1. Paint It Black by Janet Fitch
This was one of those books I read as I entered my 20’s and have the tendency to re-read at least once a year. It follows a young woman whose boyfriend commits suicide and the weird path she goes down trying to piece it all together. Fitch is a fantastic writer who likes to use California as a backdrop to women figuring themselves out.
2. The Best of Roald Dahl by Roald Dahl
It wasn’t until I was 21 that I realized my favorite author as a child also wrote fiction for adults. And as I’ve discovered, most people don’t . This is a collection of his more popular short stories, many of which inspired by his time spent in the British military and truly a testament to what an amazing writer he was. It’s a little something to grow with you from childhood.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Seriously I don’t understand why everyone hasn’t read this. It’s truly one of the greatest written novels of all time, and if you pay attention, not what you think it is. Does it have undertones that will make you squirm? Probably, but truly, give it a chance. It also is slowly creeping back into pop culture, so you should probably read it before it re-emerges fully.
4. Atonement by Ian McEwan
It’s a book too! If there was one thing that has stuck with me about this book it’s that all actions have consequences, something that gets forgotten in our 20’s. Sure it’s fine to throw caution to the wind, but not when it can affect others. This novel is truly beautiful and gut-wrenching, and don’t we all need a little tragic romance once in a while?
5. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Really anything by Hornby could apply here, and High Fidelity isn’t even my favorite of this works but trust me, you will relate to this novel in a visceral way. We all catalog exes and connect all sorts of things to those memories. This explores that in Hornby’s witty way and will make you reminisce, cringe and ponder past and future exes. (It’s not just a movie!)
6. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
I really couldn’t decide on one. I could probably make this entire list Sedaris. But I didn’t because I have restraint. Sedaris is an author you should know and shame on you if you don’t. Me Talk Pretty is a great introduction to his works. Now I’m not going to tell you how to read, so if you don’t mind laughing in public read this anywhere, but please don’t read and drink beverages while reading this. I don’t want to be blamed for your ruined iPad.
7. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
Actually Bourdain’s second non-fiction novel, but a great one for being in your 20’s. This was written while Bourdain was filming his first television show of the same title. His writing is similar to his speaking style, which I’m a fan of, but he really gives you a feel for his travels with an honesty specific to him. It sparks a desire to travel and taste everything, and even if you’d rather chill at home, you still get a feel for what it would be like. Lazy, cheap travel.
8. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
DFW is an author everyone should be familiar with. His writing style is so unique and this collection of shorts is my favorite. It’s peppered with the actual interviews, placed between his signature short stories. Warning: Be prepared for extensive footnotes that may lead nowhere.
9. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This is a novel you should read, and then brag about reading. It’s significant because we all feel the weight of the obligations around us and wonder what the hell we’re doing. While the era and some of the circumstances may vary, Woolf’s prose still speaks loudly to our feelings. Woolf’s personal demons flow through out the novel but Mrs. Dalloway herself embodies so much of the struggle we face not only with circumstance, but ourselves.
10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
CALM YOUR KNICKERS AND HEAR ME OUT. Yes, you probably read (or at least the SparkNotes version of) this in high school BUT you got the watered down version, much like you did with Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation. I re-read this in my adulthood and caught on to so much more, like the fact that I actually hated all the characters. Oddly, it made me appreciate the novel more, and allows for a great grasp on what is a) actually going on in this book and b) what Fitzgerald is actually trying to say. There really is no such thing as a second chance in America when you’re only striving to build upon your social status. Welcome to the Golden Age.
11. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
This book should be required reading from birth, in my humble opinion. It is told from the point of view of an autistic child who finds his neighbor’s dog dead and wants to solve the mystery of “who done it.” It really works with perspective, and you have to go through his process of thinking in order to see what’s really going on. It’s just a really interesting perspective to write from that is done beautifully.
12. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Chabon is truly one of better writers out there, and a fantastic discovery for your 20s. Now I’m biased as this is one of my favorite books of all-time but it truly is a fantastic story following two Jewish cousins who venture into the comic world in New York City, at its peak performance, right as Hitler is rising to power. I could write for days about how good it is and why you should read it, but just do. It was Pulitizer Prize winner for crying out loud.
13. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
While July is currently known for her success in the film world, she is also an amazing author. This collection of stories shows perspective from a wide array of view points and each story is beautiful, albeit some are quite intense to read. July truly is an amazing storyteller and you should check it out. She’s just lovely. I mean, with a name like Miranda July how could you not be?
14. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book changed the way I read. I’m not just saying that, but it took a subject matter not a lot of people take the time to think about and pulls it into the forefront of your brain. It follows the story of a young girl who realizes she is a young boy and his journey with family, relationships, the like. Eugenides is a fantastic writer (he also wrote The Virgin Suicides) and this novel does not disappoint. It’s also been causing little waves of controversy as some high schools want to make it required reading, and who doesn’t love a bit of controversy?
15. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is actually a short story but one worth reading. The discussions you could have! This story is about a woman who is “unwell” so her husband takes her to a getaway home where she is essentially a prisoner in the room with the yellow wallpaper. Her attitude towards the paper shifts through out the story, and you will have questions. It’s such a wonderful psychological short and definitely worth checking out.
16. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I will forever be a firm supporter of the dystopian novel, and while 1984 is great, we all know it. Step out of that comfort zone and look at this Huxley novel where sex is less taboo and you have to wonder about the state of affairs we are currently in, in comparison to the novel. People also find it quite impressive when you’ve actually read it as opposed to: “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of it, been meaning to get to it…”
17. Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme
I only recently discovered Barthelme, and he isn’t new. Barthelme is important to the literary world as he has influenced the way short stories are told. As the Modernist movement began to fade (think Fitzgerald, Hemingway), Barthelme began to experiment with not only the way a story is told, a reader’s emotions, but also form. (takes off nerd glasses) It’s dope yo!
18. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
I’m not going to go too heavy into this one. It’s a book within a book and it’s really good and confusing.
19. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Actually a graphic novel, but important nonetheless. It follows the story of a young girl growing up in Iran in the first novel, and then her adjustment to school in Vienna, Austria in the second. It’s an autobiographical story and truly one of the best works of our time. Watching the main character, Marji, go through her transition from child to adulthood is truly relatable and truly amazing.
20. YOU PICK
Now I could give you another laundry list of amazing stories, novels and memoirs to look at but I challenge you with this: go find a book you read in high school. It can be one you loved, but preferably one that you hated, and now re-read it. I can’t tell you what this trick has done for me, and how many things I picked up on as an adult. Your views may have changed, and you may end up loving it, or maybe you’ll still hate it, but at least you can say you gave it a second chance.