25 Books to Help You Survive Your Mid-20s

Like most people in their mid-20s, I have a strong penchant for caffeinated beverages, fast Internet, cool shoes, and good advice. I bet you do, too. We have a lot of things figured out: how to eat kale without doing our taste buds a disservice (two words: bacon fat), online banking, and putting together Ikea furniture (hacking it, too). We’ve learned that if we start an account at The Gap, we can almost always get decent clothes for 40 percent off. We may have even decoded how to control our skin freakouts, even though Seventeen magazine promised our faces would clear by now (lies, all lies). However, many aspects still remain confusing: all the relationships in our lives, what the term “Leaning In” really means for a woman, the unwieldy definition of “success,” and other abstract markers in our life shaped by age and experiences.

In all of our mental clutter, we've always been able to turn to books. Reading has constantly been an escape, but it’s also been a way to help us figure ourselves out — because when you read stories, you discover what truly moves you, and you conclude what's most important. Here's one reading list made specifically for those of us in the tumult of mid-20s-hood: 25 books that'll pave the path straight to true adulthood. Whatever that means.

1. This One is Mine by Maria Semple

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If you love zany, quirky humor, shoot Maria Semple's books to the top of your reading list. This One is Mine chronicles Violet Parry, a privileged, but highly intelligent housewife who falls for a gross musician. This book provides a reference point of what not to do in life if you want to have a good relationship with your family and yourself; it’s also just really funny, even if you find yourself cringing at Violet, or Sally, Violet’s self-absorbed sister-in-law who is dangerously desperate to marry rich.

2. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Lahiri’s stories are beautiful; they unfold slowly and delicately, and as you read, you learn about families, difference, culture, humanity, death, and love. A highlight: “Nobody’s Business,” a story that centers on an American grad student who discovers his Indian housemate’s Egyptian boyfriend is cheating on her for a while. You become conflicted between what should and shouldn’t be said, and the ways we lie to ourselves to attempt perfection and happiness.

3. Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford

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This book is proof that sometimes if you’re extremely lucky, talented, and have good eyebrows, you can one day be famous. I’m kidding. Kind of. No, this isn’t highbrow lit, and yes, I finished it on an airplane while inhaling several watered-down Screwdrivers. But if there is one thing I came away with after reading Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar, it’s that confidence is truly key to mostly anything: interviews, raises, relationships, writing, or making the right choice at Panera Bread.

4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

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If you’ve already read everything by Jonathan Safran Foer and need another piece of fiction to move you some more, read The History of Love (the author is Foer’s wife, but that’s not why this book is amazing). Literature helps put things into perspective, and this story certainly does that. It also has a very “we’re all in this together” vibe that suggests that so many of our relationships aren’t just coincidental.

5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

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Every English major is forced to read a story or two out of this collection, but that’s because it shows you how to be observant. Watching others and taking on the role as an introvert is good for you, and it’s good for your imagination. Carver's characters are rough and problematic; they drink, they have bravado, and they have issues. But we have issues! We’re problematic! Our lives, as much as we want them to be, are not always reflections of what we always wanted. We'll experience low points. And that’s okay.

6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

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Mindy Kaling is all kinds of successful. She wrote for and starred in The Office, she has a hilarious Twitter, and she has her own show, The Mindy Project . It’s physically impossible not to love her, and I think it’s because she’s so freaking relatable. Her book highlights her childhood, her insufferable teen years, and her career as an aspiring screenwriter and actor. Read this when you’re feeling out of sorts, or defeated, or unsure of where to go next; regardless of your field, you will find comfort in this gloriously pink book.

7. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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The Marriage Plot is about the modern relationship, but it’s also about mental illness. Based on David Foster Wallace, Eugenides’ character Leonard Bankhead is incredibly smart, but he’s also troubled. Madeleine, the girl who is in love with Leonard, romanticizes their relationship, and has to come to terms with what’s best for her. This book emphasizes the complexities of our almost-perfect love stories, and it also discusses what feminism and sexual freedom mean in this day and age.

8. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

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This memoir is both sad and aggravating, but it’s also a beautiful and frank read about a majorly dysfunctional family. Jeannette Walls was raised by an alcoholic father and spiritually aloof mother; both parents did not know how to be effective guardians. Walls’s memoir is also about simultaneously knowing and not knowing your family, which is something so many of us experience. The emotional and physical squalor Walls lived in is both terrifying and astonishing, and it’s incredible she came away strong and willing to share her story.

9. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

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If you watched Me and You and Everyone We Know in high school, and thought it was the weirdest thing ever, you're not alone. Everyone talks slow and there’s a kid creating poop emoticons on a computer. I re-watched the film in college, loved it, and then read and watched everything by Miranda July, even her YouTube videos. When you’re on the hunt for something that speaks to you, and when you’re feeling especially inward, this book of short stories is perfect.

10. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Prep is one of my favorite YA novels because it’s so rich and wildly accurate. The story is about a teenager named Lee Fiora who moves from Indiana to Massachusetts to attend a prestigious boarding school, and over the span of four years, Lee learns to deal with absurdly high academic standards, girls who are seemingly more beautiful than you, guys who are stupidly crush-worthy, and the art of leaving your parents. I think we forget what it’s like being a teenager (which is usually a good thing), but it’s important to remember how we learned what we learned. We are the product of every fumble, every misstep and rejection and crappy feeling in our gut.

11. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

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On my first read, I didn’t understand the protagonist's decisions, which included maxing out her credit card just so that she could prove to herself and the cashier that she could buy an incredibly expensive suit but then not being able to afford groceries, and becoming obsessed with hats. Six years later, I completely understand Casey Han, daughter of Korean immigrants, graduate of Princeton University. It’s a very New-Age-Woman-vs.-The-Heartless-City book, but it’s also about meeting expectations and what we do when we can’t, or don’t. It’s also about taking charge of your life, which we all need to do, no matter how difficult it may seem. Our parents and friends are very, very important, but we are not them.

12. The Rise of the Trust Fall by Mindy Nettifee

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If you've never read poetry, or are too scared to do so because Shakespeare and John Donne scared you off in high school, start with this beautiful book. Nettifee's poems focus on heartbreak and friendship, as well as the plain ol' hardships of life. This will make you feel all the feelings.

13. Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender

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Bender’s world is filled with a family of pumpkin heads and boys with keys for fingers; it’s disturbing, but fantastic. It’s filled with the metaphors we all desperately need. My favorite short story to this day is “Off,” which is about a self-assured woman who makes it her goal to kiss a blonde, a brunette, and a red-head at a party.

14. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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The Age of Innocence is largely about rejecting society’s expectations. It’s not exactly an uplifting novel, but it certainly makes you think about the quasi-rigid societal standards we have even today. Ellen Olenska arrives to New York as the bold It Girl who left her wealthy Polish husband, shocking all with her clothing and bold personality. Newland Archer, a man who falls in love with her, battles between the comfortable May (his fiancée), and the refreshingly different Ellen Olenska.

15. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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On a depressing note, we all know that some day, our loved ones will die. It’s terrible, and it’s sad, and it’s something we try not to think about. But as we get older, we’re going to have to face these truths (if we haven’t, already). Death is so, so hard. It’s almost impossible to put our feelings into words, but Didion does just that, and it’s gorgeous.

16. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

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A couple times a year, I will seriously reconsider the way I’ve been feeding myself. I will go to Whole Foods, and I will determinedly buy products with only a few ingredients. I usually don’t go through with my bi-annual food epiphany-plan, but I know I should. Michael Pollan is an awesome authority on the American diet and what we should be eating. This book should honestly be a requirement for every person who is in charge of her fridge’s inventory. Our bodies are not malleable. They fail! They don’t like junk! They appreciate it when we consume leafy greens and bright fruits. Read this if you want a digestible (ahem) outline of what healthy food is and what it’s not.

17. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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More dysfunctional family stories! Franzen’s The Corrections is so hilarious and multifaceted that you grow to love each and every character, even though they’re partly terrible and so, so self-destructive. This story is extremely human, and so relatable that I felt myself cringing when one of the characters goes so far as to steal organic salmon of the store in order to look impressive. The mother character reminded me of my own, and the older brother’s weird marriage parallels so many that I’ve witnessed.

18. The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

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The Girl’s Guide follows Jane Rosenal as she grows up and out of girlhood. Structured into short stories, this book outlines the mysteries of transitioning into womanhood. The stories cover sex, love, work, and they are incredibly personal and honest.

19. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

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This book taught me to be frank with myself. It taught me to love who I am: my body, my bad habits, and the traits that set me apart from others. It also taught me that the “right” person will appreciate all these aspects, and that I should never reshape myself or my brain for anyone. It's so much better than the movie (and the movie is great); it’s funny and addicting, and you can finish it in two sittings.

20. The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman

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I picked this book up when I needed something to read that wasn’t my calculus textbook or Emily Dickinson. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Sarah Silverman is a happy medium, but like most comedians who decide to write a memoir, Silverman does such an amazing job at illuminating the fact that hard work pays off. Oh, and that your childhood does not define you. At all.

21. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Americanah is probably my favorite book that I’ve read this year. No, wait. It definitely is. It’s a social novel, but it’s also a love story (and yes, the two can coexist). Americanah follows Ifemelu and Obinze, and it shows how difficult is can be to find success in a new country, and what racism is capable of. Everyone should read this new classic, because Adichie’s storytelling is seriously fearless and powerful, as are her characters.

22. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

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With Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase, and the overall war on wages, everyone should read this investigative journalism on money and quality of life in America. Ehnreneich, a successful writer, decides to put together a piece that unveils the truth about minimum wages. Her discovery is something everyone has known all along: minimum wage is not something people can live on. Awareness is so critical if we want to change our environments for the better.

23. Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing up Groovy and Clueless by Susan Jane Gilman

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You may have not heard of Susan Jane Gilman (I didn’t either when I picked up this book, I just gravitated toward the cover), but you will adore and appreciate her outlook on life after reading this memoir. There are parts of the book that are so funny, you’ll forget to breathe; for example, when she was a kid, she extorted her siblings by selling them silverware. She’s simultaneously ditzy and brilliant, and I’m sad that she never got her own talk show, although she does have a Twitter account as well as a new book coming out soon.

24. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

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Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen is a bizarre book, so before you begin, let me warn you first. This isn’t a very linear book; in fact, Chin published it under the guise of “flash fiction,” but some stories can easily work as prose poetry. It’s a wild ride, but the read is well-worth it — especially if you’re into funky-sexy-weird satires. Vixen is about two wild twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong who work at their family’s Chinese restaurant. They are fearless, a little bit crazy, assertive, and definitely rebellious. This story, which covers sisterhood, friendship, and family, is also about the upkeep of heritage.

25. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

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A Good Man is Hard to Find is O’Connor’s best work, and for a good reason. O’Connor’s fiction is a lot of like the Coen brothers’ films: dry, clever, and dark. With that said, O’Connor is a female writer every person should become familiar with because her stories are incredibly powerful (and incredibly entertaining). And who is a “good man” you ask? You’ll just have to find out.