The Best 20 Books to Read in Your 30s

Perfect Books to Read in Your 30s

The Best 20 Books to Read in Your 30s

Your 30s can be rough, what with student debt you may still be paying off or big life events happening all around you (people getting married, buying houses, switching up their careers).

But what’s most important to remember is that this decade is an amazing sweet spot in life—you have the wisdom of being past your 20s, but you’re not yet experiencing being middle-aged.

You’re ripe to learn more about yourself and the world around you, which you can do through the literature you consume. So, here are a smattering of books we believe everyone should read by the age of 40.

Featured Image: Tintim/Twenty20

  • AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundApple Books One of the most remarkable novels to come out in recent years, Taiye Selasi refuses to fall into the trope of the poor-African-struggle novel. Selasi is more interested in a side of Nigeria and Ghana that the Western world is less often shown: the middle class. The family she portrays has lived in Nigeria, Ghana, and most recently the United States, where the children still live, though their parents, long-separated, do not. When the patriarch of the family unexpectedly dies in suburban Accra, the matriarch begs to gather her children around her, and they find one another in unexpected places—both literally, and where they are emotionally as relatively estranged adults. AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundApple Books
  • AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundApple Books Yanagihara’s tome is truly nothing short of a masterpiece. A huge book, it’s worth every single moment you spend in its brick- presence, especially as it seems an amorphous thing, becoming lighter or heavier depending on where you are in the narrative. Centering around four men, Yanagihara’s expression of their feelings, their difficulties, the way they grow older—together and apart—is a true marvel, especially in a world that so often expects men to be stoic participants or constant perpetrators. From college to later middle-age, follow Malcolm, Willem, J.B., and Jude into the depths of oblivion and the heights of passionate joy. AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundApple Books
  • AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieboundApple Books With wit, panache, and lots of zeal,Parker’s verses make you reel;Her stories will not leave you cold,Her characters are big and bold,Her criticism sharp and skillful,Un our rhymes (which are pitiful).

In all seriousness, Parker’s portable version includes much of her work, though not all, and is great to rifle through when you need a short story, a verse or two, or a piece of searing-hot snark as a pick-me-up.

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    One of Dickens’s shorter books but no less amazing for its relatively brief length. Dickens deals with coming of age, as in many of his books, but with a far darker lens than usual. There’s some humor here, as always, but his main focus is the disappointment that life can churn out.

    From the hero’s difficult journey in life to the people he meets—notably, Miss Havisham, a famous literary figure with her wedding clothes unchanged since the day she was left at the altar—to his own mistaken conclusions and their dire consequences, Great Expectations is a riveting story.

    It is also one that leaves you with plenty of heartache and not a little introspection.

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    Coetzee is one of the most famed South African writers of our time and for good reason. Disgrace, one of his most famous novels, is a complex and beautiful thing.

    It portrays a dissatisfied, Byron-obsessed teacher, David Lurie, in Cape Town and can be read both as a political statement about post-Apartheid South Africa and as a rejection of any such statement, as it deals with both complete ruin and attempts at redemption on a personal level. The novel explores Lurie’s sexual exploits, his attempts to distance himself from them, the apparently random violence he finds himself being subjected to, and the way he slowly tries to put the pieces of his life together. A novel of growing up late, and maybe learning to grow up in a different way and in a different world, Disgrace is well worth its Booker Prize.

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    Jan Morris is one of the first famous trans women in media. She made a name for herself as a travel writer and a historian who focused on the British Empire in a trilogy named Pax Britannica.

    While Conundrum is a relatively old book, and perhaps some of the language is different than what’s used in the trans community today, it’s nonetheless a powerful narrative of a woman who didn’t come out to great acclaim during a time of better understanding and more acceptance (relatively speaking). Instead, Morris came out at a time when trans individuals were even less understood or accepted. In her memoir from the 1970s, she discusses knowing from early childhood that she was a girl and being forced to divorce her wife in order to be accepted as a woman in Britain (though they divorced in title only, staying together and entering into a civil partnership legally in 2008).

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    One of the big and scary books you probably were supposed to read in college and maybe didn’t, it’s time to take the courage to read it now—especially as it’s not as scary as you think. In fact, Moby-Dick is a worthy read because it deals with life in a universal way that may surprise you.

    Yes, there’s a chapter devoted entirely to different kinds of whales, but it’s a) more interesting than you may think and b) actually very funny if you read it with the right lens.

    Something to remember when reading this book is that it doesn’t take itself as seriously as some of us take it today, and that Ishmael, its narrator and thinly-veiled-mask-of-Melville, is both high-minded and philosophical, and totally aware of how ridiculous that sometimes is.

    His story is also about running away from the “real world” only to find that the real world of human love and regret and pettiness is everywhere, even deep at sea (a reminder we all need sometimes).

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    Borges, a long-revered Latin American writer, is best remembered for his short fiction. These stories are known for their strangeness, their obsession with reality, and the little things that make it go sideways.

     Ficciones, Borges’s most famous collection of short stories, has a bunch of recurring motifs, one of which is the idea of a labyrinth, which seems particularly fitting for a time in one’s life when one is feeling either on the brink of finding the center of things or utterly and completely lost.

    Many of Borges’s main characters carry his own name, giving an odd meta quality to his work, making it self-aware in a way that feels fitting for the kind of stories he tells. Literary greatness lies herein.

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  • ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.


    30 Books Everyone Should Read in Their Thirties

    The Best 20 Books to Read in Your 30s

    © Michaela Pointon / Culture Trip

    Thirty is an awkward age by any reckoning—you’ve been school for a good eight or nine years at least, hopefully you’ve been able to get your own place and begin a career, you might even be considering grad school, and legally you’re allowed to rent a car: the last real benchmark of adulthood.

    For better and worse, a person’s twenties is a nebulous period where, for the first time, you might find yourself without firm responsibilities. The question by 30 becomes, “what to do with this excess time?”

    The best answer is to treat these years as a laboratory for the mind, catching up on modern works of literature from around the world.

    Years spent reading become their own reward in a person’s thirties, when the knowledge and experience stored up from youth find their greatest application, and you’re capable of looking backward, to childhood, and forward to a future that is finally beginning to come into view.

    Below, 30 books worth reading after 30, all classics in their own right and deserving of study, reflection, and rereading.

    Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor…

    Wise Blood Courtesy of Harcourt

    One man’s search for faith in O’Connor’s southern demesne is a gallery of grotesques that anybody turning 30 can surely relate to, and it helps that “The Church Without Christ” sought by Wise Blood’s hero Hazel Motes is an existential paradox that leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate when the story’s parade of preachers and con men come to an end.

    Fat City by Leonard Gardner…

    Fat City Courtesy of NYRB Classcs

    Since most have read The Great Gatsby in high school, Fat City is the West Coast equivalent, an all-American search for greatness set in the hard-luck world of boxing and boasting a subdued prose style that perfectly matches its character’s dingy surroundings.

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin…

    Fire Next Time Courtesy of Vintage

    Perhaps the best literary document of the civil rights movement in America, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time retains its poignancy and immediacy in the present. Although Baldwin wrote many novels and essay collections, the two letters that comprise this memoir are Baldwin’s most personal address, and both acquire the elevation of a sermon.

    The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov…

    The Master & Margarita Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    A sprawling novel of the Devil running amok in Stalin-era Moscow, The Master and Margarita is one of the most beloved and strange books in the canon, and one that every reader owes it to themselves to experience in all its bewitching glory.

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami…

    The Master & Margarita Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    The meditative masterpiece by Haruki Murakami received mixed reviews when it first appeared in English. But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has gone on to become a contemporary classic and its searching, surreal storyline—equal parts postwar malaise and sexual longing—has worldwide relevance.

    Ulysses by James Joyce…

    Ulysses Courtesy of Vintage

    It may seem a chore at first, but there’s a good reason that Ulysses is celebrated as modernism’s most sublime masterpiece, as the story of an ordinary summer day in Dublin takes on mythic grandeur in Joyce’s unmatched and musical prose.

    The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett…

    The Secret Garden Courtesy of HarperCollins

    It may be a children’s book, but The Secret Garden is as heartbreaking a story as they come, and one of the ultimate entries in English fiction, as Mary Lennox discovers the squalid history of secrets behind her uncle’s sprawling mansion. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s subject is nothing less than hope and finding a reason to live when death is certain, topics that never lose their poignancy.

    Old Man Goriot by Honoré de Balzac…

    Old Man Goriot Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    Although the title of Balzac’s masterpiece changes from translation to translation, the story of Old Man Goriot, concerning the acquaintances of a Parisian social climber (none of whom are entirely who they seem at first), never goes style, making the book more than a match for anything by Dumas or Flaubert.

    Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy…

    Blood Meridian Courtesy of Vintage

    Breathtaking beauty enfolded in bloodcurdling violence, Blood Meridian is Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel, the story of a holy innocent enmeshed in a brutal expedition in a western frontier that is entirely denuded of the romance and heroism of typical cowboy fare.

    The Passion by Jeanette Winterson…

    The Passion Courtesy of Grove Press

    A devastating and achingly romantic historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion has the intimacy of a personal favorite despite the hundreds of readers who have found its magical tale of lovers caught up in life’s carnival more than the equal of works by Borges or Gabriel García Márquez.

    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie…

    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Courtesy of Grove Press

    Few American novels have had the impact of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the collection that gave us a desperately needed portrait of Spokane Indians contending with themselves and the ingrained image of the Native American in popular culture, which Alexie dismantles one poetic line at a time.

    The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin…

    The Dispossessed Courtesy of Harper Voyager

    Easily one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, The Dispossessed owes much of its sterling reputation to its politics, as it positions capitalism and anarchy as two planets, both with their own drawbacks and merits.

    Demian by Hermann Hesse…

    Demian Courtesy of Dover Thrift

    Perhaps the most essential of the “angry young man” books, Hermann Hesse’s Demian encompasses a search for meaning outside of conventional society and religion, which goes a long way toward explaining why it was rediscovered by baby boomers in the 1960s. And yet the novel still registers today, long after its glory days as the foundational text of the hippie movement.

    Libra by Don DeLillo…

    Libra Courtesy of Contemporary American Fiction

    DeLillo is of course the author of dozens of worthy entries in the canon of American novels, but Libra is where his themes—the country’s wracked conscience, paranoia, and the uncertainty of cultural memory—find their greatest conduit in the fictionalized life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy surrounding him, and the aftermath of his deadly attack on the President.

    The Collected Stories of Grace Paley…

    The Collected Stories Courtesy of FSG

    Word for word the most talented prose stylist of her generation, Grace Paley explored working class urban Americana no one before or since. Her Collected Stories belongs on every bookshelf, as her tragic relationships between old world parents and the young, assimilated Jewish diaspora remain extraordinary excavations of their kind.

    The Cantos by Ezra Pound…

    The Cantos of Ezra Pound Courtesy of New Directions

    Modern poetry came of age with The Cantos by Ezra Pound, which treats antique themes with a digressive and baroque modernity. Every poem written after The Cantos bears its mark to some extent, and even Pound’s questionable political allegiances during World War Two can’t dispel its power.

    The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever…

    The Wapshot Scandal Courtesy of Harper Perennial Modern Classics

    More famed as a short story writer, The Wapshot Scandal is nevertheless John Cheever’s most enduring prose work, a tale of human frailty set in New England that describes the ruination of the Wapshot family as they embark on a disastrous series of marriages and money-making schemes that enact the American dream on a massive, doomed scale.

    The End of the Affair by Graham Greene…

    The End of the Affair Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    The best of Graham Greene’s so-called “Catholic novels,” The End of the Affair is the story of a crisis of faith that takes the tale of an extra-marital romance to dizzying heights of both love and hatred. Read Greene for his compassion, which is moving and humane even when the urge to reach out and shake his characters becomes overwhelming.

    The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner…

    The Sound And The Fury Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    The great Sound and the Fury doesn’t entirely deserve its reputation as a “difficult book.” Rather, it is both difficult and extremely simple: the story of the aristocratic Compton clan as they become lost in the ethical morass of the post-Reconstruction South, perhaps best known for its majestic opening sequence, narrated by the mentally-disabled Benjy.

    The Stranger by Albert Camus…

    The Stranger Courtesy of Vintage

    Misunderstood by generations of high school students shocked by its seemingly unfeeling depiction of violence, The Stranger is much more than meets the eye. Its grasp of the human mind apprehending the ‘other’ is more timely now than ever and Camus’s politically charged philosophy deserves constant revisitation.

    To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf…

    To The Lighthouse Courtesy of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

    The uncompromising To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf’s most haunting work. This tale of a family’s excursion to a lighthouse that comes to encompass their tangled lives and love affairs is as much a part of English literary vernacular as anything by Jane Austen or George Eliot.

    The Red and the Black by Stendhal…

    The Red and the Black Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    A stunning novel of thwarted ambitions, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is the story of the social pretender Julien Sorel, who seeks to rise above his lowborn station only to gamble everything in a shocking crime that serves as a cautionary fable as well as the crux of a sprawling and immortal social novel.

    Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen…

    Seven Gothic Tales Courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics

    Karen Blixen wrote these essential masterpieces—detailing the rise and fall of baroque figures nuns, priests, and princes—under the pen name Isak Dinesen. But, by any name, the author of Seven Gothic Tales has an urgency that takes the innocence of youth into dark, even perverse, corners of the imagination.

    Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme…

    Sixty Stories Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    The free-wheeling Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme are nearly impossible to describe—a mad mixture of pop art and Warner Brothers cartoons that continue to baffle, delight, and surprise their readers decades after they were first composed. For any who doubt that there are still limits to the imagination, Barthelme is a sound rejoinder and proof positive that you can do anything with words.

    The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien…

    Shelved by its author after failing to find publication, The Third Policeman had to wait to find its audience, but its reputation hasn’t floundered since. The story of a would-be criminal who finds himself in a bizarre landscape populated by eccentric bicycle-riding policemen, the novel is a masterful and oddball fusion of Samuel Beckett and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

    A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving…

    A Prayer for Owen Meany Courtesy of William Morrow

    After a foul ball fatally strikes another boy’s mother, Owen Meany becomes convinced that he is God’s instrument and navigates the second half of the 20th century with that certainty firmly in place. Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany showed how far the realist novel could go and inspired a generation of readers and writers in the bargain.

    The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq…

    The Elementary Particles Courtesy of Vintage

    A pitch-black novel of free love and the sciences being taken to their ultimate extensions, The Elementary Particles is a decidedly un-sexy novel about sex and the ramifications of two brothers’ efforts to account for their troubled upbringing. This is one of the most perfect novels to read in one’s thirties, as it manages to be both intellectually ambitious and distinctly world-weary.

    Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak…

    Doctor Zhivago Courtesy of Vintage

    A rollicking adventure story of post-Tsarist Russia, Doctor Zhivago was long repressed by the Russian authorities and it’s easy to see why: the novel’s critiques of power are as well-observed as ever. But there’s more to Pasternak’s drama than civil strife, as his love story escapes cliché while remaining a truly beautiful tale of star-crossed lovers.

    A Void by Georges Perec…

    Simply a masterpiece of form, A Void is constructed without use of a single incident of the letter ‘e.’ But Perec has more than mere experimentalism on his mind, as the novel questions how we fill in what is missing from the world and how many living people become walking ghosts in our midst.

    Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon…

    Gravity's Rainbow Courtesy of Penguin Classics

    You almost have to go back to the Bible to find a more divisive work of literature as Gravity’s Rainbow, which is the masterpiece of the television age. Incorporating a great deal of technical knowledge as well as a zany sense of humor, Pynchon’s hero Slothrop is an ordinary gooall trapped in a world-sized caper that even the book’s massive length can barely contain.