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart. There were a handful of others as well, but I’ll confess right now: I haven’t read any of them either. I’m not sure what that says about bestseller lists, nor my taste in books, but I will say that there have been some amazing books published in the last 50 years, and I’ve even read a few (more than a few) of them myself.

It’s also worth noting that, if you’re a fan of young adult literature, 1967 was kind of your year. With the publication of S.E.Hinton’s The Outsiders Y.A. officially became a thing. In fact, The Outsiders, which was Hinton’s debut novel, was the first book that drew publishers to the realization that young adults were not only eager for books, but that the emerging purchasing power of the American teen justified curating an entire literary market for them. Pretty cool, huh? (Well, it’s pretty cool to us book nerds, anyway…)

Check out this (hardly comprehensive) list of 25 books from the past 50 years that every woman should read.


‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ by Joan Didion

Published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is Joan Didion’s essay collection born from time she spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Writing from a time and place that was uniquely its own, Didion composed the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as a response to the end of the American 1960s, and they perfectly capture the energy — confusion, restlessness, malcontent — of that particular time in California and in America.

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‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou

First published in 1969 and forever celebrated by readers of all ages and generations, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the poetic autobiography of author Maya Angelou, describing how her own creative ambition allowed her to overcome a series of born-into setbacks (racism, the political climate of America, physical and emotional trauma, being a woman in a male-dominated culture) and become one of the most celebrated writers of all time.

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‘In the Shadow of Man’ by Jane Goodall

This bestselling classic was published in 1971, and Jane Goodall is a writer whose stories will forever change the way you think about the creatures we share our planet with. In the Shadow of Man is Goodall’s account of her life observing the wild chimpanzees of Gombe — observations that have informed how scientists, primatologists, and conservationists understand the behaviors of our fellow primates today.

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‘The Optimist's Daughter’ by Eudora Welty

The 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty, is the story of Laurel McKelva Hand, a young woman who decides to return to her hometown of New Orleans in order to spend time with her father before he dies. After his death, Laurel and her stepmother return to the setting of Laurel’s childhood, where she is confronted with the history of her relationship with her parents, and is finally able to garner some understanding about her past.

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‘Deenie’ by Judy Blume

Published in 1973 Judy Blume’s Deenie tells the story of one girl (aka: Deenie) who is learning to navigate everything from body image, to menstruation, to masturbation (which is why this book is so often challenged and/or banned in schools.) This YA novel (that readers of any age should check out) is a fierce reminder that all you can ever be is yourself, regardless of anyone else’s expectations.

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‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K. Le Guin

No reading list of the past 50 years is complete without at least one Ursula K. Le Guin title included. Published in 1974, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed introduces readers to a brilliant physicist named Shevek, who lives on an isolated planet of anarchists and who is determined to restore order and community to his people — at the risk of his family and possibly his life.

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‘Kindred’ by Octavia E. Butler

Published for the first time in 1979, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred is recognized as the first science fiction novel to be written and published by an African American woman. Blending slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction, Kindred takes readers into the life of 26-year-old Dana, an African-American woman who is suddenly transported through time to antebellum Maryland. Traveling from past to present for reasons she can’t understand, Dana finally realizes that her actions in the past will determine whether or not she has a future.

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‘A Ring of Endless Light’ by Madeleine L'Engle

I’m not going to lie: I’m still obsessed with this YA novel. Published 1980, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light continues a story L’Engle began in several of her previous novels, featuring literary heroine Vicky Austin, a girl who isn’t afraid to feel all the feels (she loves, she loses, she experiences epic moments of wonder and transformation, you know...) A Ring of Endless Light takes place over the course of one life-changing summer, and is filled with love triangles, life lessons, and dolphins.

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‘Housekeeping’ by Marilynne Robinson

A finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping tells the story of sisters Ruth and Lucille, who grew up among a revolving door of female relatives and caregivers, each more unique, bizarre, flawed, and resilient than the next. In the wake of their mother’s death, the sisters are raised first by their grandmother, and then by myriad aunts, all of whom offer them different lessons about life, love, and survival as they grow through their own journeys towards womanhood.

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‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1983, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple tells the story of a community of African-American women living in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Narrated by Celie, who meets readers through her letters to God when she is 14-years-old and has just been raped and impregnated by her father, this novel takes a critical look at gender roles, rape, and violence. Celie spends her life surviving horrifying acts of domestic abuse, but ultimately takes control of her own destiny, and never loses her ability to experience love and compassion.

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‘The House on Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros

Another YA novel that everyone should check out, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street won the American Book Award in 1985. Esperanza Cordero is a teenager who has always lived in the Chicano and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago, but who is determined to leave the inner-city, find better opportunities for herself, and then return to help improve the lives of the people she grew up with. Among other profound challenges, Esperanza has survived sexual abuse and assault — experiences that only affirm her need to escape the neighborhood. Once she does, she values the strength and depth of character that her childhood on Mango Street instilled in her.

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‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 Toni Morrison’s Beloved is poetic, intense, and suspenseful — demonstrating the breathtaking talent that Toni Morrison has as a writer. Sethe is an escaped slave who is found by her former owner and forced to make an unbearable choice in order to protect her children from returning to slavery. What she decides will haunt her (literally) for the remainder of the book.

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‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994, and the National Book Award for Fiction in 1993, Annie Proulx’s novel, The Shipping News, takes readers to the stark and dazzling Newfoundland coast, where a man named Quoyle retreats with his two daughters to nurse a broken heart, a failed marriage, and a deeply-rooted distrust of love and romantic relationships.

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‘In the Time of the Butterflies’ by Julia Alvarez

Inspired by a true story and published in 1994, Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies takes readers to the days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960, where the three Mirabal sisters were murdered for their part in an underground plot to overthrow the government. Alvarez imagines the sisters first as teens, taking readers through their involvement with the revolution, the imprisonment of their husbands, their increasing rebellion, and their terrible deaths.

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‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books of all-time. Narrated through the alternating perspectives of five women of the Price family, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel tells the story of Nathan Price, a zealous Baptist who packs up and moves his entire family to the Congo in 1959, in order to minister to the Africans who live there. But Nathan, who has no clue what he's doing, can barely keep his family fed, let alone preach to a rather unwilling congregation. Each of the five Price women respond to the inevitable culture shock differently, and each ultimately have to take charge of their new lives in Africa if any of them hope to survive there.

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‘In America’ by Susan Sontag

Awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 2000, In America is a historical novel about a group of Poles who travel to the United States under the leadership of Poland's greatest actress, Maryna Zalewska, chasing an idealistic notion of founding a utopian commune in California. When the commune ends up failing, Maryna remains in the United States, transforming herself back into an actress and conquering the world of American theatre as well.

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‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, won the Man Booker Prize in 2000. The novel is structured as a story-within-a-story, one told by a woman named Iris, whose sister Laura killed herself just ten days after the end of World War II and whose husband turns up mysteriously dead two years later. The other story is a science fiction tale, told by two unnamed lovers. Layered and complex, this novel is classic Atwood.

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‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi

Published in 2003, Reading Lolita in Tehran reminds readers of the profound power of reading literature. When teacher and writer Azar Nafisi began hosting a reading group dedicated to the classics of Western literature, she did so in direct defiance of the national book bans imposed by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The women in Nafisi’s book club risked imprisonment every week for over two years, simply by reading the works of authors like Jane Austen, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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‘Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic’ by Alison Bechdel

Published in 2006, the graphic memoir Fun Home is Alison Bechdel's coming-of-age and coming-out story about being raised by her emotionally distant father, who is closeted himself. Told with big-hearted and relatable humor, this memoir ends with one of the greatest and most sympathetic moments in coming-out literary history to-date, IMO.

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‘And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life’ by Nicola Griffith

Published in 2007, Nicola Griffith’s five-volume memoir is a pricey little read, but it’s a uniquely interdisciplinary work that makes the cost totally worth it. And Now We Are Going to Have a Party blends fiction, diary entries, photographs, poetry, a CD of songs by Nicola and her early-'80s punk band Janes Plane, and a lot more. Filled with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and tons of coming-of-age humor and grief, Griffith tells her life story up until the time she moved from England to the United States.

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‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith

Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, Just Kids is a memoir of the friendship that defined Patti Smith’s 20s — hers with the wildly, creatively bizarre photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith lived and loved and made art for years. From renting the smallest room in the Hotel Chelsea to cavorting with iconic figures like Andy Warhol, the two supported each other through the difficult, amazing era of finding themselves and discovering their artistic passions.

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‘Salvage the Bones’ by Jesmyn Ward

Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, Salvage the Bones is author Jesmyn Ward's novel about pregnant 14-year-old Esch and her motherless siblings, who are trying to survive not only their already-difficult lives, but Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as well. This novel takes an intimate look at the devastation of poverty in the rural South and the kind of endurance that is required of the young people who grow up affected by it.

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‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

From strange and obscure origins (gold mining in 1860s New Zealand) comes author Eleanor Catton’s 2013 novel, and winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Luminaries: a story of violence and mystery, adventure and success, and the myriad ways astrology might inform our destinies. At 848 pages, The Luminaries might intimidate you with its heft, but it’s a fun and compelling read — and I haven’t read another novel quite like it.

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‘The Pearl That Broke Its Shell’ by Nadia Hashimi

Published in 2014 and written by Afghan-American writer Nadia Hashimi, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of two Afghan women living generations apart, but who share similar destinies. Rahima is a young girl living in 2007 Kabul, while Shekiba, her great, great, great grandmother, is living in early 20th century Afghanistan. In a culture of intense oppression both women are enlisted to dress as men in order to protect themselves and their families. And although they both ultimately suffer the fates imposed upon so many Middle Eastern women, their early experiences of freedom give them the strength to survive the rest of their lives.

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‘An Untamed State’ by Roxane Gay

Published in 2014, Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State takes readers into the dark side of one woman’s once-fairytale life. When Mireille Duval Jameson is kidnapped in front of her family's home in Port au Prince, Haiti, she never suspects that her father won't pay the ransom demanded by the armed kidnappers and their leader, known to her as "The Commander." When her father fails to immediately come to her rescue, Mireille suffers life-altering torment at the hands of The Commander, and must ultimately learn how to save her own spirit herself.

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