These books will help shape your identity, worldview, and career.
30 books everyone should read before turning 30
Your 20s are a time for figuring out who you are and what you want from life.
While the only way to learn is to survive the inevitable cycle of successes and failures, it is always useful to have some guidance along the way.
To help you out, we’ve selected some of our favorite books that likely never made your high school or college reading lists.
It’s an eclectic selection that focuses on topics like identity, how you see the world, and laying the foundation for a fulfilling career.
Here’s what we think you should read before you turn 30.
‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius
As you become an adult, you realize that there will never be a time in your life where everything is just as you hoped it would be.
“Meditations” is a collection of personal writings on maintaining mental toughness from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 AD and became remembered as one of the great “philosopher kings.”
As Gregory Hays notes in the introduction to his excellent translation, Marcus wrote his musings on resilience and leadership in a “dark and stressful period” in the last decade of his life.
The emperor’s version of Stoic philosophy has remained relevant for 1,800 years because it offers timeless advice for gaining control of one’s emotions and progressing past all obstacles in one’s path.
‘The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays’ by Albert Camus
We all have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and we start to question that reason after entering the real world.
As “The Stranger” author Albert Camus sees it, all people find themselves in an irrational world struggling to find meaning for their lives where there is none.
His main message, however, is that just as the legend of Sisyphus tells of a god who was eternally punished by having to push a rock up a hill only to have it fall down each time he reached the peak, we should embrace the drive for meaning and lead happy, fulfilling lives with a clear-eyed view of the world.
‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Regardless of your personal philosophy, there will be times when the world pushes against you and you wonder why it’s worth trying to better yourself and help others.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is not only a gripping story, it’s an argument against the nihilism that was popular among Russian intellectual circles in his time.
“Crime and Punishment” is the tale of a 23-year-old man named Raskolnikov who, acting on a nagging urge, murders two old women and then struggles with processing the act.
Dostoyevsky argues that rationalism taken to its extreme ignores the powerful bonds that connect humanity and give us responsibility over each other.
‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy
William Faulkner and Time Magazine called Leo Tolstoy’s novel “the best ever written.”
As the main plotline of a doomed affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky unfolds, Tolstoy explores the strife present in nearly every aspect of human existence, like love, family, social class, and what it means to be happy.
We recommend the excellent English translation by Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky.
‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
As many a psychologist would tell you, being a mentally healthy person requires integrating your childhood into your adulthood.
There is probably no greater expression of childhood wonder and sorrow than “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Drawing on the author’s experiences as an aviator in Africa, the book follows a young prince as he visits increasingly surreal planets.
“Of all the books written in French over the past century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Le Petit Prince’ is surely the best loved in the most tongues,” writes New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik.
‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell
An American student of the psychologist Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell spent his life revealing the connections between the world’s faith and folk traditions. He developed the idea of the monomyth, which states that all myths have the same basic structure, from Moses to Odysseus to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter.
“The Power of Myth” is a wide-ranging conversation between Campbell and the broadcast journalist Bill Moyers. Conducted at the end of a decades-long career, the interview format serves as an introduction to Campbell’s eye-opening perspective — that purposefully or not, we are living out myths in our lives.
‘The Bhagavad Gita’ — author unknown
Whatever you determine your calling to be, you’ll find there are times when it’s scary to answer it.
This ancient Hindu text tells the story of the prince Arjuna riding to battle and being overcome with doubt, since his enemies include friends and members of his family. He turns to his guide, the “supreme deity” Krishna, for help. Krishna explains why it is his duty to rush into battle and emerge victorious.
Though the tale is focused around warfare, Mahatma Gandhi said that it was the “Bhagavad Gita” that most inspired him in his peaceful quest for a free India.
The full depth of the text has been interpreted in countless ways over the past two millennia, but in simple terms, it serves as an inspiration to find one’s purpose in life and fearlessly push forward.
‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse
Published in its original German in 1922, Herman Hesse’s “Siddartha” wouldn’t find an English translation until 1951.
Set in the ancient India of the historical Buddha, the book tells the spiritual coming-of-age of a man named Siddartha.
Written in spare and elegant sentences, the novella provides a model for the journey into adulthood.
‘The Essential Rumi’ by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi
Part of becoming a grownup is learning to like poetry.
Alive in 13th century Persia, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi wrote verses that reveal the most profound of human emotions — awe, grief, longing.
With a new translation from the American poet Coleman Barks, “The Essential Rumi” is a vital introduction to the philosopher-saint.
‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion
The thing about life is that people die.
And when people die (or we lose jobs or go through breakups or move cities), we need to grieve.
But there are very few instructions on how to grieve.
In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” journalist Joan Didion unpacks the story of the death of her husband, the author John Dunne. But to take it as simply therapy on the page would be reductive — the book is also a portrait of a remarkable marriage.
‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy
Published in 1997, “The God Of Small Things” became one of the most-read books by an Indian author — and turned Roy into a literary celebrity.
Partway through, Roy defines a great story in an aside:
…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic.
It’s a description the book fits — a novel that reflects the complex interactions between adults, children, and children who become adults.
‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel
Another part of growing into yourself is finding the meaning in the various emotional episodes that define our childhoods.
In “Fun Home,” the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel investigates the complex relationship she had growing up with her father — his closeted homosexuality, her coming out as gay, and their isolation in rural Pennsylvania.
Bechdel received the MacArthur Genius grant last year, partially due to this landmark work.
‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith
Growing up also means coming to terms with the aspects of our identity that we were born with.
English author Zadie Smith’s debut novel is about overlapping family histories in London in 1975. Smith’s narrative is a meditation on coming to grips with being an immigrant or the child of immigrants, and how religion, race, and sexuality factor into one’s personal and public identity.
‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Díaz
As you come to understand who you are, you will need to determine how this fits or doesn’t fit within the culture that raised you.
“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” won Junot Díaz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Through his colorful combination of English, Spanish, and slang, Díaz tells the story of Oscar Wao, the “cursed,” geeky son of Dominican immigrants growing up in New Jersey.
The characters’ struggles deal with what it means to inherit culture that doesn’t necessarily fit your worldview, as well as finding ways to process all of the baggage that comes with both familial and cultural history.
‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro
It can be difficult adjusting the way you see your parents and upbringing from the perspective of an independent adult.
Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, published the short story collection”The Beggar Maid” in 1978. It’s a collection of vignettes that follows the growth of the protagonist Rose from childhood to adulthood.
What is perhaps most memorable about Rose’s story is the way she comes to terms with her unpolished, lower-class upbringing as a sophisticated young woman.
‘The World According to Garp’ by John Irving
Psych research indicates that reading literary fiction improves your ability to sympathize with other people’s point of view, since a novel is mental simulation of another person’s life.
Therein lies part of the value of “The World According to Garp,” John Irving’s masterwork of New England social realism.
You spend an entire life with the narrator and his family, and learn something about yours in the process.
‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung
In this powerful memoir, Loung Ung recounts her experience in Cambodia of having her family destroyed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. The way she has dealt it serves as an extreme example of how to deal with whatever random event shakes us to the core.
Loung narrates the horrors of being forced to train as a child soldier and witnessing the worst of what mankind is capable of.
The book’s true power comes through Loung’s expression of how love can allow someone to survive even the greatest tragedies and find the strength to contribute to society after emerging on the other side.
‘There Are No Children Here’ by Alex Kotlowitz
As you strive to become successful, it is important to recognize that the world you inhabit is part of a much larger system.
This 1991 biography is journalist Alex Kotlowitz’s account of Lafeyette and Pharaoh growing up in the extreme poverty of the Henry Horner Homes in Chicago.
Kotlowitz sheds a light on what it is like to grow up in the most impoverished and dangerous parts of the United States, and how society’s neglect of circles of its society create isolated cultures of violence and hopelessness.
‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell
Twenty-somethings today have grown up with social media, but they’re tapping into a timeless form of communication.
Malcolm Gladwell is a master of using data and reporting to illustrate an explanation of a certain aspect of society’s mechanics.
His debut, “The Tipping Point,” came out 15 years ago, but its insights into how and why people distribute ideas and information until they become an “epidemic” is just as relevant and interesting today, especially since the idea of going viral has long been part of the zeitgeist.
‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb
People love the illusion of certainty provided by predictions.
In “The Black Swan,” investor-philosopher Taleb diagnoses the way people misguidedly lean on prediction as a way of moving through the world, and reveals how the most structured of systems are the most vulnerable to collapse — like the financial system in 2007.
It’s rare to find a book that will literally change the way you think about the world and your knowledge about it. This is one such book.
‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thich Nhat Hanh
Cognitive science research is confirming that the ancient practice of mindfulness mediation has a ridiculous amount of benefits, from stress reduction to increased cognitive flexibility to a boost to working memory.
The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Miracle of Mindfulness” is probably the best introduction to the practice.
Originally a set of letters written to a friend, the book can be read in a single afternoon.
‘The Intelligent Investor’ by Benjamin Graham
Billionaire investor Bill Ackman is just one of countless Wall Street power players who cite “The Intelligent Investor” as a book that changed their life.
First published by Warren Buffett’s mentor Benjamin Graham in 1949, it’s an in-depth introduction to value investing.
Even if the industry you work in is far removed from finance, Graham’s advice will help you make the most of your money in the longterm.
‘The Power Broker’ by Robert Caro
Not understanding how powerful people work makes you vulnerable to their will.
This is why “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s immense biography of the New York urban planner Robert Moses, is so essential.
In it, Caro, the master journalist, chronicles the way Robert Moses remade New York in his own vision — all without being elected.
If you want to see Machiavellian principles in action, read this.
‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill
Those who are just starting out on their own realize quickly that interpersonal skills are just as important as the skills they list on their résumés.
While the title may evoke infomercials from con artists, “Think and Grow Rich” is actually a pioneering personal success title that has become one of the top-selling books of all time since it was first published in 1937.
Napoleon Hill was a journalist who developed a friendship with the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who was the world’s richest man at one point in history. Carnegie spent days with Hill explaining all of the lessons he learned from his rise from extreme poverty to the pinnacle of wealth, and Hill then spent his career writing about those ideas.
“Think and Grow Rich” is a collection of timeless advice on building meaningful relationships and exhibiting leadership that anyone can practice immediately.
‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant
Something in our culture tells us that we need to be barbaric and backstabbing in order to grow professionally.
But in “Give and Take,” Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant shows how that grumpy outlook is in fact quite wrong — the research indicates that people who create the most value for others are the ones who end up on the top of their fields.
And Grant shows you how.
‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
After growing up hearing so much about the pursuit of happiness, one of the weirdnesses of adulthood is the discovery that so little empirical research has gone into uncovering its mechanics.
Thus the necessity of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is the distillation of decades of research into how happiness actually works.
For Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is a product of a life lived at its frontiers, where one is constantly expanding and exploring the sense of self.
‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel
Twenty-somethings today live in a world where startups turn young entrepreneurs into billionaires and tech founders have replaced Wall Street hotshots as what Tom Wolfe called “Masters of the Universe.”
Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s book pulls back the curtain on this world. It’s an enjoyable and concise guide to how game-changing businesses are built and managed.
‘Crossing the Unknown Sea’ by David Whyte
There’s relatively little quality writing about the place of work in our lives.
That’s why “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity” by David Whyte is like an oasis in a desert.
In it, Whyte, a British poet now living in America, frames a career not as a quarry to be captured, but an on-going conversation one has with the world and one’s self.
‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed
Sometimes you just need some advice.
And there’s no greater advice columnist than Cheryl Strayed, who wrote essayistic replies to readers of the Rumpus literary magazine under the name “Sugar.”
They’re collected in “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and they hit hard.
“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”
‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ by Clayton Christensen
“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is a philosophical meditation disguised as a business book.
There’s a mystery at the center: When Christensen graduated from Harvard Business School in 1979, he and his classmates were on top of the world. But by their 25-year reunion, many of his peers were in crisis — whether it be private in the case of estranged children, or public in the case of Jeffrey Skilling, the head of Enron.
The book investigates why some of those incredibly privileged people leave their lives in ruins, while others flourish.