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 25 books, ranging from non-cheesy self-help books about navigating post-college, pre-30s life to novels that nail the strange in-between feelings you might be having.
The 25 Best Books to Read in Your 20s
In The Defining Decade, clinical psychologist Meg Jay argues that 20-somethings have been caught in a swirl of hype and misinformation, much of which has trivialized what she sees as the most transformative time of our lives. Drawing on more than two decades of work with thousands of clients, Jay combines the latest science and studies with the stories of real 20-somethings she's worked with to explain how work, relationships, personality, identity and even the brain can change more during this decade than at any other time in adulthood and provide readers with the tools necessary to take the most of this time.
2.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.)
3. 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.
4. 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. 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.
This 2021 novel is about something most people—not just 20-somethings—can relate to: impostor syndrome. In 2006, Julia is a recent college grad living in Moscow, when she's recruited by Russia's largest intelligence agency. Twelve years later, she's in Silicon Valley as COO one of America's most famous technology companies. Alice is a first generation Chinese American who works at the same company when she discovers that the company's privacy settings aren't as rigorous as the company claims, and the person abusing this loophole might just be Julia. As the two get closer, the book jumps from page-turning cat-and-mouse chase to a sharp satire about women in tech, Silicon Valley hubris and elusiveness of the American Dream.
7.by Rebecca Traister
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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
This absolutely unsettling (in a good way) first novel tracks three characters: Edie, a 20-something Black assistant in a publishing house, the older white man she’s having an affair with, that older, white man’s over-achieving white wife. Eventually, Edie moves in with the couple…and things only get weirder from there.
12. 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.
13. WinMe Something by Kyle Lucia Wu
Growing up in New Jersey as a biracial Chinese American girl, Willa Chen felt hyper-visible and unseen at the same time. Now, making her way through high school and college, Willa feels lonely and adrift. But then, she starts working as a nanny for a wealthy white family in Tribeca and becomes confronted with all of the things she never had. As she grows closer to the family, Willa is forced to confront questions of who she is, and a childhood where she never felt fully at home. This poignant debut is about identity, acceptance and complicated family dynamics.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16.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).
17. BigMagic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
You’ve already read (and adored) Eat, Pray, Love, right? This is another Elizabeth Gilbert tome to pick up. This time, rather than describing her soul-searching trip around the world, she’s delivering realness on how to live your most creative, fulfilled life. “Wow. Big Magic is one of the most honest discussions about the creative process that I’ve ever read," one reader raves. “Her no-BS attitude helps do away with the unrealistic expectations and unnecessary melodrama attached to the concept of ‘creative living.’"
18. BuyYourself The F*cking Lilies: And Other Rituals To Fix Your Life, From Someone Who's Been There by Tara Schuster
By the time she was in her late 20s, Schuster was a rising TV executive who had worked for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and helped launch Key & Peele. But beneath the successful exterior, she was a chronically anxious, self-medicating mess. Her debut book is the story of her path towards becoming a “ninja of self-love” through simple daily rituals, from faking gratitude until you feel gratitude to shielding yourself from your inner frenemy.
19. by Shonda Rhimes
In addition to creating, writing and producing Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and producing Bridgerton, 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.
20. 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.
21. 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.
22. 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.
23. 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 non-POCs).
24. 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.
25. 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.