I was referred to as one of the “ladies” during a meeting at work last week. Better than “gals,” better than “girls,” I guess, but still obnoxious. And the more I sit here thinking about it, the more sentences I type and delete while I dig into why this word choice irritated me so much, the more I’m aware that women deal with much, much worse all over the world (understatement). So I’m channeling this irritation into more productive channels, examining my own habits, effecting change on what personal levels I can.

I find myself thinking about VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization I discovered while in a graduate literature program wondering how I’d put my (very expensive, questionably useful) new degree to work. VIDA examines gender equality in various mediums that make up “literary arts,” and one of the organization’s most sobering outputs is an annual reckoning of female representation in literature: the books written by women, reviewed by women, anthologies and journals representing women, etc. (check ‘em out: http://www.vidaweb.org/about-vida/). I’ll sum up findings of the last few years by saying that for making up half the population, women are severely underrepresented in literature.

So what? This isn’t a phenomenon unique to literature. And it’s a particularly binary reading of gender. But if I want to start somewhere, VIDA is bringing my own reading habits into focus.  I’m a lifelong reader, familiar and comfortable with the Western, white literary and popular cannons. More importantly, I buy books. I buy a lot of books. I read newspapers and book reviews and journals and literary magazines. VIDA has prodded me to look more closely at the publications my dollars are supporting, and I’m trying make a conscious shift toward seeking out writers and publications who aren’t marginalizing but encouraging women writers.

So, here: my favorite reads and re-reads of last year written by women doing creative, intelligent, vibrant work.

On Immunity, Eula Biss. Notes from No Man’s Land put Biss on my radar. Scattered magazine articles kept her there. One of those articles, “Sentimental Medicine” in the January 2013 Harper’s, was an exploration on vaccination as a kind of metaphor for class and power structures. It stayed with me, I recommended it to friends, I reread and reread. Biss spent another year developing that essay into a book, and in doing so, illuminated for me, again, how vital literature is. That it can be a tool to grapple with questions of how we live and interact with those around us, how we absorb and learn from history, how we sift through our current media cycle and streams of information. That science and research and philosophy can and should coexist and be accessible to everyone. That answers to Big Questions can come about when we’re willing to do the hard, slow work of walking through these layers and considering them all. And, jeebus, if you’ve been paying ANY attention to the vaccination wars right now, please read this book.

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan and The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Both lauded, both featuring adolescent protagonists with little in the way of adult guidance. The Goldfinch is sprawling and long—one reviewer called Tartt a writer for readers who want a meaty reading experience but not necessarily an intellectual struggle. The Panopticon is the opposite—short, taut, crystalline-prosed. Both wildly different books in most ways, but both a refreshing kind of counterpoint to the glut of YA dominating so much of the recent literary landscape.

 The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison. This collection of essays is easily the book I’ve returned to again and again over the last few months. With the central theme of empathy—how, why and to what degree do and should we understand the people around us—each essay explores a potentially alienating condition—illness, death, poverty, violence, prison—and how these conditions might instead be universal. The essay I’ve reread the most is the final “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” for the way it incisively cuts to the heart of how the angst and woundedness of being female can be legitimate pain and not just comfortable trope. Most of all though, the writing…so reflexive, anticipating all my arguments and countering them slyly, intelligently, deftly… I feel like JK Rowling writing the first three Harry Potter books, but I actually can’t think of anything but adverbs when I try to describe this book.

So, reading the ladies. Taking suggestions for other voices.