Oh, to be 22. I don’t know what your twenty-second year of life is going to hold, but for me this year has already been really weird and big — weirder and bigger than those other weird and big years like 16 and 18 and 21.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I deserve this advanced age. Like many introspective-to-a-fault people, I underwent several existential crises throughout my adolescence and fetal 20s; but, at 22, I’m finally learning how to stop sniveling and be in the Real World (but thankfully not on the Real World, which for a while was my Plan D if the whole writing thing didn’t work out.) But, then again, I still feel like I'm 18. I find that I enjoy YA novels way more now than I ever did as an actual YA. I still need to call my mom about seemingly obvious tasks, like how much I should tip the cable guy.
For many of us, 22 marks the true beginning of our 20s: you may have just graduated from college, officially moved out of your parents’ house, and are (hopefully) making some kind of money. You may find you have no interest in grabbing after-work drinks with your once-beloved high school friends, which makes you sad; or maybe you’ve reconnected with some of your childhood chums, which makes you infinitely hopeful. Maybe you’ve decided to break up with your longtime college SO. Maybe you’re allowing yourself to finally date 30-year-olds (because we all know the male equivalent of 22 is actually closer to 17).
Whatever your 22 looks like, it always helps to have some literary support. Here’s a list of 22 books that encapsulate all those weird and big moments we’re experiencing now — and that can also offer some much-appreciated advice.
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
In this gorgeous and complicated and (in my opinion) vastly underrated debut novel, Hamann tracks the high-school-to-college-aged growth of Eveline Auerbach, her introspective heroine, as she experiences all the Big Firsts — especially her first love, a bittersweet affair with a twentysomething boxer. Reading this book helped me understand what it feels like to fall in love before I’d even fallen in love in real life.
The Defining Decade by Dr. Meg Jay
This is one of those books my mom bought me after graduation that I promptly shelved with no intention of ever cracking open (hi, Mom!). But I gave it a shot. Turns out, despite the cutesy title and fundamentally off-putting topic (like, do I really need to read about exactly who and where I am? Can’t I just live it without analyzing it?), reading this clinical psychologist’s work was a productive use of my time. In an accessible and surprisingly unpatronizing tone, Dr. Meg Jay offers anecdotes, analyses, and advice about the hordes of mid-crises twentysomethings she’s treated over the years. Now, when making big decisions, I think often of “intentionality,” the trait Dr. Jay asserts is so important in our 20s but which our still-developing brains often overlook. “It is a pivotal time when the things we do — and the things we don’t do — will have an enormous effect across years and even generations to come,” she says. So make it count, people!
At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick
In this super-Millennial 2013 novel (case in point: the book shares a title with a Bright Eyes song), Dolnick hits three major early-20s issues: losing and reclaiming a childhood friend; spiritual confusion and exploration; and learning how not to be a dick. The epigraph itself, from the 19th century philosopher William James, is pretty shockingly indicative of how it feels to be this age: “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help!”
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
We all know a Nathaniel P.: whether we’ve suffered his unnecessarily harsh critiques in our creative writing workshops (by the way, dude: the appearance of a character in a white dress is not exclusively meant to be a symbol of lost innocence) or seen him brooding over a whiskey and a Paris Review at a Bushwick bar (true story), chances are some iteration of the titular struggling writer have crossed our post-collegiate paths. But Adelle Waldman’s book reveals that even these insufferable man-children have feelings, too: the real kind, not just the kind that boost that studied sensitive-artist persona.
And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould
Sure, this essay collection by former Gawker editor Emily Gould has been criticized as self-indulgent; but aren’t we supposed to be self-indulgent right now? Isn’t that what our 20s are all about? Regardless of whether you find her endearingly vulnerable, or if her post-grad issues are too close to your own for comfort, Gould undoubtedly captures the trying-to-be-cool-but-internally-freaking-out voice (or I-genuinely-do-not-care voice or I-care-way-too-much-to-be-functional-right-now voice, depending on the day) of this particular time and age.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Okay, I know you know that Joan Didion is the Queen of the Essay (or is it Everything?). But it bears repeating: you must read "Goodbye to All That" at some point in your life. It’ll likely resonate the most in your early 20s, when you’re setting out on the journey toward (relatively) independent selfhood that Didion reflects on here. Whether you’re moving to a new city like Didion did, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and scared out of your freaking mind; or whether you’re beginning your Personhood in the same place you’ve always been, albeit with a grown-up mindset, we’re all at the beginning of something. “Goodbye to All That,” which is in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, will help you through not only the shiny new thing we’re doing, but it’ll also teach you to take the inevitable bad with all the coming good.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
In her fiction debut, the witty and smutty and candid and generally awesome British writer Caitlin Moran follows 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, a whip-smart, sex-positive working-class girl who yearns to reinvent herself as a London music journalist. Although the heroine is a good eight years younger that us 22-year-olds, Johanna's vow to literally re-build herself from the name up resonates so much with this fresh new stage of our lives. “I want to be a self-made woman,” Johanna declares. “I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see. I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.” You, my dear, would lying if you said you’d never thought this at some point during your post-graduation life.
I Don't Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner
Unless you are a baby Dr. Ruth, you’re gonna make some dating mistakes during your twenty-second year of life. And there's a good chance that one or several of those mistakes will involve a musician. In this essay collection, based off of her epic Modern Love column, the hilarious comedy writer Klausner shares her own horrific experiences dating a slew of hot but useless dudes, including the titular artist-types. I know it’s hard to break the loser-musician habit (floppy hair and a low-slung bass is my own personal Kryptonite); but unless you, too, aspire to someday write your own dating confessional, take a cue from Klausner’s failures and think twice before giving that pushy DJ your number — even if he does have a super-cool Descendents tattoo.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Although you may know Marina Keegan because of her tragic death — she died in a car accident at 22, just five days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale — her posthumous collection of our peer's essays and short stories proves that she was, in fact, a very good writer who could have one day become great. The title essay, which went viral after Keegan’s passing, opens with the line: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” A simple and beautiful summation of a time in our lives that's anything but simple.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
Bad Behavior , Mary Gaitskill’s 1988 short story collection, is Feminist Reading 101. Each of these nine gritty stories shamelessly explores taboo issues — think drug addition, sadomasochism, etc. — in Gaitskill’s hauntingly sparse prose. But the stories can also be jarringly funny, and it’s this expertly-wrought tension between the utterly filthy and the brazenly bizarre that’s canonized Gaitskill as an Important Writer. That tension is also, I think, an important phenomenon to identify and appreciate in our everyday adult lives. The world, as it turns out, is a weirder place than we'd thought. But all we can hope to do right now is to grow weirder with it.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
In this brilliant essay collection, Rebecca Solnit explores the many iterations of losing and loss, from the frustration of the tangible to the devastation of the intangible. In one example, Solnit turns to an obvious instance of getting lost when she asks a Search and Rescue team in the Rockies to recount their experiences finding wayward hikers. As it turns out, people get lost when they won’t admit they are lost. We lose ourselves, and our place in the world, when we try to fight the system, to fight nature, to fight our instincts. Solnit’s book, and especially this lesson, has become my gospel over the past year. Don’t fight the feeling, fellow travelers: stay cool, stay calm, and trust the deep dark forest. It isn’t as scary as you think it is.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Equal parts coming-of-age modern love story and pretentious-yet-lovable campus novel (the protagonists are, after all, Linguistics majors at Brown in the late 1980s), Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2012 novel perfectly encapsulates that strange precipice of the Senior Year. It’s a time when you think you know everything — you, like mid-thesis-writing heroine Madeleine Hanna, certainly know everything about Victorian marriage politics — but, as it turns out, you know almost nothing outside the lush green cocoon of the university quad.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a story of transitioning to, assimilating into, and accepting a brand new world. But, as evidenced by Gogol Ganguli’s rocky path toward adulthood, it’s also about maintaining the unique markers of your heritage, of continuing to acknowledge all that you’ve carried with you up until this point. You likely read this book (or seen the movie) at some point in your high school/college career, but it’s worth revisiting now as we assimilate to our own version of a foreign world.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
Martin Amis is probably the most difficult modern author I’ve ever read: his work is dense, highbrow, and so, so British. But The Rachel Papers , Amis’ first novel about an almost-20-year-old Oxford student whose foremost aim is to get laid and piss off his father, is well worth a shot. Once you get into the swing of things, it turns out to be laugh-out-loud funny and poignant and, in true Amis fashion, brilliantly ironic. It is also the source of one of my favorite quotes in all of literature:
So I am nineteen years old and don’t usually know what I’m doing, snap my thoughts out of the printed page, get my looks from other eyes, do not overtake dotards and cripples in the street for fear I will depress them with my agility, love watching children and animals at play but wouldn’t mind seeing a beggar kicked or a little girl run over because it’s all experience, dislike myself and sneer at a world less nice and less intelligent than me. I take it this is fairly routine?
Has a truer summation of that strange age ever been written? I think not.
Paint it Black by Janet Fitch
You likely know Janet Fitch from her lauded 1999 novel White Oleander ; but Paint it Black , Fitch’s eulogy for the 1980s L.A. punk scene, is just as lush and intense and horribly sad as her previous novel. The story follows Josie Tyrell, a 19-year-old runaway and model as she struggles to come to terms with the love of her life’s sudden suicide. (I told you it’s horribly sad.) Besides being a super cool snapshot of the brutal L.A. punk scene, Fitch exactly captures the agony and confusion of a young woman undergoing an inexplicable and unfair tragedy. Whether or not you’ve ever experienced the death of a loved one, Josie’s story will stick with you forever.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Ah, the special growing pains of the ancient-curse-afflicted teenaged ghetto nerd. Junot Díaz’s colorful and poignant novel is unlike anything you've read before: equal parts immigrant epic, magical-realist saga, and an ode to those loyal Dungeons and Dragons players, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is totally original and completely brilliant. Díaz’s unique Dominican-American-New Yorkese narration will be stuck in your head for days.
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
If The Catcher in the Rye is a perfect encapsulation of the angsty teenaged experience, Franny and Zooey , Salinger’s two best-known stories in his Glass family series, illustrates the quarter-life existential crisis those same overthinking adolescents will likely undergo. On the surface, the stories offer an endearing glimpse at siblinghood and the conscious selfishness us early twentysomethings routinely exhibit; but they’re also wrought with religious allegories, demonstrating the Eastern spiritual tradition with which Salinger was so fascinated.
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
Although Judy Blume is legendary for her beloved YA novels, Summer Sisters — rife with hetero- and homosexual sex; friendships complicated by time, experience, and betrayal; and familial travails — is geared toward a more mature audience (hey, that’s us!). Whether it’s the deep teenaged connection between the two title “sisters” or their consequent separation, you’ll recognize some aspect of complicated female friendships in Blume’s powerful novel.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Former foster-care kid Victoria Jones is only 18, but now that she’s been emancipated from the system, she only has herself — and her newly discovered passion for flower-arranging, using especially her gift for creating unique, expressive bundles based on the Victorian language of flowers — to make her way through the world. In this elegant and understated novel, Diffenbaugh shares the difficulties of being a lonely but ambitious young woman, and how being forced to confront the past — and the present — forces you to grow in ways you’d never imagined you could.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
If you ever were — or still are — a kinda-nerdy fangirl who lived more inside her chosen fictional world than the bright, scary real world (ugh), you will love Rainbow Rowell’s playful, honest, and tender novel. In her characteristically self-deprecating but always heartfelt tone, Rowell follows titular fangirl Cath as she navigates her first year of college: which means separating from her father, drifting apart from her twin sister, feeling generally weird and homesick all the time, and learning to reconcile her obsession with the fantasy world of Simon Snow (think gay Harry Potter) with her responsibility to the world outside. Oh, and falling in love with the adorable farm boy Levi, who I'm convinced is actually my OTP, but whatever.
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
In this coming-of-age novella, Kincaid follows protagonist Lucy on her journey from the Caribbean to America, where she moves to be an au pair for a wealthy family. This is an intimate, semi-autobiographical glimpse at a young woman who’s forced to mature, both physically and emotionally, as she reconciles her perennial outsider-status in a foreign culture as well as her own unresolved emotions about her faraway mother.
The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien
The Irish censor banned this 1960 novel for its candid sexual content, its glorification of women’s independence, and its otherwise blatantly rebellious, very un-Catholic subject matter — a good sign that Edna O’Brien’s first novel is well worth reading. O’Brien, a real-life wild child, tracks the maturation of two BFFs navigating the post-school terrain together as they seek romance and adventure in the city. If you’ve ever fled your small town for the promise of a big city; have struggled to maintain a beloved childhood friendship; or are an Irish lit junkie, you’ll have fun reading this modern classic.
Image: Denise P.S./flickr