There is no universal 30s experience. For some people, the decade is all about starting a family and picking a forever home. For others, it’s an era of reinvention, that period in your life when you figure out who you want to be. No matter where in life turning 30 takes you, the decade provides another chance to learn about . . . well, everything: yourself, the world, what you truly believe in. And there’s no better way to seize that opportunity than by turning to books that allow you to explore the unavoidable milestones of adulthood, like the loss of a loved one or the start of a new career. Your 30s are a special and unique time, and no matter what you’re going through, these 12 books have plenty of wisdom to offer up.
1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Set during the Golden Age of comic books, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a story of first loves, ambition, and heartbreaking loss. The book spans decades in the lives of cousins Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay as they take the comic book world by storm, only to have World War II and prejudice send their lives spinning in unexpected directions. This sprawling epic is astonishing at any age, but by the time you reach your 30s, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the story’s take on family, love, obligation, and the damage that outside forces can have on even the strongest of bonds.
2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah follows the divergent paths of a young Nigerian couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they immigrate to America and England. Soon they find themselves grappling with racism, identity, the struggle of being undocumented, and finding a home in a new country. Stunningly written and critically acclaimed, Americanah is a vivid reminder that life will always take turns that you don’t expect.
3. Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
The relationship between an adult child and their parent is always complex, and Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish exquisitely explores what happens when you’re forced to reconcile the myth of your parent with the reality. William Bloom’s father, Edward, is a master storyteller, but that’s left his son with no idea who the man behind the tall tales truly is. Now that Edward is dying, William’s attempts to unravel the truth send him and his dad on one last big adventure.
4. Calypso by David Sedaris
David Sedaris is a master essayist, and any one of his collections will leave you howling, but there’s something special about his latest book, Calypso. For many, turning 30 means contemplating aging for the first time, which is why it’s so comforting to see Sedaris turn his wit toward topics like the looming fear of parental loss, the question of what comes next when you’re feeling pretty settled, and just how hard it is to actually relax, in a series of hilarious, sometimes melancholy essay.
5. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Making friends as an adult can be notoriously hard, but you won’t have trouble finding someone to bond with over just how great Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is. Eleanor doesn’t feel that her ultrastructured life is missing anything when she and a coworker help an elderly man on the street, but soon she finds herself opening up to these new people who upend her life. And much to her surprise, she discovers that human interaction can be enriching as long as it happens with the right people.
6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
The man at the center of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is a list-making, music-obsessed commitment-phobe who seems like he’ll never grow up. But Rob is living proof that there’s no time limit on when you can fall in love, change careers, or get “serious.” The truth is, you can still be growing up in your 30s, just as Rob is, and turn out just fine.
7. How to Be Champion by Sarah Millican
Whether you’re familiar with the British comedian Sarah Millican or not, her brilliant autobiography How to Be Champion (not a champion, just “champion”) is a total must-read. Around the time she turned 30, Millican got divorced, moved back in with her parents, and decided to try her hand at stand-up comedy. Her entire life changed over the course of just a few years, and it changed for the better. Her charming and funny memoir is like a warm hug from a friend who’s telling you that life has lots of wonderful surprises in store for you as long you’re not afraid to take a leap.
8. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Friendships can arise between totally unexpected people sometimes, as the curmudgeonly Ove learns in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. When a young family moves in next door to him, his whole life changes, and so does his neighbors’. If you take one lesson away from this book, make it that being a part of your community is vital not only for your own well-being, but for the well-being of those around you, too.
9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake follows the Ganguli family, immigrants from Calcutta struggling to preserve their cultural identity after moving to America. The struggle is even more confusing for the couple’s son, Gogol, who knows America as his only home. This beautifully written, lyrical story will touch the heart of anyone who has ever pulled away from their family only to rediscover their roots as an adult.
10. NW by Zadie Smith
In NW, Zadie Smith tells the story of four people trying to build lives beyond the circumstances they grew up in. Their journeys aren’t easy or even always happy, but they feel vital and real every step of the way. This is a book about struggling to overcome your childhood as you forge ahead into adulthood. And it’s one every 30-something should read.
11. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The sad reality that even the most powerful loves end eventually isn’t easy to accept. Reading Audrey Niffenegger’s deeply romantic but utterly devastating The Time Traveler’s Wife illustrates this truth with just the right amount of magical realism. Henry DeTamble is a librarian whose timeline is all mixed up thanks to his uncontrollable ability to time travel. Clare Abshire is an artist who loves Henry with all of her heart, even though she never knows where, or rather when, her husband will show up.
12. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
The minute you turn 30, someone should really just hand you a box set featuring all of Cheryl Strayed’s books, including her epic travel memoir, Wild. But if you choose just one of her books to read, go with Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her Dear Sugar advice columns from The Rumpus. Each bit of advice she doles out about work, love, sex, family, and friendships is inspired. Strayed knows that life’s twists and turns can be exhausting, but having this book by your side makes it all seem just a little bit easier.
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