How reading women changed my life – and could change yours too

Nat Newman set herself the challenge of only reading women writers for a year. Here she talks about her experience and how it changed and enriched her reading habits for good.

A few years ago, on this very site, I announced that I was going to be spending the year reading nothing but books by women. To further complicate things for myself, I decided to do it in alphabetical order from A to Z. Over the course of 2014, I read books by Kate Atkinson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Marina Lewycka, Nancy Mitford, and Sylvia Plath, among others. I’m ashamed to say that before this challenge, I’d literally never read any of those authors before.

People set challenges for different reasons, but usually a challenge should change you in some way. And I can unequivocally say that focusing on women writers for a year completely changed the way I read. Prior to that year, I mostly read classics. I never read bestsellers, considering them somehow inferior. I avoided genre unless it was specifically recommended to me or was considered a classic.

I was, in every sense of the word, a complete and utter book snob.


But what I discovered, and why I set myself the challenge, was that by being a book snob, I had inadvertently cut myself off from most work by women. I was the living embodiment of what is usually termed indirect or covert sexism.

And I call myself a feminist. Ha.

So yeah, I set myself this challenge. It wasn’t easy. I spend most of my time in Zagreb, Croatia. The English-language section of the public library is quite good (certainly better than the Croatian-language section of any library anywhere else in the world!) – but to stick to my self-defined rule of staying in alphabetical order, I had to stray way outside my genre comfort zone. I also had my Kindle. But definitely, I was setting myself up for a limited range of books for the year.

Reading women
Source: Nat Newman

For these reasons, I didn’t have a lot of hope. To be honest, I expected to read a lot of trash.

I was very, very wrong.

What I found was a rich and diverse range of voices with fascinating stories and beautiful prose. I admit that I did read a couple of stinkers as well. But mostly my mind was opened up to a whole new world – new genres, new stories, contemporary fiction, classics, humour, sadness, joy – the whole range of fiction, basically.

I discovered the rich talent of Penelope Fitzgerald (I’ve gone on to read more of her stuff); I read Ellen Ulman’s brilliant book about IT in the 80s The Bug; I learned more about the history of my own country in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.

And a lot of this had been closed to me before because I’d had some stupid idea of what ‘real’ literature was. Gods. What an idiot I’d been.

Since then, I no longer limit myself in my reading. I’ll pick up any old thing and give it a try. If it’s breathtakingly awful, I’ll can it after a few chapters. But at least I give it a go. I’m not hamstringing myself before I even start.

Reading more women paved the way for me to try other genres and even *gasp* contemporary fiction. I read Sebastian Barry and Peter Ackroyd for the first time this year! They’re not even that young!

In a roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is that rules can be both restrictive and liberating. Having a rule like ‘I only read dusty old white guys’ is setting yourself up for failure and stupidity. A rule like ‘I’ve identified this gap in my knowledge and I’m going to spend a year filling it in’ opens you up and creates opportunity.

Reading women

A year of reading women is not for everybody. But if you think that maybe you’re being inadvertently sexist, or racist, or lean too heavily in one political direction, or any other bias you think you might have then set yourself a project – make the next five books you read challenge you. Read outside your comfort zone – you never know what you’ll find out there.

Current events have shown us that we all need shaking out of our bubbles – this is one simple way you can do that, without even leaving your house (except maybe to go to the library…)

Set your challenge! The next five books I read are going to be:

– by [ people of colour / straight white dudes / transphobic lesbians / returned veterans / surfer girls / gay Muslims / ex-Catholic nuns ]

– about [ romantic comedies set in New York / war memoirs / literary fiction / works in translation ]

– set in [ the future / on a distant planet / in Africa somewhere / in my home town ]

My list of titles during my year of reading women:

Life After Life Kate Atkinson
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Brontë
The Song of the Lark Willa Cather
The Lost Dog Michelle de Kretser
The Bride Price Buchi Emecheta
The Gate of Angels Penelope Fitzgerald
Unintended Consequences Marti Green
The Secret River Kate Grenville
Any Place I Hang My Hat Susan Isaacs
War Crimes For The Home Liz Jensen
I Was Here Rachel Kadish
Two Caravans Marina Lewycka
Love in a Cold Climate Nancy Mitford
Miss Marjoribanks Margaret Oliphant
The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
Interview with the Vampire Anne Rice
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark
The Brother Clerks; A Tale of New-Orleans Mary Ashley Townsend
The Little Friend Donna Tartt
The Bug Ellen Ullman
In the Mountains Elizabeth von Arnim
Miss Bugle Saw God in the Cabbages Sara Yeomans

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