1. The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud
The best 9/11 novel that’s much more than a 9/11 novel. Weirdly relatable, even though the characters are all pretty much upper-class pseudo-intellectuals.
2. What She Saw…, by Lucinda Rosenfeld
Important twenties life lesson: Dating losers is not a life sentence. (Thank god.)
3. The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies
A wondrously insane and magical (in that it is actually about a magician) three-book series.
4. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
The best time to read The Secret History is probably while you’re still in college, because it is about a secret society at a small liberal arts college gone horribly awry, but it is also worth picking up a few years later to be reminded about the intensity of college friendships, and also Ancient Greek.
5. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
A timeless story of masculinity, desire, and heartbreak that has become particularly resonant for young gay men.
6. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
These interwoven narratives (some of which were published as stand-alone stories in magazines such as the New Yorker) are brilliantly crafted, wryly tender portraits of life and love and the small tragedies of everyday modern life.
7. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
A book about the search for meaning even when life might be meaningless. (Also, my colleague Ariane says: “Yunior is also the dopest narrator you will ever encounter.”)
8. Lucy, by Jamaica Kincaid
A powerful coming-of-age story of an introspective 19-year-old girl from the West Indies who becomes an au pair in the U.S.
9. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
The story of Binx Bolling is kind of like what might have happened if Dick Whitman never became Don Draper, and instead started wandering around first New Orleans, and then the country, on a neverending spiritual and existential quest.
10. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
In addition to White Teeth being perhaps the ultimate 20th century British immigrant novel, it will also, possibly, inspire you to greatness: Smith finished it during her final year at Cambridge and was 24 (!!!) when it was published.
11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Jews, New York, World War II, superheroes, comics, Nazis, love: It’s all here, in spades. One of the leading contenders for Great American Novel status.
12. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Because you’ll never have time to read it later.
13. Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney
You read this book because even though they used typewriters and did way more cocaine than is even remotely healthy, it’s still a perfectly told story about being young and thinking you’re way too smart for what you’re doing. Also it’s possibly the only book ever written in the second person that actually works.
14. The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
A beautifully told coming-of-age story that is also about how to reconcile in-betweenness: of culture, of place, of time.
15. Call Me by Your Name, by André Aciman
Says my friend Chris: “Super-duper gay sexy but also gorgeous.”
16. The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis
The Rachel Papers is “a fairly essential ‘leaving adolescence and discovering that everything is still confusing and awful’ kind of novel,” says my colleague Jack, which seems like a pretty decent recommendation.
17. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
You almost definitely read this in high school English class, but you will almost definitely also have a much different perspective on Milkman and his family and their struggles a few years later.
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
Another English syllabus special, Hemingway’s tight prose and peerless storytelling are somehow more resonant when you are reading it on your own. Or as my colleague Matt put it: “I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than five pages of Hemingway growing up, but for some reason I picked this up in my post-graduation haze and was mesmerized.”
19. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The ultimate dystopian love story. If it doesn’t make you cry, your heart may be made of stone.
20. A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham
A classic “queer Bildungsroman,” as my colleague Kevin says.
21. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s dark, tragic comic series originally ran as a 10-book series from 1989 to 1996 but has now entered the graphic-novel pantheon.
22. The Group, by Mary McCarthy
How is it possible that a novel written in 1963 about a group of post-collegiate friends in New York City IN THE 1930S could still be so relevant? Probably because the struggles of being in your twenties — particularly, how much do you care about the opinions of other people, and what does success mean? — have been the same since the dawn of time.
23. Quicksand and Passing, by Nella Larsen
These two novellas written by a half-black, half-Danish woman in the 1920s capture the complications of that time — sexism and racism chief among them — while also being the beautifully told (and timeless) stories of deeply flawed young women.
24. Pastoralia, by George Saunders
I’ll let my colleague Aylin’s boyfriend explain this pick: “It just illustrates in such a breathtakingly beautiful, memorable way how easy it is for people to inflict pain on each other and how terrible it is to fall between the cracks in America, which it’s easier than ever to do now. I don’t know, I feel like reading it made me feel more compassionate toward people.” Aw!
25. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Says my colleague Krutika: “It’s the perfect mix of childhood nostalgia for anyone who’s in their twenties right now, and futuristic dystopian action/adventure where everyone’s unwittingly more earnest and sincere than they mean to be.”
26. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
The title is astonishingly accurate, but also, Eggers’ work is a terrific window into what one of my friends calls “MTV lit.” (This is not pejorative.)
27. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
My friend Julia puts it well: “What the protagonist Esther Greenwood goes through pretty much speaks to my whole generation and the next. College graduates who don’t 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.”
28. Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis
A book about an ambitious, difficult woman who is forced by circumstance (like being born in the wrong decade, in Minnesota) to keep settling for less than what she wants. But she doesn’t stop trying her hand at finding utopia.
29. His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
The classic fantasy series — if you’ve only seen The Golden Compass, the film based on the first book in the series, you owe it to yourself to read the books (which are so much better).
30. Generation X, by Douglas Coupland
To understand where everyone a little older than you is coming from.
31. The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem
About comics and superheroes and coming of age in a nearly unrecognizable Brooklyn.
32. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
An important book to read to learn about being lonely.
33. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus
I’ll let my friend Emily handle this one: “Readers will be rewarded with most psychologically astute sex scene ever written, plus a thorough, impassioned and wholly unique analysis of the power dynamics of heterosexual sex and love, how heterosexuality works to keep women unrepresented and unable to fully represent themselves, and how that affects the world.” Whew! (Also, sorta fun to read this one on the subway, IYKWIM.)
34. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
So that you’ll realize the way you felt about this book in high school has totally changed.
35. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins
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