14 Books You Must Read In Your 20’s

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education-booksAs we go through college, leave college, start our first real jobs, leave our first real jobs, move back in with our parents, move out with roommates, live alone for the first time, date, get into serious relationships, break up, and still feel confused about our lives when we thought that it would all feel totally right and normal by now, there are some books that help us deal with these rollercoasters of emotions and these rights of passage. Books help explain things, help give perspective on life, make us feel less alone, or possibly more alone. But most importantly, they teach us things about life and give us something real to think about. The list of books that one should read is endless. But here is an attempt to narrow it down and to narrow it down to ones you should read now, rather than later.

 “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” – Neil Gaiman

1. “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” by Tom Robbins

“There are many things worth living for, a few things worth dying for, and nothing worth killing for,” writes Robbins in this book.This is a book about self-discovery and growth, about self-criticism and self-acceptance, as well as the good and bad in everyone and the search for the meaning of life.Tom Robbins usually writes great reads with well-packaged life advice with a lot of spunk, which is what makes all his books great for reading in your 20’s. One person described it as “a primer on absurdist literature that speaks volumes to self-doubt, discovery, 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 clever, and sometimes you really are.”

 2. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” -by Joan Didion

Some people have refered to this as “The Bible for anyone who’s fancied themselves a writer, ever. Didion has probably said what you wanted to say, and earlier and better.” It is a collection of essays by the author, from 1968, about her experiences in California in the 60’s. “I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder,” writes the author in the preface of this novel. In one of her essays, Didion discusses the grimness of the life she saw taking place in the Haight-Asbury disctrict of San Francisco, which was the countercultural center back in the day. It is a rather negative protrayal as opposed to the Utopian image often portrayed by other authors about that era. One of her stories discusses an encounter with a preschooler whose parents gave her LSD.  Her analytical discussions on different views and opinions of an era that we do not get to hear about much is eye opening and important to digest while in our 20s.

3. “Anna Karenina” -by Leo Tolstoy

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So starts the famous novel, Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  As the first novel from the author who also wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina was described to be  “flawless as a work of art” by Dostoyevsky, and “the best ever written” by Faulkner.This tells the story of Anna Karenina, a married aristocrat and socialite who has an affair with Count Vronsky. It is the story of her indecisiveness, social pressures, and the forgiveness or lack thereof in her family and in society. Within the novel runs a parallel story of Konstantin Levin, a country landowner, and his difficulties in love and life. The novel explores a variety of topics throughout its many pages that discuss the feudal system of the time, politics, religion, and morality on both the individual and societal levels.This book is a classic for a reason. The errors made by Anna, the main character, as well as the successes of her peers, such as Levin, are still relevant to our time and in our countries. These human lessons about simple living and social mobility are timeless and cross-cultural and there is much to be learned from the actions of the characters in this book. It is a novel that was originally released in the “Russian Messenger” periodical in the form of installments from 1873 to 1877, but the last installment could not be released due to political disagreements and the editor’s refusal to publish, so the novel was released in complete form as a book.

4. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” -by Milan Kundera

This book is made up of a collection of stories about an ensemble of deeply flawed characters. Within these stories, Kundera illustrates the search for meaning, the creation of meaning, interpersonal relationships and their complications, and the endless choices of humanity between lightness and being. It can inspire readers to wrestle with identity and meaning. Kundera also criticizes social structure and preconceptions within society of what is right and what is wrong, and how people should react, and whether any of these societal norms really mean anything in the long run. He offers keen insight into gender dynamics and the universal struggle to balance meaningful relationships and independence. Milan Kundera finds a way to convey deep philosophical questions within his writing of stories. Sometimes you may find yourself finishing a sentence and needing to pause in order to digest the idea conveyed or absorb the message he is trying to transmit. Sometimes just one sentence can feel like it changes your way of thinking, teaches you something about life, or is a work of art in and of itself. Basically, you learn a lot and is a definite must-read.

5. “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” -by Junot Díaz

This bestselling novel is set in New Jersey and chronicles both the life of an overweight Dominican boy who is obsessed with fantasy and science fiction novels and with falling in love, and about the curse that has plagued his family for generations. It is a touching story about the power of optimism amid the inherited cultural setbacks. It may make you cry but it will also teach you a lot about the Dominican Diaspora and identity, masculinity, and oppression. Ride with science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies, various Spanish dialects, and told by the apparently omniscient narrator who turns out to be Oscar’s college roommate, Yunior, this book combines both humor and fun with difficult topics. It is not wonder that it has received numerous prestigious awards such as the National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It will take you on a roller coaster, but it will also embolden you and fill you with knowledge and understanding.

6. “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” – By Dave Eggers

“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is a memoir that chronicles the author’s struggles after the death of his parents. Dave and his siblings, including Toph (who is thirteen years younger than Dave), endure the sudden death of both their parents due to cancer. The siblings move from Illinois to California, and Dave and Toph find themselves in San Francisco, trying to fend for themselves. Dave is in his early twenties and discusses the difficulties of leading a normal life as a young adult while trying to care for his younger brother, sending him to the proper schools and providing him with a home. The author discusses his frustrations with raising his brother; feeling robbed of his youth and his frustrations with wanting to pursuit sex and be irresponsible and young. In this book, the author chronicles his and his friends’ establishment of a magazine and the development of his career as well. It is a book that many people in their 20s can relate to, such as the frustration of finding balance with irresponsibility and the need for stability, loss of loved ones, and dealing with your urges and needs in your twenties, but this memoir can teach readers a lot too, about the realities of a dealing with difficult situations, family, and life in general.

 7. “The Bell Jar” – by Sylvia Plath

This is a shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity. It is the story of Esther Greenwood, a brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful woman slowly going under, and is  a deep penetration into the darkest corners of the human psyche which is what made this book into a haunting American classic. Sylvia Plath describes Esther’s breakdown in a way that makes her insanity become palpable and even seem rational.  One reader described it in this way: “What the protagonist Esther Greenwood goes through pretty much speaks to my whole generation and the next. College graduates who do not 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.”

 8.”Infinite Jest” – by David Foster Wallace

In this novel set in the not-so-distant future, David Foster Wallace explores the definition of entertainment, why it is necessary, and what it says about who we are. He does so in an entertaining way by telling the story of recovering addicts of a Boston halfway house and students at a Tennis Academy who search for the master copy of a movie that is said to be so dangerously entertaining that its viewers die in a state of catatonic bliss. With the development of technology and the experience of growing up as Generation X, it causes readers to reevaluate their choices in life and view entertainment in a more critical way, which is something our generation needs to do.

 10. “Atonement”,  by Ian McEwan

If you want light and fun reading that will not depress you, this book is not for you. It is about a romance gone tragic because of a little girl’s misunderstanding. If it teaches us anything, it is that all actions have consequences, and we should think before we speak. We should consider if we truly saw what we say, and the influence our words have on the lives of others. This is definitely something that those in their 20s need reminding of, especially in this generation where everything is so out in the open.

11. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”-  by Michael Chabon

This story follors two Jewish cousins who set out into the comic world of New York City at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. The main character, Joe Kavalier, is a young Jewish artist who smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded prague with his Houdini-esque skills, and landed in New York City. His cousin, Sammy Clay, grew up in Brooklyn and is looking for a partner with whom to create superheroes, stories, and art for the latest trend in America – the comic book. Kavalier and Clay come to create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, characters that are based in the creators’ own fears and dreams. With a beautiful mixture of style and grace, Michael Chabon paints a touching story about the American dream, romance, and possibility.

12. “Middlesex”- by Jeffrey Eugenides

One reader said that “this book changed the way I read.” It is under current controversial discussion to make it into required reading at high schools, or ban it from them. Eugenides tells the story of a young girl who realizes she is a young boy, and his journey with his family and relationships as he goes through transformations. In our generation today, it is extremely important to truly understand the lives, struggles, and experiences of transgender and transsexual individuals. It gives a touching, personal story and a new outlook on life.

13. “The Fountainhead”- bv Ayn Rand

This Ayn Rand classic is an absolute must-read in your 20s. The  story tells of a young architect in a violent battle against conventional standards and his love affair with a gorgeous woman who struggles to defeat him.  It is about the power of one individual, and the dangers of giving in to society’s demands and what you’ll pay if you don’t. During these crucial years of independence, development, and growth into adulthood, it is important to consider what you would give up in the pursuit of your life’s work, and finding the balance between being unique, individualistic, and comfortable with yourself and simultaneously being a part of society.

14. “Cat’s Cradle”-by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle, is a satirical story that discusses issues of science, technology, religion, war, and several other targets along the way. The general story, without giving too much away, tells of John, a novelist trying to write a book about the atomic bomb. He meets the children of  Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate physicist who was involved in the development of the atomic bomb.  John ends up flying to an island in the Caribbean with Dr Hoenikker’s children, and coming across a strange religion, Bokononism. This book questions our society and decisions that have been made, it questions religion and its origins, and every type of character we may meet in our lives. This satirical view of the world is humorous but also tragic, and is definitely an important book to read in order to raise our awareness of societal problems and widen our horizons.
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