THE INC. LIFE

10 Books Everyone Should Read Before They Turn 30

Struggling with a quarter-life crisis? Books can help.

Share on
BY Jessica Stillman - 12 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Your 20s are supposed to be a blast, but when researchers ask those approaching 30 how they're faring, an incredible 86 percent report being in the grips of some form of quarter-life crisis. Meanwhile, other studies show the pressures on young adults have been steadily ratcheting up.

In short, with the economy and society in flux, this is one of the most baffling times to enter adulthood in recent history. What should you do about it? The same thing you should do with nearly any other conundrum or personal crisis -- start by reading.

Books can't solve all your problems alone, but just about every smart person you can think of says they're the best foundation for smart, successful living (it's advice a shockingly small percentage of people take). So if you're coming up on the big 3-0 and feeling like your life is far from perfectly settled, I scoured the internet (and my own memory) for a few books to arm you with the tools and wisdom for a happier next decade.

They range from how-to titles to solve the practical problems of adulthood, to perspective-shifting examinations of social issues and heart-wrenching novels that will give you a butt-kicking empathy workout. Happy reading!

1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This suggestion comes from Shane Parrish, the entrepreneur behind the always fascinating Farnam Street blog. In it, "psychologist Robert Cialdini introduces the universal principles of influence: reciprocation, scarcity, authority, commitment, liking, and consensus," he explains, adding: "Why do you need to learn these? To paraphrase Publius Syrus, 'He can best avoid a snare who knows how to set one.'"

2. Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen

One of the hardest lessons to learn in your 20s is that there is no promised land of adulthood -- everyone, no matter how polished or in control they seem, is just making it up as they go along. Sarah Anderson's collection of comics can help you grasp this difficult but essential truth, the librarians of New York Public Library suggest in their list of best books to get through in your 20s. (Hat tip to Business Insider.)

"It's a nice idea, that entering your 20s means somehow graduating into adulthood. But as every young-at-heart baby boomer or senior will tell you, adulthood never really arrives. At some point you just start doing 'adult' things," comments BI's Chris Weller. This book illustrates that truth.

3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Obliviousness is acceptable when you're an adolescent, but it's dangerous when you're old enough to undertake the responsibilities of voter, citizen, and boss. According to the NYPL librarians, this celebrated National Book Award winner will help you grapple with the realities of racism in America and, if this is a topic you were able to avoid when you were younger, push you to empathize with fellow Americans with very different experiences.

4. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Looking for more in this vein? Try Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. It's the author's "intimate and wrenching account of four young black men she loved and lost," writes author Jennifer Weiner, recommending it to 20-somethings.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Speaking of empathy, if you're looking to expand yours even further, several recommenders suggest this massive but highly readable novel (I barely put it down once I started it) about four friends making their way in New York City after graduating college.

It sounds like an innocent-enough premise, but the reality lurking behind the familiar surface is devastating. "The author picks away at our ability to understand grief and depression, challenging the reader to be more and more empathetic. And your 20s is a better time than any to hone the oft-overlooked trait of empathy," writes the Huffington Post's Katherine Brooks. (Warning: this is polite way of saying it'll leave you feeling completely emotionally crushed.)

6. Confessions of a Terrible Husband: Lessons Learned from a Lumpy Couch by Nick Pavlidis

While this pick isn't applicable to everyone (despite the title of this post, sorry), if you're ready to put the relationship drama of your 20s behind you and finally figure out how to build a... gulp... actually functioning adult partnership, Lifehack's Mike Bryan suggests this book. "Pavlidis takes us through his journey from being a self-absorbed jerk to a loving husband," he says. Hopefully, you can learn from his mistakes.

7. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Bryan's list is heavy on self-help books about practical problems (not being broke, finding the motivation to do what you know you need to) that crop up when it's time to get serious about adulthood. Check it out if that's your main interest, but here's one useful-sounding pick that addresses a common issue -- the struggle to say no.

"Whether you are looking for help emotionally, physically, or mentally, Boundaries is the book you want to read," he claims. The authors "give you the blueprint for setting clear boundaries in any facet of your life."

8. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Speaking of basic but essentially life skills, the NYPL librarians say most of what you need to know you'll find packed into this book by a former advice columnist. Don't expect etiquette trivia like which fork to use for which course at dinner, however.

The librarians call it "the best, most compassionate advice about being a fully realized, empathic person in the world." While Weller claims that the book "is a reminder that life is fraught with uncertainty, and that what we call 'quarter-life crises' might just be the first in a series of opportunities to ask for help." A ton of other recommenders included this title in their lists too.

9. Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady

Lots of books-to-read-when-you're-young lists include Jack Kerouac's On the Road . I understand why -- it's a great, seductive celebration of convention-smashing freedom that I adored as a teenager. But if you're approaching 30, I suggest you also pick up Off the Road, the memoir of Carolyn Cassady, the real life wife of On the Road's hero, Neal Cassady (surprise!, he was married). A useful counterpoint, it describes the lies, domestic pain, and mental breakdown that failed to make it in Kerouac's counter-culture classic.

It will also prod romantic young people to think realistically about how glamorous-seeming lifestyles are presented for outside consumption (whether in beat novels or on social media), and to consider the difficult tradeoffs that might be hidden behind the appealing exterior. (Updike's Rabbit books also provide a more nuanced picture of what it can actually cost you to tear free of domestic burdens and stodgy conventions.)

10. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

In search of some timeless wisdom to ease you into your fourth decade? Parrish suggests you look to the past, recommending philosophical classic Letters from a Stoic. "I came to Seneca a few years after I turned 30," he relates. "His letters deal with everything we deal with today: success, failure, wealth, poverty, grief. His philosophy is practical. Not only will reading this book help equip you for what comes in life but it'll help you communicate with others."