Thirty is scary. Well, that is, until you actually turn 30, then it turns out that it’s not actually the horrible end of everything cool and beginning of decay that you thought it’d be in your 20s. What it is, is a great time to look back on the string of crushing embarrassments and faltering attempts at adulting that were the first three decades of your life on Earth, and finally realize that, despite early pretensions to the contrary, you don’t actually know anything.
OK, so maybe that wasn’t the best sell. But, for those on the precipice of 30, it can often seems like the end of an era, and for '80s babies, it pretty much was. Those born in the '80s grew up in one world, and just when they were starting to get their footing, the Internet came in and changed everything practically overnight, forcing '80s babies to straddle two vastly different worlds. Yep, '80s babies came of age mid-straddle (a ridiculously uncomfortable position), and they get alternately grouped in with the X-ers and the Millennials, but don’t really feel completely at home with either.
So, approaching 30, that age that’s hilariously marketed as some monumentally devastating loss of youth, is a unique experience for '80s babies. But never fear, fellow generational in-betweeners,the unique road of our generation through the 30s isn’t completely uncharted. Besides, by now we’re getting pretty good at holding that straddle, so we get to piece together our experience from two different generations (lucky us!). These books will help you take a look back while keeping an eye forward (it’s kind of what we’re good at) and make for smooth sailing through the next decade.
1. The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates was born in 1975, five years before the dawn of the '80s, but his story of growing up in the '80s and '90s will resonate with many '80s babies. Published when Coates was entering the middle of his 30's in 2009, The Beautiful Struggle also captures the voice of a man who has already coped with the big, scary 3-0, moved past it, and can now look back at his life with a little understanding and a little peace.
2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Many praised Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for its brilliant portrayal of Black America and the immigrant experience, but one thing it did better than anything was capture the feeling of a generation. Americanah is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of isolation and a desperation for belonging or at the very least understanding, a feeling that anyone coming up as part of generation whose early life was interrupted by the rapid changes ushered in by rapid-developing technologies.
3. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Getting in touch with that embarrassing, still-trying-to-figure-it-all-out version of yourself that you hoped to leave behind in college might not be the most enticing thing in the world, but it can be useful. Keegan’s short stories are heartbreakingly honest, putting under stark bright, unforgiving lights, so much of what you desperately try to keep hidden as you approach that big grown-up age of 30. And it was written by a woman who was in the middle of that time when she tragically passed away. So, the view of that era is up-close. If you really want to move on from that wildly insecure, unformed version of your twentysomething self, you’ll have to look it in the face first. Keegan's stories might ring truer for those closer to their millennial feels, but worth the read either way.
4. Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
You’ll recognize the young woman in Green Girl instantly. She was you only a few years ago. Kate Zambreno wrote this raw novel from the perspective of her 30s, seeing that muddled era from a more distant perspective, probably the same distance that you’re looking at your own 20s from now. From that distance, you can see how much you've grown and maybe, just for now, ignore how much more you've got to learn.
5. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This is the tragi-comic book you read when you just can’t. Allie Brosh, herself an '80s baby, knows a thing or two about just not being able to deal. Her comic blog took off in the early 2000s, just as a lot of '80s babies were coming into their 20s and resonated with Brosh’s stick-figure character who perfectly expressed the psychotic nightmare that is early age. Hyperbole and a Half is also good for a laugh, and, laugh lines be damned, we can all use a good laugh.
6. Decoded by Jay-Z
One of the biggest hip hop artists of the '90s and '00s, Jay-Z’s songs were some of the anthems of '80s babies coming-of-age, and reading Decoded is almost like time-travelling back to that time. But, of course, Jay-Z remains ridiculously relevant and the memoir-esque aspect of this bestseller is very much a look back at the '80s and '90s through the eyes of a man who has grown and learned a lot the hard way. Sorting through this era through the lyrics and memories of Jay-Z is an enlightening look at the time.
7. NW by Zadie Smith
You’ve heard it a million times: “You can’t go home again,” and as an agsty teen and twentysomething you probably bemoaned this horrible fate when your parents turned your bedroom into an office, but, now you’re all grown up and totally reconciled to this mean little platitude, right? Yeah, probably not. But that’s OK. Zadie Smith deftly captures in NW just how hard this adulting thing is and how, even after you achieve the supposed trifecta of grown-up-land (marriage, house, kids or very needy dog), you’re probably still going to have plenty of angst to spare as you try to make sense out of what your life has been. It’s OK, the other thirtysomethings are all well-disguised balls of angst, too.
8. & 9. A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man & Ulysses by James Joyce
No matter how long ago it was published, Portrait continues to be utterly relevant to twentysomethings emerging for the first time into the decade of practice before you have to at least pretend to be a grown-up. After you turn the last page of Portrait, pick up Ulysses. Ulysses heralded the dawn of modernism, an artistic response to the rapid change that complicated daily life for people at the time. Sound familiar? Following the middle-aged Leopold Bloom through the ups and downs, weird twists and completely mundane elements of a single day, Ulysses, taken in context with Portrait, is basically raw evidence that all the stages of life aren’t actually so different as we like to think. You might be turning 30, but you’re still hauling those first two decades around with you, and your life of fumbling and figuring it out is far from over.
10. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
No doubt drawing on her own experiences in the Israeli Defense Forces as a teenager, Shani Boianjiu, herself born in the '80s, captures the senselessness of war, contrasting the youthful persistence for a sense of normalcy against the backdrop of violence and death that war casts. For many, entering your 30s means confronting and reconciling a dark past with a wildly different present. Boianjiu turned out a beautiful example of this kind of confrontation while still in her late 20s.
11. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Thirty is also a great time to start forgiving your parents… or, at the very least, acknowledging that they’re actually human and were (and maybe still are) as faltering and stupid in their lives as you’ve been in yours so far. Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? is largely this — an acknowledgement of, an interrogation of, and a bit of forgiveness for her mother and her incidental impact on her child’s life.
12. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
Born in 1979, Mindy Kaling is an almost-'80s baby, but we’ll claim her anyway. Why Not Me? is her great collection of personal essays about adulting, keeping up with her career, and navigating the daily parallel messes of Hollywood and plain old life. She’s navigating 30 along with the rest of the '80s babies, and sometimes you just need a hilarious co-pilot as you cover new territory. Kaling makes a good buddy for the ride.
13. Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman
Sometimes the past you need to confront in order to move forward happened long before you were born. Confronting your cultural and ethnic legacy can be an important part self-development. You might get the basics of your cultural history from your parents or a course or two in college, but to solidfy this part of your identity, you might have to take this exploration into your own hands, like Saidiya Hartman did when she went to Ghana to confront the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and her distant heritage. Hartmna's journey involved a literal journey to Ghana, but a book or six can be just as good.
14. Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson
An '80s baby herself, G. Willow Wilson created one of the most amazing and barrier-busting female superheroes in the Marvel universe today. Ms. Marvel ’s Kamala Khan is a 16-year-old shapeshifter, which might seem worlds away from your experience as a thirtysomething completely lacking in superhuman powers, but, actually, your experience straddling the new and old technologies of your past and present might resonate with Kamala’s ushering in a new era in a genre that’s full of tradition and canonical heroes. Not to mention, with up-and-coming youth latching on to heroes like Kamala, you can give a deep sigh of relief. We might not be the promising twentysomethings the media talks about anymore, and the next generation might not know all the lyrics to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, but… the kids are alright.
If all else fails, just grab a glass of whiskey, put on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or your favorite Selena album, and just breathe… You’ll make it through this decade, too.
Images: Revolution Studios; Giphy