Books – they have always been an influential factor in my life (beyond parents and school, that is). They taught me about life, love, happiness, and strength and endurance through the toughest of times. The books that I read as a child were inspirational – they gave me a world to escape to and expanded my imagination beyond the parameters of most children, especially most girls.
Now that I am older, I look back and realize that there are so many books that didn’t just teach me to be a good, strong person, but rather how to be the woman who I am today. It is that reason that I thought I’d share some of the ways that books have taught me to be the best woman who I can be. I encourage you to read these books which include both fiction and nonfiction works — if not to better yourself, then just to enjoy because they are each amazing and entertaining in their own way.
How to Be Independent and Discover Who I Am
The Flamethrowers might be my favorite novel of all time. It’s a coming-of-age novel which means that the main character learns who she is (or at least something about herself) through the experiences she goes through in the novel. Set in the mid-1970s, Reno, the main female character, gets swept up by the attraction of so many things (like so many of us are wont to do) – art, motorcycles, men, love, politics. It takes a lot for her to realize that her identity is not tied to who she is with or her accomplishments which is a vital lesson that I benefited from and one that made me who I am today. There will always be men, politics, revolutions, and fun and exciting things, but I cannot lose myself among those things, especially if I don’t take the time to figure out who I am.
Read the book – it’s thrilling, sexy, and will altogether make you think about who you are and where you are going.
Understanding the Intersections of Gender and Race
As a woman of color, there came a time in my life where I searched for books that featured women of color either in similar or different situations than I was in. I was drawn to So Far From God and The Joy Luck Club because they featured families of women – one Mexican American, the other Asian and Asian American. These two stories share female experiences with immigration, racism, love, pain, and healing. Better yet, they do so in a way that shows the strength and endurance that women of color in America must have to survive and live happily and successfully. More importantly, they gave me insight into the identity of race and how it directly relates to women, which is why I encourage all women (whether they are women of color or not) to read these two books, and others like them. Learn how women live in different cultures than yours, empathize with their situation, and gain a new understanding.
Gossip and a Woman’s Reputation
Yes, Wicked is a famous play and sure it’s a great performance (I saw it on Broadway), but I learned far more from reading the novel. If you aren’t familiar with Wicked, it’s the story of the Wicked Witch from the novel The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch, known as Elphaba, was always a one-dimensional character, until Gregory Maguire showed us differently. I don’t want to give anything away, except to say that Wicked provides a background of the Wicked Witch and how and why she came to be known as “wicked.” Ironically, by reading this novel you learn that Elphaba is far more than she appears to be and not so wicked.
This novel taught me a very important rule that most women don’t learn for far too long: bad reputations about women are just one dimension of who that woman is and where she came from. Her “bad” reputation does not determine her actions or even who she is as a person. Negative reputations can sometimes come from gossip and back-talking and it’s one of the biggest forms of bullying that women fall prey to, especially as teens and during college. Read Wicked, and learn to not judge based off assumptions or stories.
Be Aware of the Love You’re Looking For
This is a beautiful novel for so many reasons. The language that Hurston uses in this book is just so lyrical that it’s hard not to fall in love with the lilting of accents of the main characters. But I digress. Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie, an African-American woman in the early forties and her three disastrous marriages. Throughout the novel, Janie wants a real love but this want blinds her to the negative aspects of the men she marries.
I saw a little of myself in Janie while reading this book. I saw myself with an ex-boyfriend, constantly ignoring the negative aspects of our relationship because I was “head over heels” in love, or so I thought. This novel taught me to be patient and to be wary and to not let love rule my life or take away who I am as a person and a woman. For you won’t catch me standing quietly, obediently, or behind any husband of mine — thanks to Janie.
It’s Okay to Wait and Experience the World First
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
Young girls are still too often raised to have lower goals than men, to be excited and determined to get married and have kids. I’m 26 and am not married and don’t have kids, though many of the girls I grew up with are and do. It’s not a bad thing and for the most part, they seem happy and I’m happy for them. We each have our own path. However, in addition to my parents raising me to set high goals, books helped to see a world full of opportunity and adventure and so I made choices to wait on marriage and kids.
Despite all that, there came a time in my early 20s in which I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing and I felt a bit lonely doing things that not a lot of women my age were doing such as traveling — solo. That was, until I read What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding. In this nonfiction memoir, Kristin Newman tells her adventures as a young woman beginning with her teens. The outcome of the story isn’t as important as the telling so I’ll spoil it: she didn’t find love and didn’t have a family until her mid to late 30s. And though she was one of the few women she knew who did this, her life was ever the more amazing for it. She lived, she traveled, she had amazing sex on adventures, she saw the world, never said no to an opportunity, and more importantly she was successful in so many terms.
So for those days in which I feel a bit lonely for not having a boyfriend, I remember this novel and it reminds me to explore this world first – before love and family because I’m not missing out by waiting, but perhaps gaining something much more important.
Side note: this memoir is the FUNNIEST book I have ever read. Buy it, now.
I Can Handle More Than I Believe I Can
Kids. I have a love, hate relationship with those young beings. The idea of having a kid, whether it be accidentally or planned, increases my anxiety at first thought, but it was The Bean Trees that lessened those fears. In this fictional novel, a young woman finds herself in the care of a Native American toddler who has been the victim of abuse. Now how did this book make me into a better woman? Taylor, the protagonist, learns the hard way that she can handle more than she believes she can – like raising a child, especially one suffering from emotional abuse and one that was not even hers to begin with. After reading the novel, I realized that I have always been stronger than I believe, as most women are, and if children are in my future, I like the idea of adopting thanks to this novel.
I Won’t Let My Rights Be Taken Away
In my opinion, I think The Handmaid’s Tale should be on the required reading list for every high school and college student in the world. Let me explain why. This novel is speculative fiction set in America’s future where a Christian theocracy (government) has taken over and subjugated women to be tools for breeding and serving men hand and foot. They have no rights and are abused in a variety of ways.
Though I have always been a staunch advocate for women’s rights, I never realized the scary reality of how many in the world are trying to take away my right to my own body, until I read this book.
The Stanford Rape Case, the Chris Brown abuse of Rihanna, Texas trying to take away abortion, companies refusing to cover birth control on health insurance, and the many instances of victim blaming in high-profile athlete and celebrity rape cases with the man getting away with it – God, the sad thing is, I COULD NAME FIFTY MORE EXAMPLES of things like this that have happened in JUST the United States in the last five years.
My body is my own and yet too many in the world still don’t see it that way. And at times, I’m blamed for things for just being born into this body. This novel made me realize that I have a duty to stand up and speak out for women’s rights, for I refuse to live in a society such as exists in The Handmaid’s Tale. That is why this book should be taught in high schools to both boys and girls – for the sad truth is, a world such as in this novel could be a reality, and in some ways, it already was.
Side note: this book will make you feel all kinds of emotions.
To Be Fearless
Oh, Mattie Ross… I love the main female character of True Grit. She may be 14 years of age but she has more, well, grit, than most women twice her age have today and for that I admire her. In this novel, Mattie’s father is murdered, so she hires a lawman to help her ride after the murderer and bring him in. She’s a fearless young woman with a voice that’s sassy and confident, who has no care for how a girl or woman should “properly behave” in her time, the 1870s. Even today, women are taught to behave in certain ways, and if Mattie were alive and real, she’d throw some shade on that sexist crap.
So you see why it’s not hard to be inspired by her fearlessness. For as women, we have a lot to stand up against and for and if there’s anything that a good book can teach a woman – it’s to always stand strong in the face of adversity, while flipping the bird to the “expectations” of women from society.