Graphic by Marcelo Orrico.
It’s raining just slightly, meaning your curls will frizz into an ungodly mess before your morning bus has even pulled up to the curb. There’s a hopefully unnoticeable coffee stain right below your collar, and as you triple-check your tote bag for your keys and slightly-cracked phone, it hits you with sudden clarity that the internship you’ve been fretting over all morning is not, in fact, a paid gig.
Welcome to your twenties.
As the great Miss Swift sang, being a 20-something is miserable and it’s magical. In honor of the anxieties and uncertainties of the time, here is a list of books that will — hopefully — make you feel a little less alone.
1. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
David, an American expatriate residing in Paris during the 1950s, is a man strangled by societal expectations. While at a gay bar in the city, he meets an Italian bartender named Giovanni and the two men quickly develop feelings for each other. Despite Giovanni’s willingness to love him, David is too afraid of “the stink of love” to overcome his internalized bigotries. Spoiler alert: it is not a happy ending.
2. The Razor’s Edge by William Somerset Maugham (1944)
Larry Darrel, now a World War I veteran, has returned home to Chicago sufficiently disillusioned. Caught on the delicate brink between adolescence and adulthood and deeply traumatized from his service, Larry can't reintegrate himself into his pre-war life. Rather than marry his betrothed and enter the workforce, Larry sets off for foreign continents in hopes of finding some semblance of purpose. If you’ve ever felt at a loss for direction or dreamed of backpacking through Europe, this read is for you.
3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
Timeless and ethereal, The Secret History is the story of how a group of six classics students at a small, Northeastern liberal arts college murder one of their friends and subsequently fall apart. It’s a mysterious exploration of what secrets, addiction and horribly toxic relationships can do to a group of people.
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)
Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who becomes obsessed with aestheticism after befriending the hedonistic Lord Henry. In a Faustian turn of events, Dorian wishes for eternal youth, and in exchange, a commissioned portrait of him ages instead. Now forever young and beautiful, Dorian explores his sensual desires freely, but he is haunted by the mistakes of his youth until his ultimate end.
5. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)
In this collection of essays, Gay deftly tackles topics of identity, race, sexuality, politics and more, making it a must-read for anyone looking for their place in the world. In a review, The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Gay writes incisively, fearlessly, sometimes angrily, often wittily and always intelligently on an incredibly diverse array of issues.”
6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Esther Greenwood spends the summer of 1953 interning at a New York City magazine. While in the city, Esther’s mental state begins to decline and she struggles to define herself as a woman. The Ball Jar mimics Plath’s own experiences with mental illness and suicidal ideation and is a deeply touching read for anyone experiencing similar things.
7. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
White Teeth is a masterpiece of contemporary literature. It’s the story of two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, as they return to British society following their service in Word War II. The novel discusses issues of science, religion, history and cultural diversity, all while depicting the lives of Archie and Samad as they struggle to raise families and begin growing old.
8. The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley (1992)
The Descent of Alette is a feminist inversion of the genre of epic poetry. A female protagonist descends into the confusing and somewhat harrowing world of subway passengers beneath the city as she embarks on a quest to confront the evil Tyrant. Publishers Weekly described the novel-length poem as a “postmodern, mytho-feminist combination of Dante's Inferno and the Old English Beowulf.”
9. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (1984)
In this essential collection of essays and speeches, feminist and renowned author Audre Lorde champions intersectionality, exploring themes of race, gender, sexuality, police brutality, ageism, imperialism, black feminism and more.
10. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
Jeanette is the adopted daughter of evangelical Christians. She’s also a lesbian. This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel follows Jeanette as she struggles to understand her sexuality and identity in the face of her mother’s extremist beliefs and tales of malicious demons and eternal punishment.
11. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)
All the Light We Cannot See is the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living in occupied France, and Werner Pfennig, a bright orphan boy who is recruited to a Nazi boarding school and, later, the Wehrmacht. During her childhood, Marie-Laure’s father is in charge of protecting a precious artifact and they must evade capture. Somewhat later in their lives and despite all odds, Marie-Laure and Werner form an unbreakable bond, as “Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.”
12. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
Newland Archer is a man who has everything: a wealthy family, access to education, and the hand of a beautifully innocent girl, May Welland. Despite Newland’s outward appearance of success, he is deeply unsatisfied with his life, and when May’s cousin Ellen Olenska visits town, the two quickly become infatuated with each other. Newland must decide whether chasing this seemingly impossible life with Ellen is what he truly wants, or if he is better off abiding by tradition and staying faithful to May.
13. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (2019)
Vuong’s debut, semi-autobiographical, epistolary novel is a story of love between a mother and her son. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous contains themes of sexuality, nationality, heritage, immigration and more, all written in Vuong’s quietly beautiful prose.
14. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
Americanah has been described as “a powerful, tender story of race and identity.” It's the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman immigrating to the United States for college, who must confront the reality of being black in America. Meanwhile, Obinze, Ifemelu’s lover who had intended to follow her, is forced to live as an undocumented immigrant in London for some time. Years later, the two reconnect in Nigeria and rekindle their relationship, though they are both very different from who they had been in their 20s.
15. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Bigger Thomas is a young black man living in Chicago’s poverty-stricken South Side during the 1930s, and he's afraid. In need of money, Bigger accepts a job from Mr. Dalton, an affluent white man. Bigger quickly finds himself caught in a dangerous situation, and his actions lead to his eventual imprisonment. Native Son is a novel about politics, fate and the racial divide still palpable in America today.
16. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
As a child, Kathy and her friends attend Hailsham, an extremely isolated boarding school. When the gang eventually leave Hailsham as adults, they learn that their lives are not their own, nor have they ever been. This novel tackles themes of grief, ethics and love, and is a must-read for anyone trying to find their way in the world.
17. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1978)
Arthur Dent is a Homosapien, meaning he is both “primitive” and “unhappy,” especially after Earth is destroyed by a fleet of aliens called the Vogons. Arthur and his friend Ford Prefect, an alien researcher and professional galaxy hitchhiker, manage to escape Earth’s destruction. The two travel the galaxies together, trying not to panic, searching for the ultimate answer to life.
18. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
Inspired by true events, Beloved, set after the Civil War, is the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio with her youngest daughter, Denver. Their home is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first daughter, who died as a baby. This novel tells a horrific story of slavery in America, showing the psychological effect generational torture had on a family.
19. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817)
Anne Elliot is 27, meaning she is well past her prime according to English society. Rather than continuing to search for love, Anne dedicates herself to her family who is struggling financially due to lavish spending. No one expects it when Captain Wentworth, the man whom Anne had been engaged to seven years prior, returns from his service looking for marriage. Considered to be Jane Austen’s most mature work, Persuasion is a story of familial duty, love, and struggling to find your voice.
20. White Noise by Don Delilo (1985)
Jack Gladney, a star college professor, is paralyzed by a fear of death. After coming into contact with Nyodine D, an unknown chemical agent, during a city-wide Airborne Toxic Event, Jack quickly begins to spiral, losing control of his family and his sense of self. In White Noise, DeLillo crafts a harrowing tale of toxic masculinity, the hyperreal and mass consumerism in modern America.
Check out the Goodreads shelf for this collection here.