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48 Books You Need To Read In Your 30s

Now that you've lived a little, it's time to reflect on what got you here, what's coming next, and how to live a more fulfilling life. In alphabetical order by title.

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1. Always in Vogue, by Edna Woolman Chase

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Before there was The Devil Wears Prada, there was Always in Vogue, a memoir by the editor of the magazine from 1914 to 1952. It was a different time in many ways — women didn't even have the right to vote when she took the job — but she was also way ahead of her time: She was an ambitious working mother who put her career first, a rarity in those days. If you loved The Best of Everything when you were just starting out, Always in Vogue is the perfect 1950s text for that point in your career when you are trying to figure out what's next. Plus, her descriptions of magazine life, New York, and fashion in the first half of the century alone make tracking down this out-of-print book worthwhile. —D.S.

2. American Primitive, by Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver is arguably one of America's most important poets, and her collection American Primitive proves why: Illuminating and stunningly lyrical, Oliver's poems perfectly capture the wilderness that exists both inside of and around us. Lines that flow in and out of each other transport the reader into the very heart of the natural world and the divinity that lies there. Powerful, tender, and deeply wise, American Primitive celebrates the quiet beauty of humanity's symbiosis with nature and showcases Oliver as a master of language. —Jarry Lee

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3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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This is the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who immigrates to the U.S. and finds life there to be complicated in ways she never anticipated. After years of struggle, she eventually becomes a widely read blogger (“Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black") and wins a fellowship to Princeton; her tale is paralleled by the experience of her high school boyfriend, Obinze, who immigrates to the U.K. and subsequently returns to Nigeria and becomes fabulously wealthy. Americanah is a funny, heartbreaking, and keenly observed social critique of both Nigeria and the U.S. —D.S.

4. Another Country, by James Baldwin

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In a time when we find ourselves debating the importance of black lives more than ever, Another Country is an essential read. Beginning with the suicide of its black male protagonist, Rufus, the rest of the book goes on to debate just how much his life mattered, as his presence remains the central protagonist in the lives of his sister/aspiring singer Ida, his best friend/struggling author Vivaldo, his first male lover/actor Eric, and his other friends all attempting to survive in New York's Lower East Side. It's a perfect book to read once your twenties have lapsed, because it's all about the unfulfilled dreams of your youth and how to reconcile that with the less ideal future that is being laid before you. —Ira Madison III

5. The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

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Unlike any book you've ever read, this is Nelson's memoir — on the surface, about her life with her partner, Harry Dodge, who decides to start taking testosterone and have top surgery; the birth of her son Iggy; and being stepmother to Harry's son Lenny. But in an unerringly sharp and thoughtful way, it's also about what queerness means, what gender means, what family means, what motherhood means. A book that will leave you thinking differently about everything you ever took as the truth. —D.S.

6. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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After spending our twenties trying to get our feet under us, our thirties are a time to decide what we can and cannot accept, and how to live the best life we can in between those two poles. Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World and Me is a book that winds through this. Though the perspective of American blackness in BTWAM is notably male, it is universal in its path through this negotiation of self in a world set against black people maintaining a self. A thing you can learn, I think, when you're 30 and black, is that there are forces beyond your control from which no amount of respectability (or celebrity) can protect you. And now that you know that: Your life can really begin. —Shani Hilton

7. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, by Toi Derricote

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An Interior Journey examines Derricote's experience living in America as a light-skinned black woman who, to many people, "looks white." Derricote, a critically acclaimed poet, zeroes in on moments in which — after making assumptions about her appearance — strangers and occasionally family members unleash raw and often searing statements about race and racism. That this book was published almost two decades ago and remains painfully relevant is both a testament to the power of Derricote's prose as well as the insidious nature of racism itself. —Saeed Jones

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8. Black, White & Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, by Rebecca Walker

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Rebecca Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker (yes, that Alice Walker) and Mel Leventhal, an acclaimed Jewish civil rights attorney, who wed during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. After Walker's parents divorced when she was young, she spent her subsequent years straddling their disparate worlds and reckoning with where — or if — she fit into either. Her memoir, published when she was 31, is a powerful reminder of how the work of finding, forging, and, ultimately, accepting, your own identity is a constant and evolving process. —Anita Badejo

9. Blackout, by Sarah Hepola

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Hepola's memoir about coming to terms with her alcoholism in her thirties is an easy, beautiful read that, if you're like me, you'll devour in one setting while still savoring every sentence. Whether she's describing her adolescent shyness or her time spent in Paris interviewing the host of The Bachelor, Hepola has a gift for timing and diction that can make the most harrowing moments funny, and the most mundane details about work and cohabitation incredibly poignant. It's a gift not just for drinkers, but for everyone who's still trying to figure out who they are at a time when society declares they should have it all together by now. —Jessica Misener

10. Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

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Much in the tradition of French Women Don't Get Fat, Druckerman's arguments and observations about how the French are better at raising children ruffled some feathers on this side of the Atlantic. Like any advice book, Bringing Up Bébé shouldn't be adopted to the letter, but parents will find revelatory nuggets throughout that will help them deal with their kids better, and non-parents will find themselves with a better understanding of what their friends with kids have to deal with on a daily basis. —D.S.

11. Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui, by Karen Kingston

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Long before everyone was tidying up with Marie Kondo, this book by British author and "space clearing" expert Karen Kingston was helping people create more harmonious homes. A friend whose father passed away told me that the book "saved my ass when I was clearing an incredible amount of clutter," but Kingston's book is also useful for those of us who aren't dealing with a tragic event. It's about being more mindful about what we own and how we organize it — which becomes ever more important as we age and accumulate more and more stuff. —D.S.

12. The Collected Works of Anna Akhmatova, by Anna Akhmatova

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Few people better capture the personal pain of living under tyranny than Anna Akhmatova, whose lyric poem "Requiem" begins with her waiting in line with hundreds of other women as they wait to see the loved ones imprisoned under Stalin's terror. When most people hear "Russian literature" they think of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov; Akhmatova is one of the strongest women writers to come out of the country. Her identity as a mother, and as a strong woman, infuses her work. It's perfect thirties reading. —Miriam Elder

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13. Dance Dance Revolution, by Cathy Hong Park

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If your idea of American poetry is Frost and Poe, then Cathy Park Hong's linguistic tour de force may make your heart race so fast you'd think you're playing a video game. Set in a Las Vegas-like city in the future where many languages have merged, it features an enigmatic tour guide who, in giving tours of the desert city, raps flashes of a dissident life in South Korea as an important figure in the Gwangju Uprising. In its combination of amalgamized language and rebel themes, Dance Dance Revolution unfurls the teeming possibility of a contemporary poetry that is at once deeply innovative and staunchly political. —Meredith Talusan

14. Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

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A book about marriage that's unlike any other, Offill tells the story through a series of deceptively simple dispatches from "the wife" (she never gets named further). We watch as she and her husband go through the highs and lows of a life together, including the birth of a child and infidelity. But it's Offill's spare, beautiful prose that thrusts this book into the realm of the exceptional. —D.S.

15. Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox

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Before Dept. of Speculation, there was Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, a book about the cracks and fissures of a Brooklyn literary marriage that was published in 1970 but — save for a few technological advances — could just as easily take place today. A devastating exploration of the ways in which we're all really just hanging on by a thread. —D.S.

16. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

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Packer writes with conviction and grace in the voice of black teenage girls, many of whom are growing up in the Southern United States. She confronts racism, sexism, and the bumbling awkwardness of adolescence in this collection of terse narratives. Packer's writing is plaintive, but never treacly, and you'll come away with a visceral sense of the confusion and pain (and joy) of her characters. —J.S.

17. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

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The Empathy Exams is one of the best books I've read in my thirties because I think it actually made me a better person. This is a collection of beautifully written nonfiction essays that all relate to the topic of empathy — why it matters, how it happens, and whether we're capable of extending it even further than comes naturally. The opening essay, on the author's experience as a "medical actor," is particularly heart-expanding — Jamison reveals a lot of herself, writing vulnerably about her own heart surgeries and abortion, but also questions traditional wisdom about empathy and how we all relate to each other. As she writes in that piece, "I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones." Read it, and be better. —Summer Anne Burton

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18. The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy

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Whether you're single or in any kind of relationship, The Ethical Slut will open your eyes about how to find fulfillment — sexual, yes, but also just about how to be a happier human. It mostly involves being honest with yourself and others about what you want and need, i.e., "Do not commit yourself to a lifetime of hinting and hoping. When you figure out what you want and ask for it, you'll be surprised how often the answer is 'yes.'" Good advice at any age, but particularly as we attempt to navigate adulthood and our own evolution. —D.S.

19. The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits

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Julavits went back and read her childhood diaries, hoping to find evidence of the writer she would eventually become, but instead, as she writes, she found "the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor." And so she decided to create a new diary, one that reflected who she is now. The result is a beautiful exploration of the self. —D.S.

20. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

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If your twenties are mostly focused on living, your thirties often give you room to begin contemplating your life. There's no better inspiration for this process than Alison Bechdel's queer graphic memoir, which features a strikingly innovative narrative structure that spirals around and around the question of how Bechdel's butch lesbian identity is tied to her father Bruce's gay identity, and the possibility of his suicide. The detail of Bechdel's drawings is matched by her minute dissection of her thoughts and emotions, not just through experience but also a plethora of literary models, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marcel Proust. —M.T.

21. A Gesture Life, by Chang-rae Lee

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In Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life, Franklin "Doc" Hata has felt like an outsider his entire life. Born in Korea but raised by a Japanese adoptive family, he now lives in a wealthy, suburban New York town where he is well-respected for his politeness and work ethic. But beneath Doc's quiet, unassuming exterior lies a secret: His doomed love for a Korean comfort woman when he served as a Japanese army medic in World War II has haunted him for decades, leaving a toll on his ability to show and feel emotion, and straining his relationship with his adopted daughter, Sunny. Lyrical, beautiful, yet profoundly sad, A Gesture Life is an examination of one man's broken inner life, the secrets we keep for the sake of those we love, and our desire to belong. —J.L.

22. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

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Even if you've seen the 1986 movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, it's worth giving the book it's based on a read. Based on Ephron's marriage to Carl Bernstein, the darkly comedic novel is about a food writer named Rachel Samstat whose perfect-on-the-outside marriage collapses after she finds out her husband is having an affair with an acquaintance. The way Samstat handles the news will ring hilariously, tragically true to anyone who's experienced a betrayal. Plus, the book has recipes! —D.S.

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23. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, by Kiese Laymon

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The essays comprising How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon reveal the writer forced to confront both what racism has done to him and what he is doing to himself. Laymon, a novelist and native son of Mississippi, boldly interrogates the way in which rage, even when justified in the face of brutal racism, can take a toll on ourselves and the loved ones trying to support us. If the deluge of reports about police brutality have pushed you to the edge of numbness, this essay will light a fire in you and then inspire you to make use of it. —S.J.

24. I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

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When you're a teenager, the tiniest moments in life are the ones that hold the most meaning. I'll Give You the Sun is made up of such moments — ones that pierce the hearts of twin artists Noah and Jude, others that send them soaring. Figuratively and literally, Jandy Nelson's writing is alive, drenched in magical realism that ponders love, betrayal, and the aching need to create art. I almost didn't even tell you that I'll Give You The Sun is YA, because the emotions in it, and those you'll feel when reading it, are distinctly ageless. —Eleanor Kagan

25. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

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Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black mother of five from rural Virginia who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s at age 31. Afterward, her cells were taken and used for medical research without her consent, leading to the discovery of a strain of cells that has been invaluable to the scientific community ever since, yet reaped no rewards nor recognition for Lacks's family. Skloot's book — told predominantly through Lacks's youngest daughter — chronicles their struggle to learn who Henrietta was and sheds much-needed light on her vital — and ethically fraught — legacy. —A.B.

26. It's Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're Single

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At some point if you're single in your thirties, you may go to a wedding and realize that for the first time, you can count the other non-coupled people in the room on one hand. If that freaks you out a little, read this book. Based on journalist Sara Eckel's wildly popular Modern Love essay, it debunks all the "reasons" you don't have a partner (you're too picky, you're too intimidating, you're too available, you're too busy living that fabulous Sex and the City life). You are where you are, and that's fine. —Susie Armitage

27. The Last Usable Hour, by Deborah Landau

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Deborah Landau's second poetry collection reads like a love letter written by a ghost haunting the darkest, coldest parts of New York City. Urgent yet wistful, The Last Usable Hour traces desire and loss and emptiness in lines that shimmer on the page, and off the page burn themselves into memory. Landau's collection speaks to what it means to be human in a city, what it feels like to be alone, and the ways in which we are haunted by both what we remember and have forgotten. —J.L.

28. Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner

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This book is the ultimate history of the CIA, from inception through the aftermath of 9/11. Weiner basically destroys the myth of the CIA as an all-powerful agency pulling the strings of world events, and shows a deeply flawed organization that has made blunder after blunder. Ashes reads like a thriller, and it's backed up with incredible documents and interviews. Leave the "so who really killed JFK" questions behind in your twenties, and enter your thirties with serious knowledge. —M.E.

29. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

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You know that old saying, "Don't judge a book by its premise"? That holds true for Life After Life, which I resisted reading for a while because I thought it sounded cheesy: a British woman named Ursula Todd dies, over and over again, and we read different versions of her life for 560 pages. But I shouldn't have doubted Atkinson's genius; Life After Life is one of the most emotional, incredible books I've ever read, and hammers home the idea that it's often the most inconsequential-seeming choices that have the most monumental outcomes — and that sometimes things are completely out of our control. —D.S.

30. Light Years, by James Salter

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James Salter's Light Years felt especially relevant to read as a new thirtysomething considering its themes — family, companionship, existential crisis, the suburbs. It's a particularly potent combination of bleak and beautiful too, which kinda sums up thirties life. The characters in Light Years are sophisticated and smart, seemingly ready for the world, and their futures, but fundamentally they're flailing and confused. And the sentences, gosh, there's nothing like a Salter sentence. —Alex Naidus

31. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

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A devastating novel about friendship, love, heartbreak, and New York City about four best friends from college and what happens to them in the 30 or so years afterward. Amidst the pain and joy of watching these men grow up, Yanagihara asks us to reconsider what the parameters of a fulfilling life truly are, and whether survivors of brutal childhoods ever really leave them behind. —D.S.

32. The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

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Sweeping through the Middle East, Wright tells the story of how al-Qaeda came to be, in a style that reads as easy as a great novel. He also looks at the interagency rivalries inside the U.S. that led the country to miss the key clues that 9/11 was coming. Your thirties are a time to go beyond being outraged at world events — and toward really understanding them. —M.E.

33. A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin

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Lucia Berlin's world is dark. The loosely connected stories in this posthumous collection (Berlin died in 2004) are about women and girls with issues — poverty, alcoholism, bad or absent husbands, unstable authority figures. What unites them all is a pain that Berlin never shies away from. Reminiscent of the stories of Lydia Davis (who wrote the foreward) or the bleakness of Don Carpenter or Denis Johnson, Berlin's world will stay with you long after you've finished this collection. —D.S.

34. Men We Reaped, by Jessamyn Ward

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Part memoir, part biography, Men We Reaped chronicles Ward's experiences growing up in rural Mississippi and the deaths of five men she was close to — including her brother and cousin — all of whom were black, all of whom died before they reached their early thirties. It's a searing look not only at the impossible burdens of living as a black man in the South, but also at how race, class, and history leave indelible marks on those who exist at their margins, regardless of how far they eventually come. Pro tip: Keep a box of tissues and some lighter fare at the ready for after you're finished. You'll need it. —A.B.

35. My Struggle, Vol. 2, by Karl Ove Knausgård

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You know that saying about how an unexamined life isn't worth living? Well, Knausgård took that to heart in a major way. In the first volume of My Struggle, Knausgård looks back at his teenage years and the death of his father as Knausgård was finishing his first novel. It's impressive — and useful for all of us to remember — how a little distance can pay off with a lot of insight and self-awareness. —Isaac Fitzgerald

36. The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante

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Ferrante's four-book series begins with the narrator, Elena Greco, finding out that her lifelong frenemy Lila has disappeared. The books are a chronicle, in often minute detail, of their lives together growing up in a poor, chaotic neighborhood in Naples. They are novels about friendship, about gender, about marriage, about money and class and politics, and about life in postwar Italy, which seems to have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Addictive, intimate reading. —D.S.

37. Plainwater, by Anne Carson

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Plainwater is the essential Anne Carson, a poetic treatise on relationships of all sorts — "Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts and God" — spanning from Ancient Greece to Middle America. Carson's journeys, both real and imagined, offer the perfect perspective for the thirtysomething whose taste for adventure has only been strengthened by having "seen some things." —Angelo Spagnolo

38. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

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There's the Didion you read in your twenties — essay collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album — and then there's the Didion, like Play It As It Lays, that you should really only pick up when you're looking at your twenties in the rearview mirror. Didion's elliptical 1970 novel (one of her few works of fiction) is about a 31-year-old woman named Maria who is in a psychiatric hospital and takes us through the traumas that got her there. It's much darker than her essays and deeply, deeply weird. —D.S.

39. Redefining Realness, by Janet Mock

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In the book that has set the standard for transgender memoirs, Janet Mock plunges into the recesses of a traumatic childhood, to emerge as an empowered trans leader and advocate. Redefining Realness not only serves as inspiration for all trans people, especially trans women of color, but allows readers to understand aspects of trans experience in ways that have not been previously explored. Mock's willingness to leave herself so open and vulnerable — as a child sexual abuse survivor, a former sex worker, a trans woman afraid of losing love because of that revelation — allows us to more fully understand what it means for many trans women to be alive today, and gives us hope that we can forge a path toward greater freedom and acceptance. —M.T.

40. Running Doc's Guide to Healthy Running: How to Fix Injuries, Stay Active, and Run Pain-Free, by Lewis G. Maraham

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The thing about sports, but especially running, in your thirties is that you're not in your twenties anymore. Suddenly your hips aren't as flexible, your knees start aching, and you didn't even know you could throw your back out like that. You need a book like the Running Doc's Guide to Healthy Running to stay pain- and injury-free. The only thing it won't do is prevent you from drinking the night before a half-marathon. For that, you're on your own. —D.S.

41. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

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The Sellout is a hilarious, wildly smart satire about race and politics in contemporary America. But like every great satire, it's also deadly serious and thoughtful, not only with regard to race but also growing up, losing a parent, and dealing with the complexities of adulthood. A truly relatable book for everyone who has tried to find their place in a world full of bewildering realities and competing signals. —I.F.

42. Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, by David Eagleman

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In your thirties, as your mortality feels ever more present, hangovers also feel worse, sprains don't heal as quickly, and you may experience the death or terminal illness of a loved one for the first time. Sum is 40 fascinating and mind-bending explorations of what might lie beyond this life, most of them a deep dive into what exists within our own brains — like the book version of the most profound psychedelic trip you'll ever take. —Saj Pothiawala

43. Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

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You've read Dear Sugar on The Rumpus. This book is a collection of Strayed's best and rawest columns, which is like…why would I pay for stuff I can read for free on the internet? Trust me, sugar: YOU NEED THIS BOOK. Bring Kleenex. —J.M.

44. We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

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The sweeping, epic saga of over half a century of the Leary family. Eileen marries Ed, a scientist, because she wants to escape her working-class Queens upbringing — and does — but her marriage and her life don't end up exactly how she pictured them, and she is forced to reckon with and reflect upon how that happened: "Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren't that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they'd been had found release through a necessary valve." —D.S.

45. What Is This Thing Called Love, by Kim Addonizio

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Written with refreshing honesty and heart, What Is This Thing Called Love shows off Addonizio's impressive range, tackling both the lighthearted and serious struggles in her life: everything from raising her daughter to drinking to dealing with a friend's illness. In her typical lucid style, What Is This Thing Called Love is accessible and straightforward without losing any of its lyricism; Addonizio manages to take everything familiar about human life – birth, sex, aging, death – and makes it new again. Moving, clever, and wise, the poems in Addonizio's collection will teach readers a thing or two about this thing called modern existence. —J.L.

46. Where'd You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple

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The titular (and agoraphobic) Bernadette vanishes right before a family trip to Antarctica, leaving her 15-year-old daughter to sift through her mother's correspondence to try to piece together what may have led to her disappearance. Like a grown-up Westing Game, Where'd You Go Bernadette is an insanely clever mystery that also manages to be a meditation on motherhood, marriage, and the idiosyncrasies and pettiness of upper-middle-class Seattle. —D.S.

47. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano

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Julia Serano's super-accessible and whip-smart introduction to trans women's issues also gives amazing insight into what it means to be a gendered human being. It's the book that introduced the vital term transmisogyny into the lexicon, to describe how trans women are vilified not just for daring to live as our true gender, but also for wanting to live as women, people whom patriarchy positions as inherently inferior. From her criticism of trans-related movies to her analysis of the social and scientific dimensions of trans identity, Serrano is the perfect way to familiarize yourself with transgender women, which you really should do by your thirties, if you haven't done so already. —M.T.

48. White Girls, by Hilton Als

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For a potent dose of one of today's best cultural critics, read White Girls. Als' brilliant insights into a dizzying array of subjects are made even more powerful and nuanced by the ways in which he brings his own personal history to bear. A perfect book for that time in life when you're figuring out exactly who you are, and the ways in which you will continue to change. —I.F.

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