Literacy should be at the centre of our culture. Instead, I often find a lot of young people are ditching books for Netflix. Some people have also told me that they “don’t have time to read”. As a former English tutor, I’ve seen the impact of this kind of attitude. I want to change this – I want to make books more mainstream. I want people to open their newsfeeds, hear more about books and less about celebrities and low-quality TV shows. I know that’s a lot to ask, but improved literacy is absolutely worth the fight.
With all that in mind, here are five awesome books by female authors I’ve read in the past year.
1. Rebecca (1938) – Daphne Du Maurier
Forget the recent film adaptation; there is nothing better than Rebecca the book. Rebecca has a reputation as one of the most compelling and engaging novels – a reputation I found to be true. From the famous opening line, “last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, the reader is drawn into the shadowy world of Manderley and the ominous Rebecca. There are lots of twists and turns, and all it is not as it seems. I’d heard a lot of good things about the book, and I can absolutely attest to its significance and value. Du Maurier’s imagery is so vivid you feel as though you too are at Manderley. The good news is that Rebecca is so respected you can probably find a copy at any library or bookshop, so make sure you add it to your list.
2. Middlemarch (1871) – George Eliot
Middlemarch is a long book, but with such engaging and lifelike characters, the novel is well worth the time. It’s by Mary Anne Evans, an English author who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. Middlemarch follows the lives of characters in a bustling, provincial Midlands town during the 1830s. The main characters are phenomenally designed to raise poignant questions about morality, gender and marriage. The book is regarded as one of the finest examples of 19th century English literature. In fact, Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grownup people”. I believe this is a reference to the ending of the novel, but I won’t spoil that for you. Instead, pick up a copy of Middlemarch and, like Virginia Woolf and many others, experience the wonderful book yourself.
3. Eva Luna (1987) – Isabel Allende
Chilean author Isabel Allende wrote Eva Luna in 1987. It’s a nice contrast to the other novels on this list in that it challenges a lot of European norms about love, bodies and magic. Gender is also central to the novel. The eponymous protagonist Eva Luna encounters various obstacles due to her gender, with male and female characters attempting to limit her activities and behaviours on the basis of what it means to be a “lady” or a “good” woman. An avid storyteller, Eva Luna uses her imagination to escape a lifetime of poverty, misogyny and abandonment. Eva Luna is certainly a different reading experience, but that’s what makes it so great. This one is a little harder to find in store, so go online.
4. To the Lighthouse (1927) – Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse is a fine example of how form and structure are essential to reader experience. Based on Virginia Woolf’s own family, this book, is a deep exploration of the small intricacies of the mind, and how day to day interactions, or the little moments, define our experiences. I’ve heard a lot of people get put off by Woolf’s long sentences, but please – stick it out. She is a fantastically complex writer whose challenging style reveals the nuance and messiness of life, thereby undermining gender roles and institutions like the nuclear family. She does through the people’s innermost thoughts and the inherent tensions in social interactions, such as between partners or within families. To the Lighthouse is a thoughtful collection of feelings that summarise a time of great social upheaval and the power behind storytelling, relationships and memory. The novel led people to think differently about themselves, about family, conflict and interpersonal relationships, and it certainly has had an impact on me.
5. Always Coming Home (1985) – Ursula Le Guin
I put this one last because Always Coming Home is my favourite novel of all time. Ursula Le Guin is the daughter of famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and one of the most recognised science fiction authors ever. Her most well-known books are The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness (both great reads, by the way) and the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. These are all fantastic – and I highly recommend them – but Always Coming Home is an often forgotten gem. The book takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of California, although, with the exception of styrofoam and an omnipotent computer network, chillingly there are no remnants of our time. Instead of following a linear format, Always Coming Home is a collection of songs, poems and stories from the fictional Kesh people. The Kesh practise a very different life from what we know today; they live in small communities, detest the accumulation of possessions and have no interest in expansion or conflict. In Always Coming Home Le Guin created something truly thought-provoking, a piece which challenges the accepted and normalised practices of Western, industrialized cultures, and points to the inevitable decline of such civilisation, and of everything we know today.
Books are not just entertainment, but vital sources of knowledge, of criticism and of different ways of interpreting the world. We should be mindful of what we consume, or don’t consume, because ultimately this act of consumption is, and always will be, a political act. Literacy is a spectrum, and if we don’t make time and space for critical reading then we, as a state, culture, civilization or whatever you call it, we will find ourselves slipping more and more into stormy waters and or even a dark apocalypse, almost like something out of an Ursula Le Guin novel.