Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Lulu Nunn: 74 Essential Books (an alternative canon)

When Open Culture recently published Jorge Luis Borges’ list of 74 ‘great works of literature’, Lulu Nunn saw one glaring issue: the list included no works by women.

Whether intentional or not, the fact that women are excluded from Borges’ 1985 list means that many significant books have been overlooked. While not wanting  to discredit the works listed in any way, Nunn felt that Borges’ selection needs to be accompanied by an alternative list.

So Nunn queried a group of international women writers, artists and curators, and based on their nominations compiled an alternative canon — one just as varied, loose and substantial as that of Borges, but made up solely of writers identifying as women or non-gender-binary. Nunn makes clear that this alternative canon is not intended to invalidate the original but rather to encourage dialogue and to provide a balance to the male canon. Here’s her list:

Agatha Christie – The Mousetrap
Albertine Sarrazin – L’Astragale
Alice Walker – The Color Purple
Anaïs Nin – Little Birds
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
Angela Davis – Are Prisons Obselete?
Anita Desai – Clear Light of Day
Anne Carson – Autobiography of Red
Anne Frank – The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Sexton – Live or Die
Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things
Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen
bell hooks – Ain’t I a Woman?
Beryl Bainbridge – Master Georgie
Beryl Markham – West with the Night
Buchi Emecheta – The Joys of Motherhood
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
Charlotte Roche – Feuchtgebiete
Chris Kraus – I Love Dick
Colette – Chéri
Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca
Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
Edith Wharton – Age of Innocence
Eileen Myles – Inferno
Elfriede Jelinek – Women as Lovers
Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
Flannery O’Connor – Complete Stories
Françoise Sagan – Bonjour Tristesse
George Eliot – Silas Marner
Gertrude Stein – The Making of Americans
Gwendolyn Brooks – To Disembark
Hannah Arendt – The Human Condition
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
Hillary Mantel – Wolf Hall
Iris Murdoch – The Sea, The Sea
James Tiptree Jr. – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea
Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies
Joan Didion – Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Joyce Carol Oates – A Bloodsmoore Romance
Jung Chang – Wild Swans
Kate Zambreno – Heroines
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
Leonora Carrington – The Hearing Trumpet
Leslie Feinberg – Stone Butch Blues
Lorrie Moore – Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
Louise Erdrich – The Beet Queen
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
Marguerite Duras – Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Michelle Cliff – Abeng
Miranda July – No One Belongs Here More Than You
Monique Wittig – Les Guérillères
Murasaki Shikibu – Genji Monogatari
Muriel Spark – The Driver’s Seat
Octavia Butler – Kindred
Rachel Carson – Silent Spring
Roxane Gay – An Untamed State
Sappho – Fragments
Sara Stridsberg – Darling River
Sei Shōnagon – The Pillow Book
Simone Weil – Gravity and Grace
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha – Dictée
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Tove Jansson – Mumintroll series
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions
Ursula K Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
Virginia Woolf – The Waves
Willa Cather – The Song of the Lark
Zadie Smith – On Beauty

Lulu Nunn is a London-based artist, writer, curator and editor.

This alternative canon was originally published in Open Culture.


— Virginia Woolf

4 comments on “Lulu Nunn: 74 Essential Books (an alternative canon)

  1. Thomas Dillingham
    August 25, 2016

    Sorry to be picky, but Atwood’s Handmaid did not have a “tail”–it’s Handmaid’s Tale. And I notice the absence of, for example, Gabriela Mistral, Sor Juana de la Cruz, Silvana Ocampo, Svetlana Alexievich, Marianne Moore, just to name a few. Such lists are always subject to quibbles, and I do approve of calling attention to the lack of women’s names in the Borges list–but consider the situation and the source. One could go on.


  2. Pingback: Useful writings | Peter Grace Online

  3. erikleo
    March 28, 2015

    I must get round to reading Virginia Woolf sometime soon! My ony blind spot in the whole of literature is Jane Austin! (Yes, P & P was a set book at school when I was a testosterone fuelled teenager!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. sharondoubiago
    March 28, 2015

    I’m grateful for this list. Except there are many other important women writers who should be on it, including myself. I remember the birth of one of the women on this list and I think her inclusion is a bit premature. Sharon Doubiago

    Liked by 1 person

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