Earlier this week a list of 65 books you should read in your 20s fell off the Buzzfeed list machine. Leaving aside the choice of number (Buzzfeed, after all), I’m curious as to why they picked these books for this particular decade of life. Or I would be, if I thought they’d thought about it at all - but the rationale behind Infinite Jest’s selection doesn’t exactly inspire hope for that. I mean:
Because you’ll never have time to read it later
So I thought, prompted by @Blonde_M, well, what books are good choices for reading in your 20s?
That’s pretty hard to pick, so I thought, ‘Well, what did I read in my 20s that was particularly formative?’ And then I realised that I’d lost all the lists of things I read in previous years, which makes working that out a bit tricky…
I am not to be defeated by a lack of lists, however, so here is a starter for conversation. There are some things on the buzzfeed list that are great books that people should read (Infinite Jest, The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) - but they’re not specifically about being read in your 20s. Just read them. This is me trying to think about things that actually are most likely to have an impact in the post-school years, what might broaden your view on literature and on the world. I’m finding, in my early 30s, that I’m starting to double-down on some things, to dismiss things that I don’t think I’m going to get much out of and don’t have time for, to ditch books before I finish them if they’re not working, and to re-read the ones from my 20s that mattered. Your 20s are when you get to spend time playing and paddling in everything, and time seems a little more endless. In your 20s, you feel like you can read all of the classics and all the new stuff. In your 30s, you just wish that some people would stop publishing and that others would stop telling you to read Proust.
To start, two entries on a ‘If you didn’t read them in school…’ (short)list
The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood and The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
These were both among my A-level set texts, and are both still among my favourite books (and they’re only paired because of that, they’re not a great double-bill) - The Handmaid’s Tale because of what it made me think about (politics, religious fundamentalism, feminism - and also genre, because this is both ‘literary fiction’ and ‘science fiction’) and The Great Gatsby because of what it made/makes me feel, and how that lingers. The longer I go on reading, then more I realise how impressive Gatsby is in its apparent simplicity and fundamental depth. 18 year old me was more impressed by the trying-harder Tender is the Night. 31 year old me is wowed by the lightness of touch in Gatsby. If you haven’t read them, then your 20s is a good decade to do so, because you should be starting to discern what you like to read, why, and whether you want to build yourself aesthetic standards,and also thinking about what it is to build a life - to deal with success, failure, memory, freedom, politics and be or treat a woman.
And moving on…
Franny & Zooey - J.D Salinger. A millionty times more wonderful than the frankly overrated Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey are a lovely pair of squabbly siblings, working out how to grow up, deal with other people and scrabble at the meaning of life. With baths and soups to help counteract the melancholia. They’re college age, read and over-identify.
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers. Simply, if you don’t read it in your early 20s, it’ll drive you insane if you come to it later. There’s something about that period of your life though where Eggers’ headlong, clever-clever, openly sentimental rush at early adulthood will blow through your mind at high speed, and you’ll forgive it it’s flaws and the bit where it jumps the shark in the Real World chapter.
The End of the Affair - Graham Greene. I love Greene - his writing is very spare and unemotional, but remarkably full of emotion and deeply interested in the nature of people This one’s for the other end of your twenties, where true love and long relationships are complicated and hard, and sometimes sacrifices are worth it.
de Officiis - Cicero. Yes, I want you to dig in now. Cicero is my favourite of the ancient thinkers - and I think he’s the most accessible, because his philosophical texts are the least formally philosophical. He’s also the most human, because we have so much of him - fabulous orator, engaged politician, whiney, insecure brat… De Officiis is ‘On Duties’, but actually its about what it is to be a good citizen and make your country a better place - what our values should be and how we might have warped them, and also, when you should overthrow the government…
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail - Hunter S. Thompson. Pair your Ciceronian political thought with the wild ride of the McGovern campaign vs. Nixon, as Thompson writes about politics from the point of view of a completely invested person, because journalistic norms, pfffft. (Also recommended, The Boys on the Bus - Timothy Crouse, for the account of the account of the McGovern campaign, and Up, Simba - David Foster Wallace’s take on John McCain’s campaign for the Republican nomination against George W. Bush).
The Rings of Saturn - W.G. Sebald. It’s time for something completely different. Travelogue. Meditation. The south-east of England, with meanderings all over the globe, including the Congo of Leopold of Belgium. It’s a beautifully strange stream-of-conciousness about the connections your brain makes as you travel through a place. The epitome of breadth, and a living, breathing presentation of the way a mind engages with the world around it.
The Archaeology of Knowledge - Foucault. Go fry your brain with some post-modernism. This is my personal favourite, because I lived with it for so long, but you could also dip a toe in Derrida (Dissemination would be my choice), Deleuze or Zizek for a bit more madness. You’ll either love it or hate it, but at least you’ll have thought about it.
A Dance to the Music of Time - Anthony Powell. A tutor of mine was once surprised that I’d read these, because they aren’t as well-known now as they should be (and I picked up my set for about £15 in Hay-on-Wye). A cycle of twelve (each relatively short novels), taking Nicholas Jenkins from the end of school to retirement, from the 1920s to the 1960s, with his family and friends weaving in and out of his life. It’s about the paths that people take, and the strange and wonderful way life works out, and how the ‘normal one’ lives the fullest life of them all.
The Wonder Boys - Michael Chabon. This isn’t his best (that’s either Kavalier and Clay… or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), but it is the one to read in your 20s: who are you, who do you want to be, how do you make something great - and how the blazes do you follow that up?
Fortress of Solitude - Jonathan Lethem. Heroes, superheroes, race in America, and how do you remember your childhood and your childhood friends? … Solitude is about Dylan and Mingus, two kids named after musical heroes, the friendship they build in their 70s Brooklyn, and what happens when they have to grow up.
Ghost World - Daniel Clowes Scott Pilgrim - Bryan Lee O’Malley I’m pairing up the graphic novels. I had to learn a new way of reading in my 20s in order to read comics and graphic novels, which was where a lot of the stories I wanted to read seemed to be living (I came late to the worlds of Marvel and DC Comics, via the movies, and then on into graphic novels). Both Ghost World and Scott Pilgrim are about growing pains. Ghost World is about girls, and Scott Pilgrim is about a boy (neither in a way that excludes, so just read them both). The art is great, the stories work, and the characters breathe.
Code 2.0 - Lawrence Lessig on law-as-code, the way that societies build norms and common law, and that the most effective kind of law is the stuff that acts as an architecture (which we can build and rebuild), rather than a monolithic thing that humans keep banging into.
So, there you go. 15 books - well actually more, because one of these things is a series of 12 books, and another is a series of 6… What would you recommend?