To Kill a Mockingbird tops vote for ‘most life-changing’ books by women

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To Kill a Mockingbird has topped a list of the most influential books by women, with Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti describing Harper Lee’s novel as “the book that introduced many of us to our belief in human rights”.

The selection of 20 titles was voted for by the public after the Baileys women’s prize for fiction launched a campaign to find the novels, by women, “that have most impacted, shaped or changed readers’ lives”. After contributors including Mary Beard and Joanna Trollope chose their own most influential title, thousands of people – male and female – voted for their own selections, with Lee’s story of Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, taking the top spot.

“With human rights under attack the world over, the enduring appeal of Harper Lee’s great tale gives hope that justice and equality might yet triumph over prejudice,” said Chakrabarti, who was also announced as chair of the judging panel for next year’s Baileys prize.

Chakrabarti had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird as her own most influential read by a female author, calling it “particularly significant for me but also for generations of lawyers”, as “it’s the book that made many of us want to be involved in the law”, and “the book that introduced many of us to our belief in human rights”. Lee’s novel was also picked by singer Sharleen Spiteri, who said that reading it was “my first romance with a book. I wanted to be Scout and was pretty obsessed with her as I was a real tomboy growing up.”

Beard had selected Jane Eyre, and Trollope the children’s book The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, saying that she had read it “every decade”, and that “I’ll read it aloud to anybody who will stand still long enough to be read to”.

The top 20 list of influential titles by women, unveiled on Tuesday, ranges from classics to children’s literature, and from science fiction to romance. Margaret Atwood’s story of a dystopia where women are treated as possessions, The Handmaid’s Tale, sits in second place, ahead of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Louisa May Alcott’s tale of the March family, Little Women, also makes the cut, as does Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

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Lionel Shriver was picked for We Need To Talk About Kevin, Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind, Daphne du Maurier for Rebecca and Toni Morrison for Beloved, a title also selected as her own personal pick by Baroness Valerie Amos. “I couldn’t put it down. I come from a country, Guyana, which is where a lot of slaves were shipped. It’s an important part of my history,” said Amos when the campaign was launched in May.

The top 20 most influential books by women, as voted for by the public:
1) To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
2) The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
3) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
4) Harry Potter – JK Rowling
5) Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
6) Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
7) Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
8) Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
9) The Secret History – Donna Tartt
10) I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
11) The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
12) Beloved – Toni Morrison
13) Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
14) We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
15) The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
16) Middlemarch – George Eliot
17) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
18) The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
19) The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
20) The Women’s Room – Marilyn French