My Year of Reading Women

Dani McCarthy

When I was very young, each Sunday, I would wake my parents at first light, leaping between them without any grace. I would burrow there for hours, a peaceful silence settling over the house as my Dad read his book and my Mum pottered around the house.

Eventually we moved into a flat in London, the living room space made even smaller by hundreds of Dad’s books which lined its walls. I would run my hands over their spines, pick them out at random and quiz him on the contents of each. He never stammered or stalled, instead I was free to pore over their pages until I was suitably bored. 

In this way, I found the thing I love at a very young age. I looked to Dad’s shelves first, eventually moving to others. I’d trawl through secondhand bookshops in search of what Virginia Woolf called the wild, homeless books that wait there. I looked for the most worn I could find, taking wear and tear as a sign of love. 

When last summer the time came to pack up my old bedroom, I’d amassed my own treasure trove of books. As the stacks lay at my feet, it dawned on me that there was a theme. While some people prefer Russian or French literature, my collection had a commonality: most of my books had been written by men.

I did two things. First, I culled, taking more than half of them to the local charity shop. And then I decided that for the next year, I would only read work written by women – both old and new, the immensely popular and those lesser known but just as loved.

I spoke to friends that appeased me but were mainly confused, friends of friends who passed on recommendations. Women I barely knew messaged me to pass on a book they believe changed their life or formed them in a defining way.

My ‘to read’ list was longer than it had ever been, and happily, I realised just how many incredible women writers I hadn’t discovered yet. Except I also noticed that while there was no shortage of incredible work by women, they weren’t so easy to find on shop floors. Yet there were countless books by men taking up ordinate space on shelves. 

I persevered.

Gradually I noticed independent bookstores championing works by women, too, as more and more all-women displays sprang up. In London, I discovered The Second Shelf and Pages Cheshire Street. The more I read, the more my passion for this personal project grew.

It started with Women by Chloe Caldwell. Her description of falling in love, into the dark and unknown feeling eerily familiar. Charlotte Bronte, Doris Lessing, and Nora Ephron made my experience in romance feel normal, when for so long I’d felt like there was something deeply wrong in the way that I loved. And then a dozen others which showed me the passion and defiance of a woman in love.

Memoirs by Joan Didion, Natalia Ginzburg, Jean Hannah Edelstein, and Dolly Alderton left me constantly moved. I was angry that I’d been told that memoir was a dirty word. 

For the first time, I read and enjoyed poetry unselfconsciously. Mary Oliver’s questions felt directed straight at me, asking for me to declare my plan for my one wild and precious life. I didn’t have the first clue and I’d never thought to ask. I began to question, to ask for more.  

I read Hera Lindsey Bird and realised my idea of passion had been wrong all along. Screaming and passion are not the same and I don’t think I knew this before.

I heard the words of Bridget Minamore and Thembe Mvula and they made me want to walk the length of London back home. They spoke of home like they’d been there too.

Some old favourites brought me comfort in times of need. I revisited the worlds of Dodie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith, and felt that rare thing of falling in love all over again.  

As my year of reading women came to an end, I grew reflective of what it taught me. More than anything, it showed me a side of sisterhood, of defiance, that hadn’t been clear to me in earlier years. Now, at the very least, I know where to look. 

Dani is a dedicated reader and emerging writer living in Brighton. She has spent the past year reading work written by women, sharing her discoveries on @littlewritesx. She has a penchant for second hand bookshops and collecting snow globes from around the world.