20 Best Books to Read in Your Twenties | Books for Twenty-somethings

Now that I am on the final leg of my twenties, I look back at the younger reading me and wonder what books I would have given her to guide her through her first full decade of adulthood. I admit I’m turning into an elder of sorts, giving reassurance and guidance to my younger friends as if I’ve got all the answers. I don’t, and every time I approach an advice-type situation, I fall back on books.

So consider the following list a reader’s advisory for the twenties, handpicked novels, books, and comics that should help a reader navigate the rocky post-college years, entry-level job situation, student loans, career indecision, “adulting,” love, and, perhaps most of all, friendship.

You can get by on very little when you’re in you’re twenties. You can forego buying a car, renting a swanky apartment, spending money on the new work wardrobe you really need, Hulu Plus, and coming up with ways to avoid that wedding. But I truly believe that without friends who are going through the same experiences, it’s not the same.

Read on for a list of non-fiction, novels, comics, of all shapes and sizes reflecting diverse voices and disparate twenties experiences.

Part One: Fiction

  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugendies’ The Marriage Plot follows a trio of early 1980s Brown students in the days after their graduation. I felt I had so much in common with Madeleine, the English major whose planned course of action was getting a PhD in 19th century literature, but also with Leonard, Madeleine’s mercurial and beguiling bipolar classmate in her literary theory seminar, supposedly based on David Foster Wallace. The two fall in love, and Madeleine is pulled away from her dreams when she becomes Leonard’s caretaker during a prolonged debilitating episode of his illness. Meanwhile Mitchell Grammaticus, an old friend of Madeleine’s who holds romantic aspirations with her, takes a pilgrimage around the world trying to understand religion and live a simpler life. Many readers in their twenties will see themselves in Eugenides’ depiction of these characters sorting through the harsh realities of post-college life. Goodreads

  • Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma

"Why We Came to the City" by Kristopher Jansma
“Why We Came to the City” by Kristopher Jansma

Friends, more so than family, are tuned into the zeitgeist like you are since they are living similar experiences—the post-college drama of finding a career, paying off student loans, falling in love with someone and potentially getting married, buying your first house, graduate school, and even, for some, having kids. Kristopher Jansma’s Why We Came to the City captures the underlying tensions among a group of five friends during a blizzard in New York City. I loved this novel. I read the hell out of it. It is so, forgive me for the cliche, poignant, but also relatable. Jansma seemed to capture so much of the universal truths of friendship in your twenties, like secretly harboring jealousies against your best friend if she’s advancing in her career and you’re not, or tension between the boyfriend and the male best friend, the college classmate outsider who worshipped the friends from afar but always felt on the peripheral… I’m getting a bit lyrical here, but so is this novel, which is written in a very lush and seductive language. Pick it up! Goodreads

  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

"A Little Life" by Hanya Yanigahara
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanigihara

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s epic novel about four young men and their friendship across decades, begins in the characters’ twenties not too long after they graduated college. Each of these friends—Willem the actor, JB the artist, Malcolm the architect, and Jude the lawyer—are so vividly drawn that you feel they could walk off the page in front of you. If you love character-driven novels, this is candy for you. The plot is expansive and deals with friendship, masculinity/brotherhood, family, career, art, and relationships. People will often divide their life into before reading A Little Life and after reading A Little Life. It is a pivotal novel in many people’s reading and personal lives. As a Kirkus Award winner and National Book Award finalist and Man Booker Prize finalist this novel is truly remarkable and should be at the top of every mid-to-late twenty-something’s reading list. Goodreads 

  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt

"The Secret History "by Donna Tartt
“The Secret History “by Donna Tartt

The Secret History is considered by some to be a cult classic. The novel is about a group of friends—Richard, Henry, Charles, Camilla, Frances, and Bunny—who attend a small, private liberal arts college in Vermont. They are part of an exclusive group of students who are taught by a dazzlingly brilliant classics professor, Julian. When Richard the narrator joins the group there are already cracks in the friends’ idyllic appearance. Intoxicated by scenery and a need to belong, Richard witnesses outrageous—and murderous—behavior. Although the story takes place in Richard’s college years, it is in fact told from the distance after college as he looks back. I love it because it perfectly captures the insular world we have in college and also the excitement of pursuing intellectual passions, yet with the retrospection of someone older. A great book to read in your twenties. Goodreads

  • The Collective by Don Lee

"The Collective" by Don Lee
“The Collective” by Don Lee

So have you figured out by now that friendship is a big theme in these books to read in your twenties? I often feel like I would never survive my twenties without my friends. In Don Lee’s The Collective, a group of students meet at a small liberal arts college and become very close, bonding over their shared Asian-American heritage and art. Lee’s novel traces the group for more than a decade through the highs and lows of twenty-something life. This is a great novel to read in your twenties, and I’d say especially as you approach your thirties and have a little distance. Goodreads

  • Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding

"Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding
“Bridget Jones’s Diary” by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones’ Diary changed my life. I can still remember the exact shelving location of the novel in the public library circa-my middle school years. I read the first two novels when I was a teen and then reread them again over and over again in my twenties. Even though some aspects of the novel are a little dated in 2016, Bridget Jones is a kind of feminist archetype. Whenever I get frustrated with dating and romance, whenever I feel like I’m truly a hot mess, I think of Bridget Jones and snap out of it. These novels are great to read in your twenties, especially late twenties, because so many of the topics are universal—like the idea of having an “urban family” of friends in your city and being stuck in a dead-end job. Many twenty-somethings will identify with Bridget and her friends. Goodreads

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes
“Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes, already an established name in contemporary romance/women’s literature in the U.K., bust onto the international stage with Me Before You. The premise sets up the drama remarkably well: twenty-something Louisa takes a job as a companion to a quadriplegic young man, Will, and they fall in love even as Will starts to take action to have his life go in a different direction. It’s heartbreaking, yes, and there are many tears to be had by the end of reading this brilliant and unconventional romance. But Me Before You is on this list for another reason. It’s also a story that is quintessentially about life in your twenties. Lou is a bit of a drifter when it comes to life, never making any big decisions and kind of treading water in the sea of mediocrity, but Will helps her come alive and realize how she could take bolder risks that are to her own benefit if only she had more confidence in herself and pursued her real dreams. In our twenties, there’s still time to reverse course and go after your hopes and aspirations full force, but sometimes it takes someone older to recognize our potential. Goodreads

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro
“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s hard to write this blurb because I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to go read the book now and then we’ll talk about it. Never Let Me Go is essentially about a group of friends, formerly classmates together during secondary school, who have gone different paths in life but reunite. Their boarding school was as idyllic as it was full of normal high school cliques and gossip and romantic entanglements. But there’s a difference, something that sets them apart from other people, and protagonist Kathy soon realizes what it is that makes them different, one might say chosen. If you’re in the mood for a literary novel that sucks you in like a mystery-thriller, pick up Never Let Me Go. It’s a good book to read in your twenties because it helps you look back on your life when you were younger now that you have some perspective. Only I hope your experience of retrospection isn’t like Kathy’s. And that’s all I’ll say besides Read It Now. Goodreads

Part 2: Non-fiction

  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

"Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari
“Modern Romance” by Aziz Ansari

There were a lot of breakout stars from NBC’s Parks and Recreation, but Aziz Ansari definitely represented the zeitgeist of twenties men and women, and that definitely contributed to the success of his post-Parks and Rec life. In his 2015 guide to contemporary dating, Modern Romance, Ansari breaks down the current dating scene, demystifying why guys do the things they do and why women behave they way they do. The audiobook version is similarly outstanding. Ansari also has a Netflix series, Master of None, that explores these themes even further. With Modern Romance, though, Aziz Ansari definitely established himself as the voice of a generation, more specifically, the voice of a courtship confused generation. Goodreads

  • Why Not Me? Mindy Kaling

"Why Not Me?" by Mindy Kaling
“Why Not Me?” by Mindy Kaling

In Why Note Me?, actress, screenwriter, and memoirist Mindy Kaling shares her thoughts on struggling for acceptance, asserting women’s rights in the patriarchy, writing for television, and friendship in this humorous-yet-poignant essay collection. I enjoyed Mindy’s first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and her follow up is more of the same, with a dawning maturity. Mindy gives voice to the anxieties of aging out of our twenties as a diverse woman in Hollywood and in America. Goodreads

  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo 

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo

I admit it. I was a Marie Kondo skeptic. But then I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up the winter before we were set to move to another house, and it did indeed change the way I think about clutter, organization, and, yes, owning too many books. I applied the KonMari method towards clothes and notebooks, though I can’t say it changed how I determined what books to give away or not. Regardless, I know think about cleaning and tidying up in a new way and actually look forward to cleaning my space and regularly purging things. I recommend it for twenty-somethings because this is the kind of thing nobody ever formally teaches you. This short and to-the-point guide isn’t overwhelming, but it does teach you memorable ways that anyone can use to tidy up. Also, I know that many of us are living in cramped apartments (my first apartment was 260 square feed, so I feel you), and tidiness isn’t an option, it’s a requirement, or else you might lose your mind (and your keys!). I recommend this book for learning the skills necessary to keep your space in control. Because one day you will live somewhere bigger, and taking these skills with you towards that new, larger space will set you on the tidy path for life. Goodreads

  • The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke by Suze Orman

"The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke" by Suze Orman
“The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke” by Suze Orman

I checked this book out of the library the week I graduated college, and it still holds up even now. Orman’s The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke is an excellent introduction to Adulting with Money, and I can’t imagine a young person who doesn’t need it. I’m not perfect with finances, and I’m still figuring it out, but I appreciate Orman’s approach, which is a mix between pep talk and locker-room speech, without being condescending or unrealistic or sounding like she’s coddling you. Orman’s advice applies to those who have student loan debt (and who doesn’t) and those just trying to live on an entry-level job salary while also eating something other than canned tuna and ramen (I’ve been there!). I highly recommend her book to learn more about getting your act together with money when you don’t have any or just want to know what retirement funds are (as if we’ll ever get there!). Goodreads

  • You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero

"You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life" by Jen Sincero
“You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life” by Jen Sincero

There will come a point in your twenties when you realize you’re in a moment that requires a fierce, confident, and bold approach towards standing up for yourself. Many young people confront doubt and uncertainty after the secure bubble of college fades away and student loans kick in. Post undergrad we’re thrown out into the working world and forced to enter the next phase of our life. Negotiating office politics in an entry-level job while still struggling to maintain those dreams you had for your future, ones that now seem a little foolish and idealisitc? You need Jen Sincero’s no-nonsense approach to confidence building. You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life is the proverbial splash of ice-cold water on your face when you’re about to have an anxiety attack/meltdown in the farthest stall of the bathroom. This book is empowering, entertaining, and will restore your faith in yourself. For all those moments of doubt, pick up You Are A Badass and remember why you’re awesome. Goodreads

  • The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

"The 4-Hour Workweek" by Tim Ferriss
“The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss

Okay, remember how I just recommended reading You Are A Badass as a way to keep calm and carry on when you’re faced with workplace anxiety? Here’s the opposite approach. My approach. I read The 4-Hour Workweek a few years ago and reread it about once a year. Tim Ferriss’ book blew my mind and made me totally rethink “work” and my relation to it and set me on a course to earn passive income so I could spend more time pursuing my passions. (Spoiler alert: I still haven’t figured it all out, so I am by no means the model here.) Yeah, he goes to some extremes and some of his ideas are impractical, but I strongly suggest everyone in their twenties read this book or at least skim it to get the basic principles. My friends, we are living in an era when passive income can help you enjoy life more and think outside the 40-hour, M-F 9-5 with 10 vacation days a year work model. The 4-Hour Workweek liberated me when I was feeling distraught at the prospect of 40 years working in an office setting while having a disability that impaired my ability to attend work when you have 5 sick days a year. So I urge you to just give it a glance if you get to age 29 and 11 months and think, I’ve had enough. There’s got to be another way, or I’m about to lose my mind. Well, there is another way, my friend, and it’s explained in detail with structured exercises in The 4-Hour Workweek. Goodreads

  • The Kitchn Cookbook: Recipes, Kitchens & Tips to Inspire Your Cooking by The Kitchn Staff

"The Kitchn Cookbook: Recipes, Kitchens & Tips to Inspire Your Cooking" by The Kitchn Staff
“The Kitchn Cookbook: Recipes, Kitchens & Tips to Inspire Your Cooking” by The Kitchn Staff

The Kitchn has been a staple in my food blog/recipe searching for years now stretching back to when I graduated from undergrad. Their recipe for slow cooker chicken tikka masala changed my life. And in their James Beard Award Winning (the Pulitzer of cookbooks) cookbook The Kitchn Cookbook takes you through updates on classic foods with a generous spread of 150 recipes, the best of the best of their website. I could have chosen plenty of other cookbooks to take this spot on the list, but this cookbook also helps you build your 50 essential skills necessary to learn how to cook. It’s a great choice for quick weekday meals, lunches, and recipes to entertain. And it sure beats printing out the recipes on computer paper that inevitably gets stained or waterlogged. Goodreads

Part 3: Comics and Graphic Novels

  • Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Bosch

"Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh
“Hyperbole and a Half” by Allie Brosh

Allie Bosch rose to fame because of her webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half, which you can check out on her blog. Her humorous cartoons lighten the mood on some serious topics, and others are just plain hilarious. Bosch’s debut collection, Hyperbole and a Half, contains comics that harken back to a nostalgia for childhood while others deal with what we like to call “adulting.” Perhaps her most famous comic is an illustrated narrative of her struggles with depression. Over the years I feel like I have read so many essays and advice about depression, but Bosch’s comic stands out in my mind as one of the best. Hyperbole and a Half is a great book to read in your twenties because it captures that place between childhood whimsy and the reluctant first steps into adulthood. Goodreads

  • Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

"Shortcomings" by Adrian Tomine
“Shortcomings” by Adrian Tomine

In some ways I feel like my late adolescence was defined by Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker magazine covers, which usually featured young people in urban settings, sometimes holding a Salinger cover and always experiencing a moment of reflection or coincidence. Tomine’s Shortcomings graphic novel follows a late twenty-something man, Ben Tanaka, as he navigates confusing sexual situations, his conflicted feelings about race and ethnicity, and the general ennui of that age. A great pick for people in their twenties, this short (108 pages) graphic novel is an easily digestible story told in Tomine’s signature style. Goodreads

  • The Sculptor by Scott McCloud

"The Sculptor" by Scott McCloud
“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor is a remarkable achievement as a graphic novel, as a love story, as a meditation on art, and on young adulthood. The novel follows a broke young man who makes a Faustian bargain to trade his life for the ability to create limitless art that will net him big bucks. At first it seems like a great idea when things are going well. After all, who wouldn’t want fame, notoriety, and fortune? But somewhere along the way the young artist meets a woman he falls in love with and can’t bear to be parted from. She makes life worth living. Can he escape his deal with the devil? I think this is a great novel to read in your twenties because many of us are, well, impoverished, cocky enough to trade anything for the world to accept us and our art, and subject to falling in love with our soul mates just about now. Also, on a visual level this novel is stunning to look at. You truly cannot just race through it and finish it in an hour and get the same experience as lingering over it across a few days or weeks. It is a feast to behold. Goodreads

  • Blankets by Craig Thompson

"Blankets" by Craig Thompson
“Blankets” by Craig Thompson

Blankets is almost a cult classic. The people who’ve read have a visible reaction when they say they’ve experienced—and I do think experienced is the right description—Craig Thompson’s epic graphic novel about a young man growing up in the bleak winter of rural Wisconsin and of his first love. One of the things that people in their twenties experience is going back home for the first few times and realizing the impact of their memories on a place that is not really how they’ve been remembering it in their minds. I recommend this book as a book to read in your twenties because it is so strongly tied to the idea of home and leaving home, something we all must deal with at some point. Goodreads

  • Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley 

"Seconds" by Bryan Lee O'Malley
“Seconds” by Bryan Lee O’Malley

I devoured Seconds, and yes, that’s a pun on this culinary-themed graphic novel by the writer and artist behind the Scott Pilgrim series. This novel was great fun and also recharged me with the kind of frenetic energy of the main character, Katie, a chef and restauranteur, who unintentionally invites a spirit into her life. In a Faustian bargain with the spirit, Katie ends up surrendering part of her soul in exchange for the respect and business of the city. I am listing this graphic novel last in this giant guide to books to read in your twenties because sometimes, at the end of the day, you just need to kick back with a graphic novel and enjoy yourself. Seconds is hilarious and absorbing and you totally get sucked into the wild ride. Plus, it’ll make you inspired to skip takeout and experiment in the kitchen. Hey, it saves money, and with those student loans every penny counts… So feast your eyes on this graphic novel and ride out the difficult days in your twenties. You’re not alone. You’re not going to be poor forever. You’re not going to be single forever. You’re going to keep on living and enjoying the blessing (and sometimes curse) of youth. Live it up. Goodreads

What books do you associate with the twenty-something years? What would you recommend? Have you read any of these books? Leave a comment below!

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4 Comments

  1. Meg

    Beth Gutcheon’s “The New Girls” is a great novel for college/early 20s too. The setting is a bit unfamiliar (not a creepy “Never Let Me Go” way, just a fancy boarding school) but the friendships are dead on.

    • Sarah

      That sounds like a fascinating book. I am adding it to my TBR right now. Thanks for the tip, Meg! I’m going to have to make a sequel to this post… 🙂

      Sarah

  2. I love that you placed such a large focus on graphic novels – Sculptor is a personal favourite of mine, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Art Spiegalman”s Maus. I think there’s still a certain degree of stigma on comics – how seriously (or not) they deserve to be treated, and I appreciate the role they play in your list. Obviously it’s incredibly difficult to compile just 20, but I found your responses to each well reasoned, so thank you 🙂

    • Sarah

      Thanks, Rose! I’m glad you liked the list. And I think graphic novels still have a stigma. But books like “The Sculptor” give you the full experience…compelling writing and an amazing visual landscape to go along with it. They work together, the words and the pictures, to immerse you in the story. Thanks for stopping by!

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