The best books by or about world-changing women

Steven Nightingale Author Of The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace: 64 Stories
By Steven Nightingale

Who am I?

The first person I ever trusted in the world was a high-school English teacher, a woman named Margaret Muth. She plucked me out of a trash-can, literally and figuratively. When I was seventeen years old, she told me: “Books will teach you. They will help you. Choose books the way you choose the risks you take in life: do it patiently, thoughtfully. Then give yourself to them with a whole heart. This is how you learn.” This is one sentence, from one teacher, given to a teenager of decidedly crude and primitive material—one sentence that changed his whole life for the better. Bless her. 


I wrote...

The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace: 64 Stories

By Steven Nightingale,

Book cover of The Hot Climate of Promises and Grace: 64 Stories

What is my book about?

The book collects the stories of sixty-four women the writer has known during his idiosyncratic and exploratory life. These women are keen, strange, ardent, and their labors and playfulness in our world and in our time are a testimony of mischief, invention, laughter, and magical initiative. They are everywhere. They do everything: they are doctors, writers, burglars, investment bankers, rebels, painters, college students, bartenders, hikers, healers in the rain forest of Jamaica, securities attorneys in San Francisco….

Each has their own destined work. And they show us, each of them, the hidden reality of that work in a very few pages of revelation.

The books I picked & why

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The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

By Emily Dickinson,

Book cover of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Why this book?

One of the most radical and life-giving books ever written, this compilation of the verse of Dickinson holds almost all the poems she wrote out in what she called “fair copy”, bound in small booklets, and put all together in a chest in her room. She published only six poems in her lifetime. The complete work was not collected until 1951. Now she is read and honored worldwide and recognized as one of the most intuitive, powerful, and original poets of any country or any century.


A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World

By Jay Griffiths,

Book cover of A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World

Why this book?

It is something of a commonplace that the most important subjects in life are somehow the least amenable to the long essay. Where are the great books on love, grace, revelation, understanding, or peace? 

And what about childhood? Everyone has one, and many people want to be parents, but where are the transformative and indispensable books on this subject? Now we have one, at last, this capacious, passionate, searching, learned book, by one of the most gifted prose stylists writing in English in the present day. It’s beautiful to read, and essential for our cultural moment. 


The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

By Saira Shah,

Book cover of The Storyteller's Daughter: One Woman's Return to Her Lost Homeland

Why this book?

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman. Saira Shah recounts her journeys in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the context of her upbringing in a family with deep roots in the region. She is on the ground during the rise of the Taliban and the fight against the Russian occupation, and the story is hair-raising, enlightening, revelatory, informed, and insightfully detailed. Ms. Shah went on to make the celebrated documentary Beneath the Veil, risking her life daily to shoot video during the first phase of Taliban control. Unforgettable, and indispensable for understanding Afghanistan.


First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra

By Widad El Sakkakini, Nabil Safwat (translator),

Book cover of First Among Sufis: The Life and Thought of Rabia al-Adawiyya, the Woman Saint of Basra

Why this book?

A book about a saint of the eighth century, whose life and declarations offer an in-depth and clear portrait of the Sufi path. Her miracles were casual and instrumental, her encounters serve for all of us as material for reflection, and her sayings are beautiful and transformative of the mind. Two examples: “I will not serve God as a laborer, in expectation of my wages.” And “Lord, if I worship you from desire for Paradise, deny me Paradise; if I worship you from fear of Hell, cast me into Hell.”


Even Now

By Jill Sabella, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer,

Book cover of Even Now

Why this book?

This rare book is a collaboration between Ms. Sabella, an artist, and Rosemerry Trommer, a poet. A series of drawings, all distinct and all of three lines only, are given corresponding three-line poems, and the result is enlivening, mischievous, moving, full of insight and subtlety, and graced with declarations of love and startling bolts of beauty. It’s a short book and it’s a most excellent companion and a gentle powerhouse.


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