8 Illuminating Books to Read in Your 20s

Though I entered my 20s with lofty professional and personal ambitions (Write a book! Learn French!), I realized somewhere around 24 that this decade wouldn’t be the hit parade of achievement after achievement that I’d envisioned. In fact, if we’re going to compare my 20s to anything, I’d opt for a paint-smeared canvas I retain the right to hide away in a closet the moment I turn 30.

That said, I’m finding that there are a lot of lessons to be learned at this time in my life, and I’ll admit, a lot of them came from books. Whether fiction or memoir, books can teach us a lot about ourselves and our place in the world.

Scroll down below to check out the novels and memoirs I’d recommend reading in your 20s. 

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

OK, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again, and again!), Gabrielle Union is a national treasure. This woman is so talented and wise. Her depth and prose truly elevates the celebrity memoir game. She’s overcome a lot in her career and life, and done so with such admirable grace. We can all stand to learn something from Union. I mean, she’s on the right track before you even crack the cover: Yes, we are going to need more wine. 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

How would you live your life if you knew exactly when you were going to die? This is the question posed to four siblings who visit a psychic when they’re children in the late ‘60s. Benjamin’s affecting novel spans decades as each sibling in the Gold family grows up and faces their impending doom (or doesn’t). 

May Cause Love by Kassi Underwood

May Cause Love by Kassi Underwood

Yes, this book, in its elemental form, is about a woman struggling after having an abortion. But unlike most of the stories we hear about abortion these days, this one isn’t tangled up in the legality or morality of the procedure itself. This honest and beautifully written memoir focuses on one woman’s journey to cope with her own grief, and the illuminating path it takes her down. Whether or not you’ve had an abortion yourself, there’s wisdom to glean from Underwood’s words. 

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

This is a throwback, for sure, but there’s a reason its sold millions of copies over the past 47 (!) years. Not only is Jong’s debut novel a worthy time capsule (1973, baby!), it’s an examination of stereotypical gender roles and sexual freedom, one that still feels revelatory nearly half a century after its publication. 

He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo

He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tucillo

It may be dated, but this book really helped me through some relationship drama. The underlying message is simple: We need to stop making excuses for men. Reading this isn’t going to magically mend your broken heart, but it might give you a little bit of closure. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

For a book whose title includes the word “little,” Yanagihara’s coming-of-age novel is anything but. Both in scope and page count (832), A Little Life is epic. The heart-wrenching novel follows four college friends living in New York City as they make their way through the decades. It’s not an easy book to read — it can be incredibly visceral and at times disturbing — but it’s a deeply moving and important meditation on the human condition. 

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

This memoir is a must for anyone working in media. Even if you don’t, who can resist the story of a drug-addicted party girl-cum-magazine editor, complete with a healthy dose of Courtney Love? But putting the commercial appeal of Marnell’s work aside, her memoir really does put things into perspective. Marnell is the patron saint of do-overs. She rose from true rock bottom to write a best-selling book. Perhaps she’s not an ideal role model, but her story does a great job of illustrating the temporality of “failure.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

When I first read this novel, I’d just returned from my first trip outside the U.S. and my knowledge of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was limited to the sampling of her TED Talk in Beyoncé’s “Flawless.” I didn’t know much about cultures other than my own and this novel really broadened my understanding of, well, the world. Also, Adichie is a masterful writer and storyteller and this novel could easily be labeled a modern classic. Years after reading, Americanah stands as one of my favorite books. 

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