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65 Books You Need To Read In Your 20s

The books that will move you, inspire you, make you cry, make you think, make you laugh. Even if you read them in high school or college, you'll have a different perspective on them now that you're Out In The World. (Trust me.)

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1. The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

npr.org

The best 9/11 novel that's much more than a 9/11 novel. Weirdly relatable, even though the characters are all pretty much upper-class pseudo-intellectuals.

4. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

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The best time to read The Secret History is probably while you're still in college, because it is about a secret society at a small liberal arts college gone horribly awry, but it is also worth picking up a few years later to be reminded about the intensity of college friendships, and also Ancient Greek.

6. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

rookiemag.com

These interwoven narratives (some of which were published as stand-alone stories in magazines such as the New Yorker) are brilliantly crafted, wryly tender portraits of life and love and the small tragedies of everyday modern life.

7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

xoxothereader.blogspot.com

A book about the search for meaning even when life might be meaningless. (Also, my colleague Ariane says: "Yunior is also the dopest narrator you will ever encounter.")

9. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Via openroadmedia.com

The story of Binx Bolling is kind of like what might have happened if Dick Whitman never became Don Draper, and instead started wandering around first New Orleans, and then the country, on a neverending spiritual and existential quest.

10. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

jameskennedymonash.blogspot.com

In addition to White Teeth being perhaps the ultimate 20th century British immigrant novel, it will also, possibly, inspire you to greatness: Smith finished it during her final year at Cambridge and was 24 (!!!) when it was published.

11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

mytruebirdcalling.blogspot.com

Jews, New York, World War II, superheroes, comics, Nazis, love: It's all here, in spades. One of the leading contenders for Great American Novel status.

13. Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

jaymcinerney.com

You read this book because even though they used typewriters and did way more cocaine than is even remotely healthy, it's still a perfectly told story about being young and thinking you're way too smart for what you're doing. Also it's possibly the only book ever written in the second person that actually works.

16. The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis

etsy.com

The Rachel Papers is "a fairly essential 'leaving adolescence and discovering that everything is still confusing and awful' kind of novel," says my colleague Jack, which seems like a pretty decent recommendation.

17. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

libraries.usc.edu

You almost definitely read this in high school English class, but you will almost definitely also have a much different perspective on Milkman and his family and their struggles a few years later.

18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

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Another English syllabus special, Hemingway's tight prose and peerless storytelling are somehow more resonant when you are reading it on your own. Or as my colleague Matt put it: "I couldn't keep my eyes open for more than five pages of Hemingway growing up, but for some reason I picked this up in my post-graduation haze and was mesmerized."

22. The Group, by Mary McCarthy

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How is it possible that a novel written in 1963 about a group of post-collegiate friends in New York City IN THE 1930S could still be so relevant? Probably because the struggles of being in your twenties — particularly, how much do you care about the opinions of other people, and what does success mean? — have been the same since the dawn of time.

23. Quicksand and Passing, by Nella Larsen

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These two novellas written by a half-black, half-Danish woman in the 1920s capture the complications of that time — sexism and racism chief among them — while also being the beautifully told (and timeless) stories of deeply flawed young women.

24. Pastoralia, by George Saunders

amazon.com

I'll let my colleague Aylin's boyfriend explain this pick: "It just illustrates in such a breathtakingly beautiful, memorable way how easy it is for people to inflict pain on each other and how terrible it is to fall between the cracks in America, which it's easier than ever to do now. I don't know, I feel like reading it made me feel more compassionate toward people." Aw!

25. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

profunduslibrum.blogspot.com

Says my colleague Krutika: "It's the perfect mix of childhood nostalgia for anyone who's in their twenties right now, and futuristic dystopian action/adventure where everyone's unwittingly more earnest and sincere than they mean to be."

26. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

books.simonandschuster.ca

The title is astonishingly accurate, but also, Eggers' work is a terrific window into what one of my friends calls "MTV lit." (This is not pejorative.)

27. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

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My friend Julia puts it well: "What the protagonist Esther Greenwood goes through pretty much speaks to my whole generation and the next. College graduates who don't know what they want to do as a career, are not excited about things their parents say they should be, want to have sex but not babies... all of it. It also encourages young people to be unafraid to voice their feelings and opinions. Makes me wish Sylvia Plath could have read her own book without prejudice — it might have helped."

28. Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

21stcenturylearning.sharepoint.com

A book about an ambitious, difficult woman who is forced by circumstance (like being born in the wrong decade, in Minnesota) to keep settling for less than what she wants. But she doesn't stop trying her hand at finding utopia.

29. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman

librossargantana.com

The classic fantasy series — if you've only seen The Golden Compass, the film based on the first book in the series, you owe it to yourself to read the books (which are so much better).

33. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

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I'll let my friend Emily handle this one: "Readers will be rewarded with most psychologically astute sex scene ever written, plus a thorough, impassioned and wholly unique analysis of the power dynamics of heterosexual sex and love, how heterosexuality works to keep women unrepresented and unable to fully represent themselves, and how that affects the world." Whew! (Also, sorta fun to read this one on the subway, IYKWIM.)

35. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins

bibliopolis.com

I love what my friend Evie says about this book: "It is kind of a primer on absurdist literature and speaks volumes to self-doubt and discovery and body image and feminine identity reclamation. Plus, it has that sense of humor that you have in your twenties when you think you are SO FUCKING CLEVER, and sometimes you actually are."

36. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami

underground-reality.blogspot.com

Two complicated, brilliant, and intertwined yet distinct narratives (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World) about a surreal dystopia.

37. Bossypants, by Tina Fey

npr.org

This whole book is filled with brilliance — about work, about being a woman, about being a mom, about being a boss — but one of my favorites is what Fey writes about Amy Poehler: “Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

38. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain

jipaban.com

Will immediately quash your fantasies of opening your own restaurant unless you are a masochist, in which case this book will be your how-to.

39. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, by Toby Young

oxfam.org.uk

Young's memoir about his (mis)adventures in the New York media scene can seem a bit petulant, but he does manage to capture pretty perfectly that world's bizarre rituals and petty status obsessions.

41. Lunar Park, by Bret Easton Ellis

thefringemagazine.blogspot.com

Technically a novel, but more of a fictionalized memoir: "It's about what happens when you reach your career goals yet you still find yourself haunted by ghosts," says my colleague Michael. Also, it's important to read Bret Easton Ellis before you get too old.

42. Just Kids, by Patti Smith

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One of my favorite books of the last few years, maybe ever. Smith's memoir is about falling in love — with a man, with New York, with her adult self — and will make you long for a New York that you never knew.

44. Oh the Glory of it All, by Sean Wilsey

npr.org

I love what my friend Alex says about this book: "It's just a fab memoir about growing up in San Francisco, but mostly the dude had a TERRIBLE childhood. And I think terrible childhood books are best for people in their twenties (file under whining, quit yer)." I would also add that it's a fascinating window into a rarefied S.F. world of non–Silicon Valley wealth, and Wilsey manages the neat trick of making us empathize with him despite his family's comfortable finances.

45. I Don't Care About Your Band, by Julie Klausner

thegirlfromtheghetto.wordpress.com

These hilarious interconnected essays about finding and losing (mostly losing) love as a twentysomething in New York City take place in the recent past, but something tells me they are timeless.

46. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

goodbooksguide.blogspot.com

For how, and why, to be brave. And also how to hike for over 1,000 miles alone after your mother's death, your divorce, and your recovery from a bit of a heroin addiction.

47. Lit, by Mary Karr

npr.org

Karr's memoir about her alcoholism is like a punch in the gut, in the best possible way. And as my friend Jess says, this book "will teach you to be honest with yourself."

48. I'm with the Band, by Pamela Des Barres

beatbooks.com

Des Barres spent much of the '60s as a rock 'n' roll groupie, and this classic memoir is a good reminder that a narcissist by any other name (aka rock star) is still a narcissist.

50. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton, by Anne Sexton

wellreadweare.wordpress.com

Sexton was a revolutionary: She wrote frankly and breathtakingly about incredibly personal and controversial topics — including her mental illness, drug addiction, and abortion — until her suicide in 1973 at age 45.

51. Actual Air, by David Berman

opencity.org

You may know Berman best as the lead singer of the Silver Jews, but in 1999 he published a slyly sweet book of poetry that takes on everything from Abraham Lincoln to his ex-girlfriend.

53. Alien vs. Predator, by Michael Robbins

goodreads.org

Michael Robbins is maybe my favorite contemporary poet. Here is a verse from a poem he published on The Awl last year:

Maybe it’s Maybelline. Why can’t you be true?

You re-gifted the VD I wrapped up just for you.

My penis and my brain team up to penis-brain you.

It is now my duty to completely drain you.

54. The Collected Poems of Audre Lord, by Audre Lord

Audre Lorde called herself a "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet," and her poems — about race, sexuality, love, loss, parenthood, politics, and death — are emotional and angry and warm all at once.

ESSAYS THAT WILL MAKE YOU THINK AND/OR LAUGH:

57. My Misspent Youth, by Meghan Daum

autostraddle.com

The titular essay in this collection was published in 1999 in The New Yorker, when the 29-year-old Daum realized that she was totally, utterly broke and needed to leave New York, and her lament is the timeless one of the upper-middle-class liberal arts college graduate who cannot live in the New York of their fantasies: "I spend money on Martinis and expensive dinners because, as is typical among my species of debtor, I tell myself that Martinis and expensive dinners are the entire point — the point of being young, the point of living in New York City, the point of living."

58. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

The Bible for anyone who's fancied themselves a writer, ever. Didion has probably said what you wanted to say, and earlier and better.

59. Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell

januarymagazine.blogspot.com

Mitchell was a New Yorker writer whose essays about the city in the 1930s to the 1960s are each gems of keenly observed daily life. Wherever you live, these will make you look at your everyday surroundings a little differently.

60. How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman

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No task — whether making pasta or scrambling an egg — is too basic for this book of basics, and sometimes you really need to start with the basics.

63. Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

coreysbook.wordpress.com

However you feel about Hitchens' work, this little volume is incredibly instructive in teaching you how to write things without giving a shit about what other people think. Or to learn how to just not give a shit about what other people think, generally.

64. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

engagingright.blogspot.com

My colleague Summer says that this book is "so great for creativity in general and encouraging everyone to draw like they did as children." (And not just for lefties!)

With extra-special thanks for their suggestions to the BuzzFeed editorial staff and my friends Chris, Alex, Shaya, Jess, Emily K., Emily G., Melanie, Carolyn, Kate, Elizabeth, Mary, Evie, Julia, Alia, Abbey, and CK. And my mom!