I believe there to be few escapes more genuinely life-affecting than a really good book. Not only is reading a wonderful alternative to watching frustrating political debates or bad reality TV, but books have the power to really change you. Change the way you look at the world, change the way you see the relationships you have, and change the way you look at yourself. Here are 9 books that every confused 20-something would majorly benefit from having read. (I’m an English major, this is something my degree has actually qualified to do). From career motivation to pondering the direction of your love life, everyone will find something they need on this list. (Editor’s note – click on any book cover to be taken right to Amazon!)
The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling
<Despite the fact that J.K. Rowling is one of the most famous and acclaimed author of our time, this book didn’t receive much critical acclaim. I totally disagree. Set in a small town in England, this story brought me back to my adolescence, back to those stressful angsty years that we tend to totally forget once we’ve moved past them, and examines the complexities of small town life and the growing pains associated with every stage of life. This is no Harry Potter–it’s woven storyline is full of raw emotion and the challenges of being both young and getting old.
On the Road – Jack Kerouac
I’m totally biased because this book is one of my very favorites, but it is an obvious classic. If you haven’t heard of it, I’ll do you a favor and tell you about it. On the Road is the story of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country journey, gathered from notebooks he wrote in during his journey in the 1940s, and thought to be one of the most defining pieces of literature of the Beat Generation. It not only gives you a super candid peek into the past (which, be warned, might make you resent technology and the fast-paced nature of the world we live in now) but also tells a story of spontaneity, of passion, of drive. If you’re looking for the inspiration to book that flight to go backpacking or to apply for that job across the country, this is the book for you.
Diary of Frida Kahlo – Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a bad ass. There’s really no other way to describe her accurately in two words. If you’re looking for some female empowerment or for a female role model, Frida Kahlo is a good person to look to. This book is illustrated by her, which is pretty incredible to see, and documents the insanely bumpy road her life traveled down. Kahlo was fearless, totally unbothered by authority, and during a time of female oppression. If she could fearlessly do whatever she wanted during a time where women couldn’t, what’s stopping us now?!
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Alright, tear jerker alert–Diaz is absolutely amazing and this novel proves it. Oscar Wao delves deep into the complexities of race, of culture, of love, of sex, and of family. Told primarily from the point of view of a young, socially awkward, desperate-for-love Dominican boy living in New Jersey, this novel allows the reader to really think about love–all the different types of love, how love can affect your judgment, how love can bring you so much happiness, and how love can also bring you so much pain. Buy this book. You will thank me later.
The Paris Wife – Paula McLain
As a literature major, it’s probably not very surprising that I have a bizarre beyond-the-grave crush on Ernest Hemingway, and naturally this book caught my eye right away. The Paris Wife is told from the point of view of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife. It’s written as though you’re reading her diary (and was heavily vetted by the author after lots of investigation, so it stands to be quite historically accurate) and talks much about the time they spent living together in Paris as he pursued his career (and other women…) as a writer. Like Oscar Wao, this story examines the complexities of love, family, and relationships. It examines happiness, what it takes to achieve it, and whether or not any of us really get there.
The Lives of Muses – Francine Prose
As someone who thought the idea of “muses” was pretty annoying, I read this book just to see what it was about. As a pleasant surprise, this book tells the story of 9 women and the artists they inspired, but instead of focusing on the physical beauty that inspired their artist, this more acutely focuses on the power they held. Women close to artists weren’t just statues on a pedestal, but characters in a story who wouldn’t have been there without their intelligence, talent, or confidence.
Bad Feminist – Roxanne Gay
I’ve read a lot of essay-novels, but this one has always stood out. Gay’s book is a collection of essays about topics like race, sex, career, friendship, and what it’s like to be a college professor. She’s an acclaimed cultural critic and novelist, and her talent would be hard to describe in words (actually, she probably could, but that’s the difference between me and her…). She covers serious topics from a well-informed point of view, asks tough questions, and will absolutely inspire you to look at the world a bit differently than you did before you cracked the spine of Bad Feminist.
Girl in a Band – Kim Gordon
If The Diary of Frida Kahlo appeals to you, this one will too. Kim Gordon, guitarist and vocalist of Sonic Youth during the 90s, is a total bad ass. Her memoir outlines what it was like to be a female member of a band in a totally male-dominated sphere. You get an inside look at a wide spectrum of experiences: the euphoria of her fame and success to the collapse of her marriage. For anyone interested in reading about how career and success can affect and/or interfere with relationships, this is the book for you.
In the Company of Women – Grace Bonney
Finally: I VERY recently got this book and haven’t been able to put it down. It’s literally sitting right next to me while I’m writing this. Every single woman who needs inspiration should look no further than this. This book has advice and inspirational words from 100 successful women in fields ranging from finance to hip-hop, painting to writing. The eclectic blend of women and their well spoken words prove that no matter what you want, you can get if you’re willing to work. GET. THIS. BOOK.
If you’re a reader, I hope I’ve given you a suggestion you hadn’t considered before. If you’re not a reader, these books are a great place to start. Enjoy!