Depending on your current age, 35 may seem like a youthful midpoint or a scary, faraway number that makes you think of The Golden Girls. Well, I’m here to tell you 35 is young, and it’s a prime time to reassess priorities, get in touch with your inner goddess/wild child/badass (or all three — preferably), and celebrate how cool you turned out to be in your third decade. Because believe it or not, that is possible.
If you’re not convinced, just look at Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon — she’s 61 and still cooler than most of us could ever hope to be. Sandra Bullock is 50, and People just named her the most beautiful person in the world. When I was in the midst of my post-college/early 20s existential meltdown, I asked my mom what her favorite decade had been so far. She said it was her 40s because, “Your twenties are all about trying to figure things out; by your thirties hopefully you figured out what you want and who you are so you’re going after those things, and so in your forties you just enjoy it.” I think that’s pretty good advice.
So to help you along that path to 35, here are 21 books that’ll make you think, laugh, cry, contemplate the universe, and appreciate where you’re at in life, whether you just turned 28, or you’re celebrating your last night as a 34-year-old. Hopefully you’re ushering it out with champagne.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
OK, so, your 30s can be great, but you also might be thinking about things like anti-wrinkle creams and miracle anti-aging remedies a little more often than you were at 21. Nora Ephron’s hilarious, touching, and very honest book of essays will make you feel like you’re talking to a good friend after a tough day at work. She writes about purses, relationships, beautiful apartments, and, of course, her neck. And she manages to make you laugh through it all.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Fey’s book is kind of like a comedic celebrity feminist text for the new millennium. Her stories and advice about crying (or not) at work, female friendships, career, love, and breastfeeding are must-reads (and they happen to be hilarious, too). Bossypants should be declared required reading for every woman by the time she’s 35.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This National Book Award winner is one of the most important books of the last century. It’s a classic about an unnamed black man struggling to find a place in the world, and it’s a universal story of feeling lost, finding your way, and trying to figure out your place in the world — all things that probably feel pretty familiar on the road to 35.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
If you haven’t read this one, just put it on your list simply because everyone should experience Márquez’s tale about the mythical South American town of Macondo. If you love magical realism, this will probably become an instant favorite.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Yes, this is a Western. And yes, it’s a story about old-time Texas Rangers herding cattle across the U.S. But it’s also one of the most beautiful stories ever written (it did win a Pulitzer) and it’s something everyone should read in their lifetime, preferably by 35 because it’s, like, 800 pages long, and who has time for that later in life when work and kids and partners are demanding your attention? Give it about 100 pages, and you won’t be able to put it down.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Didion (who was just honored by the Authors Guild) is one of the best writers of her (or any) generation. She mixes the personal and the political, the intimate and the sensational, and the results are always stunning. These essays are timeless.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
Beauvoir’s manifesto about women was way ahead of its time. Feminism was on women’s (and some men’s) minds, but the movement was definitely not where it is today. Still, The Second Sex is a powerful look at sexuality, identity, and independence — topics that are at the front of your mind around age 35.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
Millay was a rebellious, bold, legendary icon who blazed her own trail and broke the rules when she wanted to. Milford (who wrote an excellent biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, as well) captures the struggles, triumphs, and mythology of a great poet. Read this if you’re in a rut and in need of a little inspiration.
Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton
Read this one because she might just become the first female president of the United States. There’s a ways to go, obviously, but it could happen before your 35th birthday, so why not find out as much about her as you can?
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gay’s essays cover everything from politics to sex to the color pink to Sweet Valley High, and her insights might just make you feel a little less alone in the world. She’s funny, sharp, and relatable, and the questions the book raises are perfect fodder for an early-30s mindset.
The World According to Garp by John Irving
What’s not to love about this book? It’s a funny, odd, sensitive look at family, marriage, and the nature of love in all its forms. It’s about growing up, because even in your third decade there’s a lot to learn, and a long way to go.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Satrapi’s graphic novel/memoir about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution will suck you in from page one and never let go. Her visual style is stunning, and the story and characters will probably feel familiar, no matter where you grew up. It’s a story about childhood, but the emotions and insights in the book are all adult.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison, whose latest novel is causing a stir, is one of our greatest living writers — and Beloved is her greatest book. It can be read at 20, it can be read at 25, but just read it by the time you’re 35, because if you don’t, you’ll just be missing out. If you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about, dive in and see for yourself.
Mistakes I Made at Work by Jessica Bacal
Bacal interviewed 25 successful women about their biggest screw-ups and the lessons they’ve learned. Cheryl Strayed, Kim Gordon, and Jezebel founding editor Anna Holmes all reveal their most embarrassing/ridiculous mistakes at work, and the results are sometimes funny, often relatable, and always enlightening. Read it when you’re feeling bad about that thing you said in that meeting yesterday. This book will remind you it’ll all be OK.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill
This one has become a classic, and Gaitskill’s stories of desire, longing, and obsession are terrifying and beautiful at the same time. Erotic, thought-provoking, and raw, read these when you’re feeling a little naughty.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Your 20s and 30s are often about pursuing a career and pushing boundaries at work, and Sandberg’s now-famous manifesto is a must-read for anyone trying to push through the boys' club, ask for a raise, and get that promotion. Don’t just lay around complaining about work — get up and do something. Like read this book.
#GirlBoss by Sophia Amoruso
This is probably one of the first books to have a hashtag for a title. Nasty Gal founder Amoruso chronicles her humble beginnings selling clothes and shoes on eBay and turning that one-woman show into a multi-million dollar online fashion phenomenon. Amoruso isn’t a tech genius or an Oscar-winning actress, and she literally pulled herself up from her bootstraps — or, more realistically, her stilettos — and became her own boss. It’s the punk rock version of Lean In .
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Kushner’s bestselling novel is about passion, art, motorcycles, and living out loud. It’s about college grad Reno who moves to New York City with dreams of making art and racing motorcycles. If you’re in a rut, read it, and it might just pull you right out.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Before Sex and the City and Girls and third-wave feminism, there was Fear of Flying . Jong’s mega-bestselling book empowered women and shocked many with it’s honest depiction of a married woman in search of something, anything to give her life meaning — even if that something is a brief affair with a playboy psychotherapist (this was the 1970s after all). Jong’s book holds up, and it’s a great read when you’re in search of a little meaning in your own life.
It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken by Greg Behrendt and Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt
You could read Behrendt’s book He’s Just Not That Into You , but personally I think this one is a lot more helpful. The husband and wife writing team will pull you out of your breakup funk via humor, tough-love, and personal anecdotes. Do not throw a pity party if you’re newly single at 32. Read this book and get back out there.
Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
This isn’t a self-help book. You won’t find chapters like “How To Succeed in Four Easy Steps.” You will find nuanced characters, hilarious and poignant dialogue, and life lessons hidden in the margins. Moore’s stories are a great read at any age, but they’re especially resonant when you’re moving into that third (great, awesome, badass) decade of life.