While no childbirth experience is probably "by the book," reading others' experiences and some professional tips can be empowering and encouraging. These books focus mostly on encouraging natural childbirthing methods and outline some of the difficulties with unneeded medical intervention in the process. However, as all these books will point out, part of the birthing process for many women is learning that they are not in control, and so there is also information here about what happens when medical intervention is called for. Many birthing books have strong opinions about what "should" happen or try to scare you onto a particular path. This list shies away from those in the hopes that you'll make your own decisions about what kind of birth experience you'd like to have.
The Birth Partner: a Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions by Penny Simkin
If you read one book about labor, this should be it! While this book is focused on birth partners, it is also a great read for women giving birth themselves. The book might be retitled "What to Expect When You're Giving Birth", focusing on preparing those involved for all the eventualities. While the book strongly encourages natural births, Simkin also recognizes that women should make their own decisions and medical interventions are sometimes necessary. The book gives a lot of good information about different medical interventions and pain relief along with the more natural techniques. Striking a balanced and comforting tone, it's part how-to manual and part encyclopedia.
Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin
This is the more modern (and less hippie-centered) book by the author of Spiritual Midwifery. It is divided into three different sections: relating women's stories who have given birth with Gaskin and her midwives; presenting arguments against medicalizing birth; and Gaskin's proposing a different, more woman-focused way of giving birth. The stories of women's different birth experiences are empowering and encouraging to read, especially as you get closer and closer to your due date. Gaskin obviously has a strong point of view about the way birth should be done, but her seriousness and long experience balance out her ideology. She believes in the power of mind over matter, encouraging women to prepare for birth by consciously letting go of anxiety and visualizing a positive birthing experience.
Natural Hospital Birth: the Best of Both Worlds by Cynthia Gabriel
A book that strives for balance, Natural Hospital Birth helps you navigate the often confusing and sometimes impersonal world of hospital births. Written by a doula, this book brings down to earth some of the natural birth ideals to the reality that you may be giving birth in a hospital with varying levels of support for a natural birth. Gabriel focuses on how to talk to hospital personnel about what your preferences are and how to make good decisions when things become difficult. A pretty thorough book for its size, there is also a lot of information about different medical procedures and when they might be helpful and when they might not be.
The Doula Guide to Birth: Secrets Every Pregnant Woman Should Know by Ananda Lowe and Rachel Zimmerman
An upbeat, encouraging book, The Doula Guide to Birth is written by a doula and a health reporter. While the book in some ways is one big advertisement for doulas, it also covers great information about what happens during birth and some techniques to help you cope with it naturally. The authors also write about how to adjust to changes in plans, like the need for an epidural or c-section. A big plus for this book is that it also briefly covers the postpartum period, something a lot of labor books leave out.
Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy
This book is not a how-to book about labor and childbirth, but it is a fascinating read about the history of birth and women's different experiences of it throughout the ages. Full of little known facts and interesting stories, Birth gives some much needed perspective as it recounts how each generation redefines the best way to be born.