The Help Desk: Help me be a better man

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I'm so fed up and mad about this whole bullshit incel thing and so I've decided to read every great feminist book I can find. I know about Backlash, The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique, and all the other biggies, so I'm looking for lesser-known works that will inspire me to understand more and give me language to fight back against my broken gender. Any suggestions?

Henry, Georgetown

Dear Henry,

Personal improvement is a noble goal – I have the organizational instincts of a hoarder but so far have lacked the space and discipline to cultivate them. Good for you for trying.

These reads may already be on your radar but they’re some of my favorites: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (although I’d recommend just reading the title essay online here and skipping the rest – much of it is overly academic for a general audience. Unless you're ready to dig really deep, pick up Hope in the Dark instead).

And here are a few of my favorite books with strong female leads written by women: Salvage the Bones, Kindred, Americanah, Gilead, Middlemarch.

Because if you really want to better understand women, you don’t need to read the feminist canon, you just need to be a good ally. One way to do this is by choosing to read books written by women and with strong female protagonists – and then recommending those you enjoyed to your male friends. Children are often socialized to regard books with female leads and perspectives as “girl books” and books with male leads as books for everyone, and this sentiment unconsciously carries into adulthood.

Until that changes, or until someone launches — a dating website exclusively for incels so that women can efficiently detect and avoid them en masse – we are stuck in an imperfect world, one in which I don’t own nearly enough cats to fill up even one garbage bag.