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What does it matter when in your life you read a book? Possibly a lot. In Unfinished Business, Vivian Gornick describes the process of revisiting beloved texts as something akin to “lying on the analyst’s couch.” A story she thought she understood “is suddenly being called into alarming question.” And yet whatever misunderstandings a youthful reading might cement, imbibing a certain book at a certain time in your life can have an undeniable impact. If you don’t encounter Ramona in your elementary years, will the rambunctious spirit summoned by Beverly Cleary ever manifest in its fullest form? Will Holden Caulfield ever burrow his way into your heart if you don’t encounter The Catcher in the Rye in your teens?
And what of those books that you read in those messy, glittery years known as your 20s—a decade in which your adult life looms ever closer and yet you may still be wandering in joyful digressions? What works of literature should inform that decade-long walkabout? There is no answer, of course (nor really is there anything special about completing your 29th year), but we have some opinions nonetheless. In the spirit of celebrating the life-altering impact of literature, we offer 30 suggestions of books to read before you turn 30.
Like most people, I first encountered the Brontë sisters in a high school classroom. The spell Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) cast on me has strengthened with every passing year. The book’s famous romance (the quasi-incestuous bond between the violent Heathcliff and the vain Catherine Earnshaw) actually constitutes less than half of the novel. The greater and more difficult story―the one that draws me to the text over and over―is a meditation on generations: a study of how human faults pass from parents to children and of how we might outlive the sins of the past. Shortly after the book was published, Emily Brontë died at 30 years old. At 25, I’m closer to that age than to the teenage lovers―or to who I was when I first learned of them. The author’s wisdom, to quote her doomed heroine, has run “through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.” —Ian Malone
Truthfully, I was well into my 30s when I came to The House of Mirth, but it’s really an essential twenty-something read. After all, the Edith Wharton novel revolves around an “aging” 29-year-old beauty named Lily Bart—to be clear, this book was written in 1905—who is looking for an advantageous marriage in order to secure her place in New York society. The House of Mirth charts our heroine’s two-year descent from prettiest girl in the room to social outcast. The prose is as gorgeous as the story is chilling: “She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.” I find myself thinking about this exquisite story—and the tragedy of Lily Bart—again and again. —Jessie Heyman
Maurice by E.M. Forster (1913)
It’s not perfect, but E.M. Forster’s Maurice is about as affecting a portrayal of desire, betrayal, internal conflict, disappointment, and the possibility of rapturous happiness against all odds. (I’m being very reductive, but there is a certain quaintness to this queer love story, established in part by its Edwardian setting. As Forster wrote in 1950, more than 30 years after he’d finished it, Maurice “belongs to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood.”) I came to the book after the sublime Merchant Ivory adaptation, and still Forster’s story of occasionally tortured self-discovery—the seed of any coming-of-age story worth its salt—moved me. Take one early exposition: “There was still much to learn, and years passed before he explored certain abysses in his being—hor
rible enough they were. But he discovers the method and looked no more at scratches in the sand. He had awoke too late for happiness, but not for strength, and could feel an austere joy, as of a warrior who is homeless but stands fully armed.” As allergic as I am to sentimentality, something about this book—and those lines—cut to the quick in my early 20s. —Marley Marius
I think it’s a good idea to read Woolf before you’re 30 simply for her gorgeous, fluid language. But if I had to pick the most potent distillation of her perspective on love, life, and time, it would be Mrs. Dalloway, the book that became, in a strange turn of the literary screw, a kind of pandemic meme for the comfort its familiar lines provide. (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would make the mask herself” went one memorable example.) This, of course, had to do with the fact—in 2020 and just after World War I, when the novel was published—that the world was entering a confusing new age of anxiety. In Woolf’s novel that anxiety, manifested by the shellshocked veteran Septimus Smith, is juxtaposed against the poised hostess Clarissa Dalloway. But even Clarissa—a character all should expose themselves to for the sheer ecstasy she brings to the mundane act of running errands—cannot escape the nervous waves that niggling memories can bring about. Woolf is the master of showing how our past is often just as powerful as our present and that we are never really living fully in one time and place. —Chloe Schama
File this one under books that seem as though you should have read as a child and yet are better consumed with a more nuanced appreciation of the wisdom and style they contain. Smith is best known as the author of 101 Dalmatians, but it is this earlier novel that is her masterpiece and far transcends whatever looming shadow Disney’s magic castle has cast over her work. Narrated by a precocious child named Cassandra, I Capture the Castle is nominally the story of an oddball family: “We are a sorry lot,” Cassandra writes, “father mouldering in the gatehouse, Rose raging at life, Thomas—well he is a cheerful boy but one cannot but know that he is perpetually underfed.” This seesaw rhythm—comic detail juxtaposed against cosmic injustice—propels the book. Smith wrote the book with the intent of making each word uttered by her characters “as carefully balanced as every speech in a play,” and Cassandra’s voice here has a veracity and wit that transcends most theater. —C.S.
Giovanni’s Room begins with a tragedy: the execution of its titular character, an Italian bartender, whom the book’s American narrator, David, had a romantic affair with in Paris while his female fiancée was traveling in Spain. Inspired partly by James Baldwin’s own experiences living as a Black, gay American in Paris (that the entitled main character is white was very much intentional), the book’s explicit references to queer sexuality saw it rejected by Baldwin’s previous publisher Knopf. It was eventually released in 1956 to a conflicted critical re
sponse. Aside from the novel’s groundbreaking treatment of sexuality, however, what makes Giovanni’s Room a book to read before you’re 30 is its forensic examination of David’s inner conflict of narcissism and self-loathing, which he expresses through spontaneous moments of cruelty, long before the notion of toxic masculinity found a name. David feels unease at the model of dominance and subservience he observes in traditional heterosexual relationships; at the same time, he expresses disgust at his liaisons with men, described in language that barely conceals his shame. David’s volatility makes Giovanni’s Room an important lesson in how not to love—even as its lyrical, intoxicating descriptions of infatuation and intimacy mark Baldwin as a true master of the written word. —Liam Hess
The Group by Mary McCarthy (1963)
Parts of Mary McCarthy’s midcentury novel can feel quaintly antiquated and parts stunningly familiar. I remember, when I read it in my late 20s, the sense of unease at how little had changed in some respects, how I was still having similar conversations with my friends about careers, love affairs, motherhood. McCarthy shied away from the idea that she, or her novel—which followed a group of college friends from the 1930s through the start of World War II—were feminist, but the book presents such an unvarnished depiction of the interior lives of her women that it’s hard to see it otherwise. The Group, published just a few months after Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, fleshed out “the problem with no name” that Freidan identified: the lingering dissatisfaction many women felt, notwithstanding the material comforts of their lives….