For better and worse, a person’s twenties is a nebulous period where, for the first time, you might find yourself without firm responsibilities. The question by 30 becomes, “what to do with this excess time?”
The best answer is to treat these years as a laboratory for the mind, catching up on modern works of literature from around the world. Years spent reading become their own reward in a person’s thirties, when the knowledge and experience stored up from youth find their greatest application, and you’re capable of looking backward, to childhood, and forward to a future that is finally beginning to come into view.
Below, 30 books worth reading after 30, all classics in their own right and deserving of study, reflection, and rereading.
One man’s search for faith in O’Connor’s southern demesne is a gallery of grotesques that anybody turning 30 can surely relate to, and it helps that “The Church Without Christ” sought by Wise Blood’s hero Hazel Motes is an existential paradox that leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate when the story’s parade of preachers and con men come to an end.
Since most have read The Great Gatsby in high school, Fat City is the West Coast equivalent, an all-American search for greatness set in the hard-luck world of boxing and boasting a subdued prose style that perfectly matches its character’s dingy surroundings.
Perhaps the best literary document of the civil rights movement in America, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time retains its poignancy and immediacy in the present. Although Baldwin wrote many novels and essay collections, the two letters that comprise this memoir are Baldwin’s most personal address, and both acquire the elevation of a sermon.
A sprawling novel of the Devil running amok in Stalin-era Moscow, The Master and Margarita is one of the most beloved and strange books in the canon, and one that every reader owes it to themselves to experience in all its bewitching glory.
The meditative masterpiece by Haruki Murakami received mixed reviews when it first appeared in English. But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has gone on to become a contemporary classic and its searching, surreal storyline—equal parts postwar malaise and sexual longing—has worldwide relevance.
It may seem like a chore at first, but there’s a good reason that Ulysses is celebrated as modernism’s most sublime masterpiece, as the story of an ordinary summer day in Dublin takes on mythic grandeur in Joyce’s unmatched and musical prose.
It may be a children’s book, but The Secret Garden is as heartbreaking a story as they come, and one of the ultimate entries in English fiction, as Mary Lennox discovers the squalid history of secrets behind her uncle’s sprawling mansion. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s subject is nothing less than hope and finding a reason to live when death is certain, topics that never lose their poignancy.
Although the title of Balzac’s masterpiece changes from translation to translation, the story of Old Man Goriot, concerning the acquaintances of a Parisian social climber (none of whom are entirely who they seem at first), never goes out of style, making the book more than a match for anything by Dumas or Flaubert.
Breathtaking beauty enfolded in bloodcurdling violence, Blood Meridian is Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel, the story of a holy innocent enmeshed in a brutal expedition in a western frontier that is entirely denuded of the romance and heroism of typical cowboy fare.
A devastating and achingly romantic historical novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion has the intimacy of a personal favorite despite the hundreds of readers who have found its magical tale of lovers caught up in life’s carnival more than the equal of works by Borges or Gabriel García Márquez.
Few American novels have had the impact of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the collection that gave us a desperately needed portrait of Spokane Indians contending with themselves and the ingrained image of the Native American in popular culture, which Alexie dismantles one poetic line at a time.
Easily one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, The Dispossessed owes much of its sterling reputation to its politics, as it positions capitalism and anarchy as two planets, both with their own drawbacks and merits.
Perhaps the most essential of the “angry young man” books, Hermann Hesse’s Demian encompasses a search for meaning outside of conventional society and religion, which goes a long way toward explaining why it was rediscovered by baby boomers in the 1960s. And yet the novel still registers today, long after its glory days as the foundational text of the hippie movement.
DeLillo is of course the author of dozens of worthy entries in the canon of American novels, but Libra is where his themes—the country’s wracked conscience, paranoia, and the uncertainty of cultural memory—find their greatest conduit in the fictionalized life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy surrounding him, and the aftermath of his deadly attack on the President.
Word for word the most talented prose stylist of her generation, Grace Paley explored working class urban Americana like no one before or since. Her Collected Stories belongs on every bookshelf, as her tragic relationships between old world parents and the young, assimilated Jewish diaspora remain extraordinary excavations of their kind.
Modern poetry came of age with The Cantos by Ezra Pound, which treats antique themes with a digressive and baroque modernity. Every poem written after The Cantos bears its mark to some extent, and even Pound’s questionable political allegiances during World War Two can’t dispel its power.
More famed as a short story writer, The Wapshot Scandal is nevertheless John Cheever’s most enduring prose work, a tale of human frailty set in New England that describes the ruination of the Wapshot family as they embark on a disastrous series of marriages and money-making schemes that enact the American dream on a massive, doomed scale.
The best of Graham Greene’s so-called “Catholic novels,” The End of the Affair is the story of a crisis of faith that takes the tale of an extra-marital romance to dizzying heights of both love and hatred. Read Greene for his compassion, which is moving and humane even when the urge to reach out and shake his characters becomes overwhelming.
The great Sound and the Fury doesn’t entirely deserve its reputation as a “difficult book.” Rather, it is both difficult and extremely simple: the story of the aristocratic Compton clan as they become lost in the ethical morass of the post-Reconstruction South, perhaps best known for its majestic opening sequence, narrated by the mentally-disabled Benjy.
Misunderstood by generations of high school students shocked by its seemingly unfeeling depiction of violence, The Stranger is much more than meets the eye. Its grasp of the human mind apprehending the ‘other’ is more timely now than ever and Camus’s politically charged philosophy deserves constant revisitation.
The uncompromising To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf’s most haunting work. This tale of a family’s excursion to a lighthouse that comes to encompass their tangled lives and love affairs is as much a part of English literary vernacular as anything by Jane Austen or George Eliot.
A stunning novel of thwarted ambitions, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black is the story of the social pretender Julien Sorel, who seeks to rise above his lowborn station only to gamble everything in a shocking crime that serves as a cautionary fable as well as the crux of a sprawling and immortal social novel.
Karen Blixen wrote these essential masterpieces—detailing the rise and fall of baroque figures like nuns, priests, and princes—under the pen name Isak Dinesen. But, by any name, the author of Seven Gothic Tales has an urgency that takes the innocence of youth into dark, even perverse, corners of the imagination.
The free-wheeling Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme are nearly impossible to describe—a mad mixture of pop art and Warner Brothers cartoons that continue to baffle, delight, and surprise their readers decades after they were first composed. For any who doubt that there are still limits to the imagination, Barthelme is a sound rejoinder and proof positive that you can do anything with words.
Shelved by its author after failing to find publication, The Third Policeman had to wait to find its audience, but its reputation hasn’t floundered since. The story of a would-be criminal who finds himself in a bizarre landscape populated by eccentric bicycle-riding policemen, the novel is a masterful and oddball fusion of Samuel Beckett and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
After a foul ball fatally strikes another boy’s mother, Owen Meany becomes convinced that he is God’s instrument and navigates the second half of the 20th century with that certainty firmly in place. Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany showed how far the realist novel could go and inspired a generation of readers and writers in the bargain.
A pitch-black novel of free love and the sciences being taken to their ultimate extensions, The Elementary Particles is a decidedly un-sexy novel about sex and the ramifications of two brothers’ efforts to account for their troubled upbringing. This is one of the most perfect novels to read in one’s thirties, as it manages to be both intellectually ambitious and distinctly world-weary.
A rollicking adventure story of post-Tsarist Russia, Doctor Zhivago was long repressed by the Russian authorities and it’s easy to see why: the novel’s critiques of power are as well-observed as ever. But there’s more to Pasternak’s drama than civil strife, as his love story escapes cliché while remaining a truly beautiful tale of star-crossed lovers.
Simply a masterpiece of form, A Void is constructed without use of a single incident of the letter ‘e.’ But Perec has more than mere experimentalism on his mind, as the novel questions how we fill in what is missing from the world and how many living people become walking ghosts in our midst.
You almost have to go back to the Bible to find a more divisive work of literature as Gravity’s Rainbow, which is the masterpiece of the television age. Incorporating a great deal of technical knowledge as well as a zany sense of humor, Pynchon’s hero Slothrop is an ordinary goofball trapped in a world-sized caper that even the book’s massive length can barely contain.
Too much to choose from? Here’s the one book you really need to read before you’re 30!