The Perfect Read for Every Year of Your 20s

A young lady looking for a perfect read in a library

First job, first marriage, tax returns. We know college didn't really help prepare you for any of those. Your 20s are when the reality of adulthood really sinks in and life crises abound. College graduation, relationship struggles, money woes, big professional questions: Each year of your 20s will bring something new. This reading list will guide you through these uncertain years. As you look for guidance and advice on how to navigate these choppy waters, books might very well become your best friend. Read these and you will be equipped to deal with anything the wily decade might throw your way.  

Don't worry, your 30s will be easier. They just might not be as much fun.

1. Age 20: College friends are your new family

Reading recommendation: The Secret History by Donna Tratt

You've created a new family with your college friends, more tightly knit than you ever could have hoped or bargained for. Help keep your co-dependence in check by reading up on an incestuous clique of classics majors at a New England college in Tratt's psychological thriller. This fictional college coterie pushes the boundaries of friendship, philosophy and loyalty to terrifying extremes. It'll keep your new college friendships in perspective.

2. Age 21: Exploring your newfound booze-y freedom

Reading recommendation: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

For years, you've been hearing that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and you can't wait to see if Sin City makes good on its promise. Celebrate your legal status by reading the most far-out, psychedelic, chemically enhanced piece of travel writing never to be included in The Lonely Planet. Be warned, though, it's unclear how much of what happens between the pages actually becomes legal when you turn 21.

3. Age 22: Post-graduation hopefulness

Reading recommendation: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

You are graduating college and imagining a world beyond the dorm room, one in which you are more urbane, better traveled and write in a journal. Get life inspiration from Hemingway's account of his intellectual-chic expat years in Paris and start planning your post-grad European tour. Being underemployed and over-served never sounded so sophisticated. 

4. Age 23: The crushing reality of adult life

Reading recommendation: Post Office by Charles Bukowski 

Forget everything you thought at 22: Post-college reality bites. Mom and Dad aren't footing the bills anymore, and it's time to get a job. After you punch out for the day, pour a stiff one and laugh through your tears as Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski delivers the mail — one drink, one lay, one dog attack and the occasional letter at a time. At least someone has it worse than you. 

5. Age 24: The quarter-life crisis

Reading recommendation: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but mental illness often rears its head in the early twenties. If you've made it this far without seeing a shrink, breathe a sigh of relief. Then find out what the rest of us have been dealing with by delving into these raw, incendiary poems that expose Plath's deep psychic unrest. Pay special attention to "Daddy." Your parents won't seem so bad after all.  

6. Age 25: Self-acceptance

Reading recommendation: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

You are starting to realize that as long as you accept yourself for who you are, warts and all, you can't worry about who doesn't. Winterson's memoir/fantasy shows that even with that self-acceptance, there does still come pain, especially if the group that doesn't accept you includes your mother and most of your small town. As Winterson reveals in her inimitable book, the price of achieving peace with yourself is often staggeringly high, but always worth paying.

7. Age 26: The hopeless romantic year

Reading recommendation: Mating by Norman Rush

You're young enough to believe that love conquers all and old enough not to need anyone's permission to put that belief to the test. This year is the perfect age at which to warn you that dropping everything and moving across the country to pursue an infatuation might not end the way you want it to, but you're still going to try it anyway. Equal parts inspirational and cautionary, Rush's epic National Book Award-winning novel about gender, love, sacrifice and ambition will have you agonizing over whether to pick up the phone (and pack your bags) to track down the one that got away. 

8. Age 27: Marriage pressure

Reading recommendation: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Your family is dropping not-so-subtle hints about how much they'd like to see you settle down with that special someone, and every other weekend is another best friend's wedding.

Deciding why and to whom to get married is tricky, whether you live in the present day or the late 19th century. Be glad you're dealing with slightly less oppressive social traditions than Isabel Archer, the ill-fated protagonist of James' early feminist classic, who is conned into sacrificing the freedom she holds dear for exactly the kind of marriage she never wanted. It's 2014. Do what you want.

9. Age 28: The biological clock countdown

Reading recommendation: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Regardless of your relationship status, your biological clock is ticking and you are beginning to wonder about (and romanticize) the mind-blowing experience of bringing a life into the world. Nobel Prize winner Morrison's account of a parental bond that even death cannot break is as moving and affecting — and disturbing — as it gets. On second thought, maybe you're in no rush to have kids. 

10. Age 29: Preparing for 30

Reading recommendation: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Congratulations, you've almost made it to the end of life's most volatile decade. And what do you have to show for it? The right spouse, the right house and the right kid. So why are you so miserable? Take a break from your problems and watch someone else's life disintegrate in Yates' account of what happens when happy people grow up and move to the suburbs.

Bring it on, thirties.