By the time you enter your twenties, realize you’re in a time when you should be figuring out who you are and what you want from life. While the only way to learn is to do, and to survive the inevitable cycle of successes and failures, it is always useful to have some guidance along the way.
For most people, your twenties is the decade you learn how to be an adult, having your first serious relationships, taking your first career step, moving out of your parents house to live alone (at least in the university), and learning your first difficult lessons about yourself and the world. Naturally, all this stuff is reflected in great literature.
The much celebrated, sometimes maligned twenties is an undeniably impressionable one. You’ve happily exited your teens, slowly freeing yourself of the weighty angst you carried throughout high school. You might have one foot in the university and the other in a career, nestled comfortably in a new job — maybe even a relationship.
For most people, you’re probably not settled — financially, emotionally, spiritually, artistically. You’re aching for a philosophy, for a template for adulthood; anything that will anchor your constantly evolving life to solid ground.
I have come to the rescue with 10 books everyone should read by 30. These books are best read in your twenties, when you’re restless and hungry for new ideas. Whether you just turned 20 or about to turn 30, there’s still enough time to grab one of the books on this list! Enjoy:
Ifemelu leaves her native Nigeria to study in the United States; through her relationship with a white man, her Princeton fellowship and her work writing a blog about race in America through the eyes of an outsider, she never stops thinking about her high school boyfriend. But when they reunite in Lagos 15 years later, everything has changed.
When reviewed in 2013, TIME wrote, “to the extent that this is a novel of ideas—and it teems with enough thoughts on race, class and gender to stock a yearlong graduate seminar—Adichie is smart about placing them in the context of resonant contemporary history.”
This is the story of a marriage that spans decades. Here, much of the intrigue is concentrated in a particularly tumultuous era in the couple’s 20s and 30s as they leave the university, enter new jobs, then begin early middle age.
In 2015, TIME reviewed the then new book, and wrote, “amid the pain, there’s something abidingly lovely about this story, something beyond the virtuosic prose that makes a partner’s unknowability bearable.”
One of the hardest lessons to learn in your twenties is that there is no promised land called adulthood — everyone, no matter how polished or in control they seem, is just making it up as they go along.
Sarah Andersen’s collection of comics can help you grasp this difficult but essential truth. So good, the librarians of New York Public Library suggested it in their list of best books to read in your 20s.
It’s a nice idea, that entering your twenties means somehow graduating into adulthood. But as every young-at-heart senior will tell you, adulthood never really arrives. At some point you just start doing ‘adult’ things. This book illustrates that truth.
Aside from difficulties in scaling the career ladder, many quarter-life crises are spurred on by a flimsy sense of self.
Beijing Bastard, Val Wang’s memoir about finding her identity in New York after moving from China, is “a funny, fresh coming-of-age story” that is sure to connect with soul-searchers in their 20s.
Twenty-somethings today have grown up with social media, but they’re tapping into a timeless form of communication.
If you know him and his work, Malcolm Gladwell is a master of using data and reporting to illustrate an explanation of a certain aspect of society’s mechanics.
His debut work, “The Tipping Point,” came out 20 years ago, but its insights into how and why people distribute ideas and information until they become an “epidemic” is just as relevant and interesting today, especially since the idea of going viral has long been part of the zeitgeist. This book is really worth a read
Helen Oyeyemi is a master of reinventing tropes from traditional fairy tales to say something new about the world we live in. Oyeyemi is never too precious with her characters—they all seem real and very much themselves even if they’re based on iconic figures.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a very loose retelling of Snow White, but it’s more about race, identity, and what happens when a woman named Boy discovers that her family history is not entirely what she had believed it to be.
About Boy, Snow, Bird, the Lost Angeles Times said, “By transforming ‘Snow White’ into a tale that hinges on race and cultural ideas about beauty — the danger of mirrors indeed — Oyeyemi finds a new, raw power in the classic. In her hands, the story is about secrets and lies, mothers and daughters, lost sisters and the impossibility of seeing oneself or being seen in a brutally racist world… [Oyeyemi] elegantly and inventively turns a classic fairy tale inside out.”
Attachments is a great primer for entering the strange, sometimes unforgiving seas of the working world.
It’s about two friends sending each other email at work, while an IT guy monitors their messages and ends up falling for one of the women.
Rowell and her characters truly get what it means to be out of college, growing up, and in a ‘real’ job for the first time. Plus, you’ll get an understanding of what all those Gen-Xers were going through around the turn of the millennium.
Cheryl Strayed was an advice columnist that worked anonymously for a long while. She has compiled pieces of wisdom into a book that has been described as “the best, most compassionate advice about being a fully realized, empathic person in the world.”
At its heart, Tiny Beautiful Things is a reminder that life is fraught with uncertainty, and that what we call “quarter-life crises” might just be the first in a series of opportunities to ask for help.
In The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row we meet Anthony Ray Hinton who was wrongly arrested and charged with capital murder and sentenced to death. In the era of the New Jim Crow, Hinton was arrested in 1985 at just twenty-nine years old and would spend nearly thirty years on death row.
A necessary read on how Jim Crow is still very alive in America and how being poor actually puts you at so many disadvantages. I highly recommend this book.
In All Grown Up we meet 39-year-old Andrea who chooses and is unashamed (and rightly so) to be unmarried, without kids and still trying to figure it out. Andrea works in advertising, does mediocre at her job, drinks a lot, still rents and generally does not have a firm grip on life as you would expect a 39 year old will have. She is generally rough around the edges, but at the core a great person who is struggling to keep it together.
I added this book to this list because I feel like we are constantly being told how our lives should look at a particular age, how many boxes we should have ticked by the time we are 30 or 40. This book dismantles that narrative and shows us that ‘adulting’ can be hard and its great to meet someone – even if its just a literary character who is still trying to figure it out.
There you have it; my list of 10 books everyone should read by 30. Remember, this list is my personal recommendation of books, you might have yours, and that’s alright. Do you know any other books that didn’t make my list but should have? Tell me the book (and why it should make this list) in the comments below.
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