My twenties have been rough so far. They’ve been a beautiful wonderful mess filled with exploration, good/bad relationships, and a bunch of other strange challenges I didn’t expect to encounter at this stage of my life. As always, books have been there for me and I could go to them for solace, information, the comfort of a perfect stranger bleeding words onto a page.

Here are the top 20 books that helped me out in my twenties, broken up into 3 categories: “Coming to terms with who I am and who I’m supposed to be,” “Getting through the hard stuff,” and “Learning the truth about parts of the world I had previously ignored.” Some of these books fell into my hands in college and others I sought out during my post-grad years. Others I have re-read in an attempt to bring some kind of joy and understanding back into my life.

Coming to terms with who I am and who I’m supposed to be:

1 – The Social Animal | David Brooks
Written by a conservative NY Times writer, David Brooks combines sociology, biology, psychology, and other subjects in order to describe the lifespan of fictional couple Erica and Harold. He flawlessly combines non-fiction theory with narrative writing to paint the picture of a classic “successful” American life. The book boasts no opinion or correct way to live, but it does recognize that life is short. Life is very short and we can live it however we want to. We should live it however we want to.

2 – Originals | Adam Grant
Listen, I’ve never fit in. I don’t fit in anywhere. Do any of us? Adam Grant rocks this book with ego-stroking examples of successful weirdos for people like me. Doing something different can, and many times does, put you one step ahead of the rest. I definitely needed something like this in my twenties. It forced me to stop looking at others for guidance and to start looking inward, following my gut.

3 – I Was Told There’d Be Cake | Sloane Crosley
This is a book about figuring out your twenties, so of course I related to it. Crosley was one of those “Oh my God I have to go to NY” people and she struggled like the rest of us. Her honesty was refreshing, but also proof that everyone’s experience is different. I definitely don’t feel like I’m a similar person to Crosley at all, but I could easily see how she sees the world, how her perception is different, and that helped me understand that not everyone thinks like me. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t invited to my best friend from high school’s wedding. She thought it was weird, or that I’m weird. It’s fine, nonetheless.

4 – C*nt | Inga Muscio
I’m digging the bold title. I really am, but that’s not why I picked up this book. Someone I admired recommended it to me as a great book for women, so I read it. Despite learning things I have never learned before, like how herbs can effectively be used to have an abortion, Muscio helped me accept my woman-ness. It also solidified my belief that I can like something and enjoy bits and pieces of it even if I don’t agree with the whole thing. The book was pretty great and radical until the very end, when she was on a roll, starting some short chapters about how “art is inherently sexist…” I closed the book at that part and never picked it up again.

5 – Ready Player One | Ernest Cline
This book is about some wild, late-capitalist land in which a virtual video game rules over people’s lives since their real lives are trash (literally they live in dumps). It starkly reminded me that I spend way too much time in front of screens and that relationships are super important. Also, it’s really well written and interesting….AND it’s becoming a movie. The movie will probably suck since the book is so good, but you never know.

6 – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up | Marie Kondo
Thanks, Marie Kondo. Thanks for explaining that I am a clutterbug. I did not realize just how much clutter contributes to the health and messiness of a space. Sometimes in order to clean and tidy up space, you need to throw out a bunch of stuff. This vastly improved my life. For something that I had only done when moving, doing it to my childhood home and space increased the quality of my life tenfold. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

7 – Without | Donald Hall
This is a short one. It was one of those books I had to read in college in order to study the writing and not really the content (although they do tend to go hand-in-hand). It’s short. It’s a book of poetry. I usually hate books of poetry. This one made me sob. Hall writes crushing, haunting poetry about the death of his wife. His love for her and the raw images of him curled up in the fetal position, not knowing how to handle such an enormous loss are worth examining your relationships, it’s worth spending even more time with the ones you love. Oh, and it’s free on Amazon Kindle if you’re into e-books (I’m not). Get the Kindle app here. I promise you’ll go through the book in less than a day and it is so worth it.

Getting through the hard stuff:

8 – This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t | Augusten Burroughs
Burroughs is one of my favorite authors, so I of course I can’t recommend him enough. This is one book of his that I return to over and over again. The last time I read it was after my buddy Lemon died and I knew I couldn’t handle such a loss on my own. My book is covered in highlights, underlines, side notes, and anything else you could possibly imagine. I’ve made it mine. It’s one of those books I would bring on a desert island if I could only bring 3 things.

9 – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying | Sogyal Rinpoche
This is another one of those books I’ve read multiple times. So far, I’ve read this one three times. The most recent time was as I was sick and wasn’t sure if I was going to fully heal. We weren’t sure if I was going to die from this. I spent summer days laying in the hammock (it was the only way to sit and relax without feeling any pain or tension from my injured tendons) in the sun re-reading this book and highlighting phrases I hadn’t highlighted before. It has new meaning for me each time and this time I recognized the beauty and power in becoming comfortable with death.

10 – The Wahls Protocol | Terry Wahls
I know, this is like the 80th time I’ve mentioned Dr. Wahls on my blog. Well I’m not joking. Everyone needs to read this. Changing my diet allowed me to get a proper celiac diagnosis which cured my 5-year-long chronic headaches. Now at least I can choose to give myself headaches. Listen, sometimes pizza is just too good. If you read one book in your entire life on nutrition, you should read this one written by a doctor who reversed her Multiple Sclerosis.

11 – The Tipping Point | Malcolm Gladwell
This is another one of those books that kinda reinforced what I already felt I knew, namely, that hard work does not actually lead to success. Nope, it’s more like… kinda random many times. Of course, there are ways to build your own success, but even if you work your butt off, this does not mean it will get you very far. Oh, and some of it is mathematical. A mind-blowing book, for sure.

12 – 1984 | George Orwell
Yes, I read this book after the election, like everyone else. 1984 showed just how bad things can get and that despite everything that’s going on with the world right now, it’s not this bad yet. It could be. It might be. The book also throws in some important realistic warning symbols for how we could end up in this dystopian world. AKA: censorship is bad, bad, bad.

13 – Tiny Beautiful Things | Cheryl Strayed
If you’re confused and you hate yourself and everything is going wrong, pick up a Cheryl Strayed book. Of course, she’s known for Wild, but did you know that this one even existed? Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Strayed’s advice from when she was a secret advice columnist for “Dear Sugar.” Every single one is just glorious. She’s so loving and genuine in every piece that reading it feels like someone whispering in your ear while they feed you grapes.

14 – Harry Potter | J.K. Rowling
I’ve mentioned before that Harry Potter helped me with anxiety while I was neurotoxic in 2016/17 and yes, it’s weird that I read the series for the first time in my twenties. It doesn’t matter. It resonated with me just as well. If you haven’t read these incredible books by now, pick one up. If you have, re-read them. They resonate with all aspects of life and relationships and figuring things out.

Learning the truth about parts of the world I had previously ignored:

15 – The New Jim Crow | Michelle Alexander
This is the single most informative book I have ever read on something that I previously knew nothing about. Law professor Alexander explains nearly everything wrong with the prison system in America, called the “prison industrial complex.” If anyone ever asks me to recommend a book, it is this one. It’s the first one I recommend because it is life-changing. It will change the way you see the world.

16 – Cosmopolis | Don DeLillo
This one is fictional, but it opened my eyes to wealth disparity in a whole new way. What kind of world is one in which you can sit in a car and do nothing and not recognize your own wife or understand how to interact with real humans while you’re surrounded by screens? Don’t watch this movie. It’s literally Edward from Twilight sitting in a limo the entire time. The book is much more interesting and it’s actually worth your time. Oh, fantastic motifs throughout, as well.

17 – Discipline & Punish | Michel Foucault
Another book on the prison industrial complex, this book is more about the technicality and space inside U.S. prisons. It shows prisoners as test subjects, tormented by changing extreme temperatures (literally when you visit prisons, sometimes it is very hot and other times very cold. As it turns out, this isn’t a coincidence). It describes the history of the panopticon, a psychologically tormenting way of keeping inmates “in line.” This is an eye-opening, but depressing book. Foucault is incredible.

18 – Americanah | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
How does a Nigerian see the United States? Adichie gives us an eye-opening view of navigating your twenties in upper class America as a black, African woman in this fictional piece about a blogger who tries to figure out what she wants out of her life. The book is both subtle and bold as it shows different forms of racism, the difference between how American and African blacks grow up/are perceived in America, and how an educated woman in her twenties relates to it all. Really just read any book by Adichie.

19 – The Toughest Indian in the World | Sherman Alexie
This is another one of those interesting cultural books that I picked up while in college. What is it like to be a Spokane Indian and to grow up in a colonized America? How does it feel to grow up on a reservation, or outside of one? Alexie uses subtle details and word choice to show literally anyone what it’s like to be an American Indian through unique, short love stories.

20 – Marbles | Ellen Forney
As someone who grew up surrounded by mental illness, experiencing mental illness myself, and seeing just how much it can screw up someone’s life unmedicated, I had not even delved into the world of psychiatric medication at all. Forney gives an honest account of her struggle juggling drugs to find what cocktail could help her live her best self, which drugs can keep her bipolar disorder from destroying her relationships, her career, etc. This graphic memoir gave me an entirely different perspective on psychiatric drugs along with a means to discuss them. This blog gives an alternative means to deal with mental illness and an outlet to vent about it, but this book is worth a read if you deal with this stuff on a regular basis.

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Photo Credit: Derek Cianfrance, The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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