32 Women Writers On The Life-Changing Books They Read In Their 20s

“I would like to enter a woman the way any man can”

"Should" is a word from which I've always reflexively shrunk; I've never much liked being told to do anything. It's the surest way to get me—and so many others, I know—running in the other direction.

So what, you may wonder, am I doing promoting this list of books women "should" read before turning 30? Well, first, this list is hardly prescriptive; there's no mandate to dive between the covers of even one of these books, let alone all 32. (Although, if it were mandatory for us all to read The Lover, I think we'd all be better for it.) And then also, this isn't simply a list curated to include all the same books we're always told we should be reading. Rather, the following 32 recommendations are an impressively varied lot, thanks to the fact that they come not from one person or a small editorial team, but rather from 32 of the best women writers working today, all of whom chose a book that meant something to them in their 20s.

And so while the list below contains few of the usual suspects you usually find on a lineup like this, when one of those titles does pop up, the personal reasons for valuing the book in question will make you see it in a whole new way (see: Jennifer Wright on The Great Gatsby). And nothing on here is a recommendation, exactly. Rather, each book carries with it a personal resonance with the writer who chose it; perhaps some or all of these books will mean something to you, too, and affect your life in a similarly profound way. There's only one way to find out.  

1) Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'ConnorMuch of my 20s were spent trying to resist a grim religious orthodoxy that I felt like I had adopted after an external force had acted on me. I was not raised religious, nor was I seeking faith when the shape of the world began to take on the shape of the cross, characterized not by acts of good and evil but by acts of sin and grace. I found Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge during this time. In it, O'Connor was unafraid to kill off children and well-meaning old ladies and to talk about hell as something real. I found a kinship in her gallows humor and her dark but unflinching understanding of life under the surveillance of God and the unearned pardon of grace. It all felt like coming home. —Alana Massey, author of All the Lives I Want

2) The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Motley CrueI spent the majority of my 20s trying to figure out my place in the book publishing business. I wanted to discover and celebrate great works of literary fiction because I was young and idealistic, even as I realized that diet books by charlatans or conservative rants often topped best-seller lists and funded the broader industry. But then I found the ghostwritten music memoirThe Dirt, one of the first books I'd encountered that was trashy, popular, compelling, gross, sad, disturbing, funny, sexy, and—gasp!—smart. The Dirt is still in my canon of must-read books right next to Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood because it's the first book that drove home the point to me that there are no guilty pleasures, that even the most anti-intellectual of subject matter (hair metal, groupies, backstage antics, lots of drugs, etc.) can be turned into great art. —Maris Kreizman, author of Slaughterhouse 90210 and editorial director of Book of the Month Club

3) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre LordWhen I was 21 and first read the line, “I would like to enter a woman the way any man can, and to be entered—to leave and be left—to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving," I felt, and may have shouted, "Yes!" Because I, too, wanted that. I hadn't known that there were words to describe it until Lord gave me hers. I wanted it as a lover, yes, but also as a woman moving through this confounding life. It remains my ideal in love, in my work, in activism: "to be hot and hard and soft all at the same time in the cause of our loving." Audre Lorde helped me understand something of my own queer sexuality, and what it means to be both a fighter and a lover, and the power of putting words to things. —Melissa Febos, author of Abandon Me

4) Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forough FarrokhzadNo work defined my 20s more than the work of Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad. I discovered her in this decade after hearing about her from my parents in my teens, and I would often walk around with this one translation by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, a selection of her most famous work: Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems. I had a few volumes in Persian too, but my Farsi had become too conversational and I needed to understand every twist and turn, so the translations became so precious to me. She was one of the greatest influences on my life—the most revered feminist of modern Persian letters, an extraordinary filmmaker, and an all-around iconoclast. Many have called her "the Iranian Sylvia Plath"—she too struggled with depression, had many problems with men in her life, and met a very tragic early end at 32—but, for me, Plath was America's Farrokhzad at best. At age 29, when my first novel came out, I made a favorite verse an epigraph: "The bird flew through the air/ above the red lights/ at the height of oblivion/ experiencing the blue moments madly./ The bird, ah, was only a bird." She died 50 years ago and would have been 82 this year. —Porochista Khakpour, author of The Last Illusion

5) The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor by Patricia WilliamsIn my 20s, I was a law student and a young lawyer and thus the books that shaped my thinking were most often about the law. The most compelling of these was Patricia Williams's The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor, which was unlike anything I'd read before. Part memoir, part legal history, part manifesto, Williams made real to me the horrifying injustices of racism in all its myriad manifestations, including the quotidian. It was a work about intersectionality—race, gender, class—before that was a word people knew, and it changed forever how I looked at the world. —Ayelet Waldman, author of A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life

6) The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills for Anxiety Workbook by Alexander Chapman, Kim L. Gratz, Matthew T. Tull, Terence M. KeaneIn my 20s, I couldn't always afford therapy, and I wasn't prescribed any anxiety meds because I also couldn't afford health insurance. When I learned about DBT from an article and purchased this book, it truly changed my life. When you need a support system for social anxiety, self-destructive behaviors, or mood swings, this book is your best friend. I still carry the emotional regulation, mindfulness, and stress relief tools in my pocket with me today. Affordable self-care for all. —Chloe Caldwell, author of I'll Tell You in Person 

7) Heartburn by Nora EphronOne steamy July weekend in the late 1980s, fresh from a breakup I wasn’t expecting, alone in New York City because my friends were all piled into summer beach rentals, broke, and working at a job I hated, I devoured Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. I still have that original pocket paperback ($3.95!), and when I decided to reread it recently for the first time in years, I was afraid it wouldn’t hold up. As if. In my 20s, the decade of attaching and unattaching, I bought that book for so many friends, not only because it’s hilarious, biting, and tender and has a few seriously great recipes—not Lillian Hellman’s meatloaf, though; don’t make that one), but because it taught me something essential about surviving our fickle hearts: plumb the comedy, honor the pain, shape the story as honestly and beautifully as you can. —Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest

8) Milk and Honey by Rupi KaurI'm still in my 20s, but I will say that Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey really meant something to me. I don't read poetry nearly as much as I should, but this book was edifying to read because it taught me that I don't have to be apologetic for who I am as a woman. I can want love, I can refuse indecency, and I can make mistakes because the pain felt familiar because life is just freakin' messy. —Morgan Jerkins, writer and contributing editor at Catapult Story

9) Gaudy Night by Dorothy SayersGaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers, is not just a sentimental favorite but a novel to which I have turned, over and over, to feel comforted and understood. I read most of the Wimsey canon as a kid—my mom's bookshelf was, if I recall correctly, a solid 70 percent English mystery novels from varying time periods—but Gaudy Night didn't really resonate with me until I reread it in my 20s. 

From a purely criminal standpoint, it's not Sayers' trickiest mystery—though the vicious misogyny behind the poison pen notes and threats is menacing and familiar to any woman who's ever published anything like an opinion. I always identified with Harriet's choice to write, and how she said she did it because she liked it and needed to make a living and was good at it, as if those were the only justifications that mattered. When I picked up Gaudy Night again in my 20s, what struck me is that it is so unlike other mysteries from the period; it's such a deeply personal, inward-looking story, as well as an intellectual romance. It is also a story almost entirely focused on women and their humanity, their importance, and their professional and personal desires. It made such a difference to me, reading it as a young person with so many more fears and doubts and painful regrets. I still love Harriet and Peter for their complexity, how difficult each can be, how determined they are to Do The Right Thing and how often they are completely unsure what that is. I love that they are not, themselves, all that young, and are still trying to figure out what a partnership of equals is and whether they can truly live with the costs of intimacy. And when I reread it now, I'm always struck by Harriet's strong survival instincts—her fierce desire to stake a claim to her own life and happiness. It's a book that never apologizes for her needs, her flaws, or her ambitions, and that still means a great deal to me. —Nicole Chung, editor at Catapult

10) The Lover by Margeurite DurasIn my early 20s, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover turned me on to reading as if reading was a totally new experience. As if I had been doing it wrong the whole time. Not really, of course, though it’s worth mentioning that Duras' very thin book—more like a book-slice—did manage to get me excited about writing that doesn’t so much exist on the page but haunts it. Duras' unnamed narrator speaks in circles; beautifully, plainly, in disagreement with herself. She is eager to tell her story yet uninterested in a linear telling of it. I was seduced. I remember reading, re-reading, and underlining, what felt more like glimpses than narrative. I remember the body of a character named Hélène Lagonelle, gold lamé shoes, a river. I remember this sentence by heart: “If writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing.” I remember this one too, "My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women." —Durga Chew-Bose, author of Too Much and Not the Mood

11) The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan LethemFor reasons that are growing increasingly fuzzy in my mind, I spent my 20s living in Amsterdam trying to marry a career as a professional squash player to what I hoped would become a career as a writer. I'd grown up in Brooklyn, where the novelists come from, but believed that in order to write I had to run as far away as I could. I was struggling through my first novel when I read Fortress of Solitude. Until that moment, I thought books had to be wildly imagined, fantastically conceived, take you places you’d never been, and force your mind into different worlds. I didn’t know that the best stories could be found so close to home and that my own block might hold enough magic and wonder, poetry and pain. From the first page, I knew I’d come home. (Lethem’s book is set five blocks from my parents’ house.) It was all there both physically and emotionally: the delicious freedom of being allowed to play on the street after dinner, the old men sitting on milk crates, rolling empties of Manhattan Special, the inner city wonder of an ailanthus pushing through the sidewalk, the remarkable childlike perspective of an entire world narrowed to a single city block. Lethem brilliantly recovered a time and a place I feared lost to gentrifying invaders, to people who love Brooklyn but for entirely different reasons that I did and do. Fortress of Solitude captures the entire panorama of my childhood, from the precise the slang of my corner of Brooklyn, the class anxieties of growing up in a neighborhood on the verge, to the pride I derived from my own outer-boroughness. And eventually, I believe, it summoned me home and showed me where I would find my own story. —Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street

12) Saga Series by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona StaplesSaga is a long operatic series of comic books about a war in space. It's just as nerdy as it sounds. It's also one of the best pieces of writing on gender and love and sex, family and parenting, and what brings people together and what tears them apart, war and racism and refugees, technology and loss and how we tell stories about all of these things, that I've ever read in any form. I would recommend it specifically to women for its heartbreakingly accurate depictions of what it's like to grow up as a woman in a world that's always brutal toward and suspicious of women, and what it's like to attempt to forge intimate relationships that defy the default sexist and racist settings of that world. But I'd also recommend it to anyone. Despite the fact that this made-up space opera world has very few actual humans in it, Saga is one of the most human things you'll ever read. —Helena Fitzgerald, writer

13) Corregidora by Gayl JonesGayl Jones's Corregidora is more than a blues novel, more than a slave narrative or queer text. It is a history, a roving geography, an anatomy of a tortured woman in search of both fluidity and wholeness. It interrogates the domestic relationship and ideas of ownership. I love Jones's exploration of inheritance, legacy, and autonomy through our protagonist, Ursa. Corregidora examines how the trauma of slavery is imprinted on the black female body and passed down from generation to generation. Gayl Jones's work remains essential and vital; I will be rereading her catalog for the rest of my life. —Kima Jones, poet, writer, and book publicist

14) Bad Behavior by Mary GaitskillIs it odd that, for most of my 20s, I treated a collection of fairly misanthropic, darkly humorous short stories as a guide to human behavior? Gaitskill's stories are about the internal wrangling a person does as they try to love themselves or other people, as they try to escape themselves or the people around them, as they try to secure happiness or relief—often finding those tenderer feelings are difficult in their own way. Gaitskill builds characters that are flawed and self-defeating but transforms these faults into points of empathy: what might seem gloomy and disaffected at first becomes a way back into the world, a world that is irritating and surprising and fiercely, piercingly felt. —Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

15) The Bloody Chamber by Angela CarterI first read Angela Carter’s alluring, frightening, wondrous collection of short stories that each bring new life to old fairytales sometime in college. Each sentence is as decadent as a slice of chocolate cake and as cutting as the edge of a freshly sharped blade. But the reason I felt so profoundly moved by the collection and continue to revisit it yearly isn’t just for its lyrical prowess. Each story including the titular novella at the beginning uses its fantastical trappings of entrancing Bluebeards, yearning vampires, and eerie Snow Whites to explore the wonder and horror of what it means to be a woman. The way her stories challenge conceptions of womanhood, especially female madness which I’ve struggled with being bipolar since I was in my early teens, gave me a radical new way to look at the world. The Bloody Chamber came at the perfect time in my life showing me what I could do as a writer just as I was trying to find my voice creatively. Her collection also proved to me that my perspective as a woman who seeks to understand my darkest experiences, like anger and mental illness, is actually vital. —Angelica Jade Bastien, writer at Vulture, The Outline, and more

16) The Lake by Banana YoshimotoAfter her mother dies, Chihiro feels disconnected from everyone in her life. But she forms a tentative relationship with a man whose mother has just died. It’s a book about finding a path onward despite the flaws in the world and the flaws in yourself. I read it in my early twenties, when I was living alone and feeling a sadness I couldn’t express. The book reminded me that it was possible to continue anyway. —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You

17) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldThe book that's overshadowed my 20s, like a watchful eye on the roadside, is The Great Gatsby. I began tweeting the novel, line by line, each night before I went to bed when I was 24. I wanted to do as much because I read that Hunter S. Thompson wrote it out in its entirety so he would know what it felt like to write a great novel. That apparently seemed like fun to me at the time! I have no idea why I decided to tweet it rather than drinking a bunch of coffee and rushing through it all in one night. But thank God I did. Breaking the book down into 140 characters, one night at a time, taught me to savor each line. And I think that's bled over into trying to savor other moments in my own life, to see them as distinct and individual, rather than as simply a stopgap before moving on to whatever I'm planning next. Watching the care Fitzgerald lavished on even seemingly unimportant sentences has made me strive to try to make each thing I do a perfect thing. Or, as close to it as I can manage, given the constraints of daily life. The project also been a reminder that even small steps every day do get you where you're going. Six years later, I'm almost finished tweeting the Great Gatsby, and it seems as though that time has gone by in a blink. I think about that whenever I am disinclined to do something because the end-date for a project seems impossibly far off.—Jennifer Wright, author of Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them

18) The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields This book changed how I think about life—the details that matter, the ones that don't, the power we have to choose who we become—and how I think about writing. Full disclosure—I'm 29 now, and just read this book for the first time a few months ago, but it spoke so deeply to how I've been feeling at this particular moment in my life—looking back on a decade in which I found my footing in the world but so often felt lost, and looking forward into a future that still seems, though so much has been decided, full of possibility. The Stone Diaries is the fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Stone Goodwill, and it follows her from her birth in 1905 through her death. The narrative structure is unique—it combines scene and memory with objective records like recipes, letters, and addresses, and sometimes toggles to peripheral characters. There's something about this collage-like approach, the way it magnifies the twists and turns of Daisy's life (which is both conventional, in some ways, and so so surprising) that articulates something so profound about time and perception and the value of the littlest moments. I don't think I would have been ready for it in my early twenties, but in my late twenties, on the cusp of thirty, it is exactly the book I needed—a reminder to live deliberately and with compassion and grace. —Julie Buntin, author of Marlena

19) Valley Fever by Katherine TaylorI began Valley Fever on a gray winter morning. My usual laundromat was closed and so I’d had to walk three blocks, as rain became snow. But then I opened Valley Fever, a sensuous, cantankerous love letter to California. The book begins in Los Angeles, my own hometown, but it unspools in Fresno and the farmland of the Central Valley. It’s about a beloved family farm: orange dust, apricot trees, glasses of vodka with frozen table grapes instead of ice cubes. At its center are the Palamedes, a family coming apart at the seams. 

I forgot the laundromat, forgot the sleet outside. I was stuck that winter: trying to finish my novel, trying to prove that I’d created an actual life across the country from where I once belonged. Ingrid Palamede talks about the kind of nostalgia for home you feel even when you’re there. On that morning, reading about California, I felt the heat and the air of my childhood so close that it seemed possible I’d go back again. But then, evidently, this tart, haunting book had already cast its spell, for I'd forgotten the novel's first line: "I don't return to places I've lived." —Angelica Baker, author of Our Little Racket

20) Like Life by Lorrie MooreI was in my early 20s and had just moved to New York when I read Lorrie Moore's Like Life for the first time. Though she wrote her collection in 1990 and I found it a full 15 years later, I feel like it found me at the exact moment it was supposed to. There is a story in it called "Vissi D'Arte," about a struggling, pretentious playwright who lives in a dumpy apartment overlooking Times Square with a woman who wishes he would give up and give into capitalistic ambition instead of working on his magnum opus, which he can never seem to finish. When he finally does decide to sell out his ideas to Hollywood, well, he gets terribly taken advantage of and loses everything. I remember reading this story as a kind of tragic urban parable: The city wants to wring out every last drop of your patience, will, and creativity, and it will always want more. Still, I was so in love with Moore's writing—which is suffused with empathy, sorrow, and bad puns; perfect for your 20s—that it made me feel like pressing through the doubt. In the story, she writes the best passage about that moment when you finally embrace New York, which is what my 20s were about. "There is a way of walking in New York, midevening, in the big, blocky East Fifties, that causes the heart to open up and the entire city to rush in and make a small town there...The city stops its painful tantalizing then, its elusiveness and tease suspended, it takes off its clothes and nestles wakefully, generously, next to you. It is there, it is yours, no longer outwitting you. And it is not scary at all, because you love it very much." —Rachel Syme, writer and editor

21) Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace PaleyMy pick would be Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute or any of her other three story collections. She's such a clear, compassionate, and witty writer, and her narrators are always in search of their lives. We should all be. —Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody Is Ever Missing

22) The Argonauts by Maggie NelsonI read The Argonauts in the summer of 2015, which was also the summer I came out. I felt instantly more comfortable and alienated all at once, wanting desperately to be surrounded by queerness but also wanting nothing to change. Reading this book let me wrestle with my newfound identity through Nelson's own self-discovery, and made me feel more at peace about the limitations inherent in knowing oneself. —Katie Heaney, author of Public Relations

23) Valencia by Michelle TeaAt 22, this book mirrored back to me the journey I was on—exploring San Francisco and my sexuality—and made it feel all the more epic. —Melissa Broder, author of So Sad Today

24) Chelsea Girls by Eileen MylesEileen Myles' Chelsea Girls came into my life when I was just starting to give in to the impulse to write about my own. Her stories about her own 20s, chasing girls in New York City, getting drunk, being broke, being a poet, resonated so hard and provided a model for seeing your daily life as cinematic, wild, worthy of documentation. —Michelle Tea, author of Black Wave

25) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri No book I have ever read has simultaneously hurt and comforted in the way The Namesake did. I avoided it for years even though everyone told me it was incredible; I went through this phase where I was unable to read work by and about brown people because it felt too painful because I was full of too much self-loathing. But recently, in my mid-20s, I read it, and I was partly right: for immigrants or children of immigrants or anyone who has had a parent, really, the book, asked for your ache. But it made me feel, visible and loved and warm. I gave it to my mom last week. She's sad too, which weirdly enough, makes me kind of happy. —Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

26) The Dollmaker by Harriette ArnowI read The Dollmaker in my mid-twenties—the story of east Kentucky wife and mother Gertie Nevels, who follows the “Hillbilly Highway” out of the mountains to a new life in Detroit during World War 2. The book’s most significant journey, however, is Gertie’s growth as an artist. A lifelong whittler who bashfully refers to the practice as “foolishness,” is privately and ardently devoted to making things, spending most of the book on a carving destined to be either Jesus or Judas, if only she can “hit on the right face.” I loved the book because of Gertie, who is startlingly sturdy and resourceful, (in the first twenty pages, she stops a military vehicle with her mule and administers an emergency tracheotomy) but also filled with yearning, longingly fingering the whittling knife in her pocket while performing the mundane tasks that keep her family going.

I spent most of my time in my 20s trying to be a writer, struggling, and in my floundering, sometimes lost sight of why I wanted to do it in the first place. Revisiting the book recently, I connected even more deeply to Gertie’s nameless urge to create – and, in making things, growing closer to this wonderful universal force that is larger than she is. —Kayla Rae Whitaker, author of The Animators

27) Sex and the City by Candace BushnellPeople still talk about how iconic the Sex and the City HBO series was, but the 1996 book it's based on (which, in turn, was based on the columns the author, Candace Bushnell, wrote for The New York Observer) is darkly hilarious — and eerily, timelessly accurate. For a woman in her 20s, it's a useful guidebook to the types of men you'll meet in New York; just imagine them now with iPhones and a Twitter account. Here's Bushnell on the tweedy, literary "Bicycle Boys" of New York, a "particular breed of New York bachelor: Smart, funny, romantic, lean, quite attractive, they are the stuff that grown-up coed dreams are made of... But there's a dark side: Most Bicycle Boys are not married and probably never will be." Ladies, proceed with caution. —Doree Shafrir, author of Startup

28) The Portrait of a Lady by Henry JamesI was 20 or 21. I was on winter break from college and there was a blizzard, so I read for two or three days straight. If you want to get the full Isabel Archer cautionary tale experience, I recommend getting snowed in with this novel. The dread will mark you permanently. Of all James’ characters, Isabel is my clear favorite—the one I rooted for the hardest, and the one who broke my heart by making such a disastrous choice in marrying Osmond. But this is not just an old-fashioned nineteenth-century novel about an oppressive marriage. It’s about an ambitious young woman fighting to clear a new path for herself beyond the conventional wisdom. It’s her quest for personal freedom and independence. She came by her mistakes honestly by taking risks, which I took to heart in my twenties. —Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Everything Belongs to Us

29) Look Homeward Angel by Thomas WolfeI love Barry Manilow. Don’t judge. I’ve loved him for more than 30 years now since I was a child living in rural North Carolina with my mother. I had no choice since my mother played his melancholy ballads with great regularity and at great volume in our home. My mom sang along with him about their great heartbreaks and loves gone so wrong and too many failed attempts at happiness. Barry’s pain was the soundtrack of my adolescence. You can test me, I know all the words. My mother was young then, just in her early thirties. When you are young and lonely with hope and little else, you want to hear someone else’s keening, his cries of great despair, her disappointment about her complete and utter inability to make life work. I think this is the reason I also loved Thomas Wolfe’s wonderful character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward Angel. Gant didn’t just say he was lost and sad and lonely and afraid that he might never live the life he dreamed, he primal screamed it for seven hundred pages! The sheer weight of the novel made you feel like an adult just carrying it around.  In long, sprawling, lyrical sentences, Wolfe wrote about the turmoil going on in the head of his talented main character. Wolfe wrote “he walked alone in the darkness, death and the dark angels hovered, and no one saw him.” I could relate to that invisibility. I too felt unseen. Like Wolfe’s Gant I felt like too many factors of poverty, family obligation, religion and circumstance had conspired to keep me in place and I would not be able to travel on my own hero’s journey. I needed to be seen. Young people do. We all do. But young people need to know others see and understand their suffering. They don’t yet know the relief, but also the sadness in the fact that nothing lasts forever even the weight of their pain. They don’t know that life, even a very good life is a series of attempts as Barry himself might say of “Trying to Get the Feeling Again.” —Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming to Save Us 

30) White Boy Shuffle by Paul BeattyI read Paul Beatty's White Boy Shuffle in my last year of college and it was *everything* in the truest sense of the word. It was raw and funny and specific; it was every joke I’d ever made and every reference I’d ever noted, plus about a million more, spun out in sharp and unexpected directions; it was every outrageously unfair historical absurdity, all smashed into a novel that took place in my hometown of Los Angeles, a world away from snowy upstate New York. It made me feel both seen and surpassed in a wholly exciting way. Encountering it in my twenties, at a moment when I was just starting to think of myself as a writer, it was also an example of new a way to write about our collective now and to take on difficult issues with humor and heart. Read it!! —Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World

31) Black Girl in Paris by Shay YoungbloodBlack Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood meant a lot to me in my early twenties, because like the protagonist, a young aspiring writer, who left America to live in Paris like her literary idol, James Baldwin; I left my home county of Jamaica to pursue my dreams in America. Black Girl in Paris spoke to me because I, too, had to navigate a new path on my own journey into womanhood and selfhood in a new country. —Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun

32) Birds of America by Lorrie MooreI first encountered Lorrie Moore before a Pap smear, in the waiting room of my college health center. I opened The New Yorker to her short story "Real Estate," about a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer and who has discovered another of her husband's affairs: "In the end, they'd made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" The "Ha! Ha! Ha!"s went on for seven lines. My jaw dropped. You could do that? In fiction? In life? I went out and bought her story collection Birds of America in hardcover, the one that looked like it was wrapped in children's newsprint, the one with the four different varieties of bird stickers to choose from. (What kind of bird was I?) Every story seemed to be another brilliant incantation of that string of "Ha! Ha! Ha!"s, which in the book went on for a ballsy and astounding two pages. I needed that fiercely sarcastic version of womanhood that year, that piercing, dowdy flourish of a middle finger. I spent many more hours reading in the waiting rooms of women's clinics and began writing stories of my own. After I turned in one about a college girl who has the precancerous cells scraped from her cervix (utterly cluttered with exclamation marks!), my professor wrote on it, not unimpressed, "Maybe stop reading so much Lorrie Moore?" I have not stopped reading Lorrie Moore and I don't intend to. That ended up becoming my first published story. Ha! Ha! Ha! —Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints