2013's 20 Best Books for Every Kind Of 20-Something


The holiday season has officially begun, and with it comes the head-scratching over what to get all your friends for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Thanksgivukkah, or just for the sake of secular winter cheer. How about a book? Books make the best presents because they make a statement about both the giver and the recipient. They can be read and reread, shared and cherished. They are an idea or an emotion made into a physical thing that you can wrap up with pretty paper and a bow, and hand to someone with the words, "for you." And if the book just came out this year, chances are your friend hasn't read it yet. 

It's also the season for best of 2013 book lists, seen everywhere from the New York Times to NPR to Publishers Weekly. Even President Obama is picking up literary fiction to give away for the holidays. Here's PolicyMic's 2013 list, tailored to your 20-something holiday giving needs. Use it to find the perfect book for every quirky friend on your list.

1. For the One Who Broke Your Heart

You're smart, you're pretty, you're witty, you're young. So why didn't he love you back? The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman, a brilliant and "merciless" dissection of one "flawed, sometimes infuriating modern man," is the book that every young woman who's felt slighted by modern love wishes she could give the man who slighted her. Nathaniel P isn't a monster — he's successful, funny, and often well-intentioned. But like so many of us, he has "a blind spot" when it comes to himself.

Give this book to your ex, and chances are he'll say (as one male reader said to Waldman on Twitter), "How would you know that much about me?"

2. For the Facebook Over-Sharer

We all have a friend we know too well — literally. We love him, but we wish he wouldn't clutter our Facebook and Twitter feeds with breaking news about his breakfast, mid-morning coffee, and untied shoes.

Dave Eggers' The Circle, a dystopian novel that depicts an NSA-paranoia meets Google/Facebook-hegemony world, is the perfect antidote for social media addicts. "ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN," is blasted over hip Orwellian speakers by the gogolith title corporation in Eggers' book. "PRIVACY IS THEFT."

Here's hoping that after reading The Circle, your over-sharing friends will want, like this reviewer, to unplug all their electronic devices.

3. For Mr. YOLO

Think you only live once? Not in Kate Atkinson's widely acclaimed new book, Life After Life. Give this book to the friend who's always dragging you out and shouting YOLO at the top of her lungs on nights when you'd rather just hunker down and read.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of this deeply entertaining yet profound novel, dies and is reborn again and again. She is blessed (or cursed) with the chance to relive her life in all its possible iterations, and her thrilling tale ultimately teaches us the importance of the choices we make in the life we have. Maybe in real life you can only live once, but through literature you can live many times, and in infinite variations.

4. For the Wannabe Hipster

She's got the funky glasses and the punky half-shaved hairdo, the combat boots, and the tattered plaid shirt. All she's missing is the perfect book for idiosyncratic shout-it-loud weirdos, the book that is just well-known enough to match her outfit but just obscure and literary enough to emanate authenticity. Enter Karen Russell's newest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove — the perfect "uncanny" book for your aspring hipster friend, and one she'll love reading on the subway not only for the approving looks of other hip, young nonconformists, but also for its mesmerizing, out-of-this-world stories. Young girls turned silkworms, vampires seeking lemonade, and blind horses are only some of the eccentrics that populate these fantastic, beautifully written pages.  

5. For the Struggling Young Artist

"I'd thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone," says the unnamed narrator of Rachel Kushner's dynamite novel, The Flamethrowers. "That the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place." 

The Flamethrowers is a book that every millennial should read, if only for its understated wisdom and gorgeous writing. But it will especially speak to young creative types struggling to find their voice in a city brimming with too many artists and too many souls. Kushner's incisive insights into the art world of the 70s tell millennials more about how we live and define ourselves today than any other book this year. 

6. For the One Who Just Started A Blog

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's wonderful new novel Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman who comes to America on a fellowship and starts a blog called "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black." It's a novel about the complicated race relations of America as viewed by an unlikely outsider, but it is also a love story, and a story of how young people situate themselves in a changing, colorful world. Ifemelu, Adichie's protagonist, will be an inspiration to any young blogger trying to find her voice. 

7. For the Entrepreneur Who's Itching to Make it Big

A rich novel disguised as a self-help book, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the Great Gatsby for our times. "This book is a self-help book," the novel's first pages announce. "Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. And to do that it has to find you, huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother's cot one cold dewy morning." This is the perfect book for your friends who want to have it all, to show them that after they've made their fortune, there might be something more they want from life. 

8. For the One With Baby Fever

She's 25. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment that she shares with three friends. She works at a start-up with terrible benefits and a "livable" salary. She's busy. She doesn't even have a boyfriend. Yet her mothering hormones have kicked in, and every baby she sees on the subway is smiling at her, reaching out with chubby arms and mouthing mommy! 

Ramona Ausubel's debut story collection, A Guide to Being Born, is the perfect book to temporarily satisfy her baby craving. The strange stories in this book, which follow the life cycle from birth to death, will not only show her its too early to conceive just yet, but hopefully help her be satisfied with the stage of life she's in now. 

9. For the Office Secret Santa You Don't Really Know

Announced this past January in the New York Times Magazine as "The Best Book You'll Read This Year," George Saunders' Tenth of December is the perfect gift for that broody guy in your office who never really talks to anyone, and who you've had the good fortune to draw as your office Secret Santa. Saunders' "wickedly entertaining" collection of short stories are also a caustic critique of life in America today and will be a welcome addition to any bookshelf. 

10. For the One Who's Mad About Still Being Single

You've just gotten engaged. And so have five of your friends. There's only one left of the gang who's still young and single — and she hates it. Claire Messud's groundbreaking new book The Woman Upstairs is a feminist anthem for women who are angry and unafraid to show it. Nora, the smart and sympathetic narrator, is a middle-aged unmarried woman who's tired of pretending everything's okay, who would rather just say to everyone: "FUCK YOU ALL." Messud's newest novel is biting, funny, and heartfelt. Reading it will be a wild, cathartic, and comforting journey for your one last single friend.

11. For the One Who's Finding Himself Abroad

Studying abroad has become something of a rite of passage for millennials. It's hard to find yourself in Iowa, or Massachusetts, or even New York. It's so much more promising to plumb the inner pipings of your soul in China, or Argentina, or Kenya, or, in the case of Jacob Putnam (the protagonist of Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors), Prague. In this "enviably good" first novel, Crain articulates the lust for adventure and 'real' life that drives so many young people to foreign lands.

Jacob arrives in Prague in 1990, having just missed the Velvet Revolution and lost his opportunity to "acquire a memory of the revolution." His coming of age story will resonate with any young person who goes abroad looking for one thing, but who finds something else entirely and realizes in the end that all the twists and turns were "necessary errors" after all.

12. For the One Who Hates Her Job

Said Sayrafiezadeh's darkly funny collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With the Enemy, is full of young people in dead-end jobs. Think you got it bad? At least your closeted boss isn't sending you faxes that say, "My cock feels full with the thought of you in my heart," like the protagonist of one of these storiesSayrafiezadeh's tales not only express the frustrations of ambitions thwarted by an economy in lull, but they also masterfully evoke the sense of a generation that's always been at war. Full of crappy jobs and faraway wars, Sayrafiezadeh's new book isn't exactly literary escapism, but it's clever, entertaining, and wise enough to transcend the doldrums of 9-to-5.

13. For the One Who's Waiting For Mr. Darcy

We all have friends who would rather live in a Jane Austen novel than in real life. For lovers of Pride and Prejudice, Jo Baker's novel Longbourn will be a treat. A re-imagining of the story through the perspective of the servants who attend on the Bennets — whose lives are just as filled with romance and intrigue and social dos and don'ts as are their employers' — this imaginative and affecting book will satiate any longing for literary fan-fiction. 

14. For the One Who's in Love With His Professor

It's a terrible idea to be in love with your professor (or his wife, for that matter), and Susan Choi's My Education proves it. With its secret "don't do it!" note inside, it's the perfect read for your friend who's eyeing his or her professor, even if said prof is indeed "the best-looking man, by a league, in the room and certainly the best-looking man [you've ever] seen in the flesh."

15. For the One Who Wishes High School Never Ended

This is for that friend from high school who is always calling you to hang out, and who can only seem to talk about the good old days when you do. Give her Meg Wolitzer's generous and visionary novel The Interestings, a story about a group of six teenage friends who come together to form an artsy clique they call — you guessed it — "the interestings." Wolitzer's book will resonate with those who are already nostalgic about their youth, and also with any young people who are still struggling to define their older selves against their younger ones, and to understand success as the friends they knew as children grow into strange, unclassifiable adults. 

16. For the Jetsetter

He's 28, but he's already traveled to half the countries in the world. You never get to hang out with him because he's always on the go, and you know he must have more frequent flyer miles than your whole family combined. Give him TransAtlantic to read on his next international flight, Colum McCann's newest novel about three historic trips from the United States to Ireland. The harrowing and heartbreaking novel opens with a gripping story of the first flight across the Atlantic, in a Vickers Vimy leftover from World War I that took "the war out of the machine." Through McCann's radical empathy, maybe your friend will find that reading is all it takes to travel to distant lands.

17. For the Procrastinating Young Writer

Eleanor Catton's "gothic cathedral" of a novel, The Luminarieswill surely elicit your writer friend's admiring envy. At 28, Catton is the youngest writer to win the Man Booker Prize, and is the literary world's newest young starlet. What's more, the novel is over 800 pages long and not her first! Your friend will be gripped by its meticulously interwoven mystery and love story, and may finally be inspired to sit down and get to work on her very own masterpiece.

18. For the Former Wall Street Occupier

Occupy Wall Street was not just a social movement for him, it was a way of life. He's still carrying his sleeping bag around, just in case. He's cheering on Bill de Blasio's mayoral ascendancy as the result of his political stand. Jonathan Lethem's expansive novel, Dissident Gardensis the perfect book for him to carry in his backpack. A multi-generational story about "an enchanted — or disenchanted — garden of American leftists in Queens," Lethem's latest novel has enough intelligent discussion of revolution and politics to satisfy him — at least for a while.

19. For the One Who's Suffering from a Quarter Life Crisis

With a still-struggling economy and the arrival of winter doldrums, it's understandable to be on the verge of quarter-life crisis today. Daniel Alarcon's At Night We Walk in Circles is about the idealistic Nelson, who, halfway through his dream job of touring the Andes with his idolized acting troupe, realizes that he's made all the wrong decisions in his life. It's too late for Alarcon's protagonist, but it's not too late for us. Like all wise novels, this book will help those panicking about the future step back, take a breath, and see their life for what it really is.

20. For the Old Soul

She isn't on Facebook or Twitter, she doesn't have a Netflix or HuluPlus account, and she has more to talk about with your parents (or grandparents) than with you. Best books of 2013? She'd rather read Tolstoy. 

James Salter's All That Is might change her mind. It took the venerable writer 35 years to write this novel, which depicts not just a man but an entire life. "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real," it starts. Salter's sentences are damn good, and good sentences are soothing for any soul.