The 20 Best Books to Read in Your 20s
Your 20s are an interesting decade, to say the absolute least. You feel perpetually stuck between being a naïve, carefree kid and an adult with endless responsibilities. Basically, it’s a weird time, which might, just might be made better (or at least a touch more manageable) by one of these 20 books.
1. All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister
Real talk: Unless you’re solidly coupled up, questions that will come up time and time again in your 20s are “Are you dating anyone?” and “When are you getting married?” (Usually from a well-meaning—and probably many decades older than you—extended family member.) Traister’s book is an empowering look at the social, economic and political forces that have led to women marrying later or not at all.
2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Eggers was in his early 20s when his parents died within a year of each other, leaving him to take care of his younger brother, Toph, as if he were his own child. This fictionalized account of being thrust into the role of parent at such a young age is a powerful story about resilience and brotherly love.
3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
In this 2005 novel, two feuding professors and their families live in a fictional college town outside Boston. The book tackles black identity, body image, infidelity and class politics, and is an absolute delight to read. (Side note: Pretty much anything Smith has written is must-read material for 20-somethings.)
4. How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti
Part literary novel, part self-help manual and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse, How Should a Person Be? is a raw, urgent depiction of female friendship and of the shape of our lives now. Heti asks, broadly, “What is the most noble way to love? What kind of person should you be?” Through a mixture of emails, transcribed conversations and prose, Heti’s protagonist travels from Toronto to New York to Atlantic City in search of clarity—a very 20-something thing to do, if you ask us.
5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Reeling from the loss of her mother and the end of her marriage, then 22-year-old Strayed decided to heal by hiking the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border through Oregon. Her memoir details the thrilling, scary and unforgettable journey—filled with female strength and busted hiking boots. And it just might inspire you to do something adventurous.
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Inspired by a true story, this haunting novel follows a woman named Sethe and her daughter after they escape from slavery and run to Ohio. As we find out about Sethe’s deceased daughter, Beloved, we discover exactly how fiercely Sethe has had to fight to protect her children. Maternal love with a powerful message of perseverance—from one of America’s best writers. Though you probably read it in high school, pick it up again in your 20s for a clearer perspective.
7. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1956 novel focuses on the 20-something David, an American man living in Paris, and his feelings and frustrations with his relationships with other men in his life—particularly an Italian bartender named Giovanni whom he meets at a Parisian gay bar. The book tackles social isolation, gender and sexual identity crises, as well as conflicts of masculinity.
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, but her first novel—about a group of misfits at a New England college who fall under the spell of a charismatic, morally questionable professor—will always have our heart. The narrator, Richard, is the newest member of the group, and he finds himself suddenly burdened by some very dark secrets.
9. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Written after the death of her husband and in the midst of the serious illness of her daughter, this book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness.” Incorporating medical and psychological research on grief and illness, she writes beautifully—if not emotionally—about what it’s like to lose someone.
10. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
When she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012, Keegan had a promising literary career ahead of her and a job waiting at The New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. This posthumous collection of essays and stories articulates the struggle we face as we figure out what we want to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.
11. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, fall in love in Nigeria as teenagers but are separated when Ifemelu emigrates to America and Obinze is denied a visa post-9/11. It’s a poignant love story about a couple finding their way back after living different lives half a world away from each other.
12. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri’s first novel follows the Ganguli family from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they attempt—with varying degrees of success—to assimilate to American culture while holding on to their roots. Lahiri examines the nuances of feeling being caught between conflicting cultures with religious, social and ideological differences. Regardless of your cultural background, you’ll see yourself in both generations of the family as the novel jumps between timelines.
13. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection of linked stories is a whirlwind tour of the 20th-century music scene, largely following aging punk rocker Bennie Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant, Sasha. It’s rife with meditations on youth and recklessness (not to mention spectacular prose).
14. Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
In addition to creating, writing and producing Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and producing How to Get Away with Murder, Rhimes is the best-selling author of an incredible memoir jam-packed with life advice. While poignantly and humorously chronicling her childhood and rise to success, Rhimes dishes out tips for achieving your goals—necessary for those wholly uncertain post-college years.
15. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Lotto and Mathilde are adored, and often loathed, by their friends and classmates at Vassar College. Married at 22 after only a few weeks of dating, no one believes their union can last. Groff’s novel follows the couple’s 25 years of marriage, during which they navigate joy and sorrow, failure and success. Touching on marriage, family, art and theater, Groff dazzles with breathtaking prose, smart wit and sensuality, and a close look at the devastating consequences of little white lies.
16. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Anything but your typical dystopian sci-fi, this weirdly subtle and haunting novel imagines what life would be like if you were a clone, born to have your organs harvested in early adulthood. (We repeat: weirdly subtle and haunting.) Bizarre plot aside, its themes of friendship, approaching others with an open, nonjudgmental heart, and loss (of life and of innocence) are universal.
17. The Group by Mary McCarthy
In 1933, eight young female friends graduate from Vassar College. This book is about their lives post-graduation, beginning with the marriage of one of the friends, Kay Strong, and ending with her funeral in 1940. We might be far removed from the ’30s, but any 20-something can relate to struggling with financial turmoil, family crises, relationship issues and more.
18. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction is written as a letter to Coates’s teen son and explores the sometimes bleak reality of what it’s like to be black in the United States. It’s a must-read for young people as well as anyone who could use a reminder of the subtle—and not so subtle—ways people of color are discriminated against every day (read: most people).
19. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud
Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school, sharing everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their Massachusetts hometown. But their paths diverge as they enter adolescence, with Cassie setting out on a journey that will put her life in danger and ruin her oldest friendship. A complex coming-of-age story, Messud’s latest is an examination of youth, friendship and the clash of childhood’s imaginary worlds with the often painful reality of adulthood.
20. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This best seller makes your average tearjerker look positively sunny. Four graduates from a small college in Massachusetts move to New York to follow their dreams and escape their demons. Once there, their relationships deepen, and painful secrets (like seriously messed-up stuff) from their past emerge. While the details might not always be relatable, the feeling of navigating relationships in your 20s hits close to home.