Since I first learned to read, I’ve always been pretty interested in reading books that were well beyond my age group or understanding. Although my mother never really monitored or censored my reading material, there was still something that felt forbidden about browsing in the “big kid” section of the library or bookstore. I don’t remember exactly what age I was when I pulled The Fairy Rebel — author Lynne Reid Banks’ children’s novel about a rebellious fairy named Tiki who wears blue jeans and helps humans — off the shelf of my elementary school bookstore, but I do remember the librarian asking me if I was sure I was ready for it. (As it turns out, I was and wasn’t. As far as reading skill-level was concerned, I rocked The Fairy Rebel. But I was terrified of bees for years.)
It’s something that, to a degree, I still do. While all books are fair game for readers after the age of, say, 18, I have plenty of books on my shelves right now that I read before I could really “get” them. To a degree, maybe that’s true of all books — your relationship with the literature you love will evolve as you do, over a lifetime. But there are also some books that I’ve just come to appreciate more as I left my 20s behind me.
Here are 13 books that mean more to me in my 30s — and might mean more to you, too.
'Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia' by Elizabeth Gilbert
When I first read Elizabeth Gilbert’s breakout memoir, Eat, Pray, Love — back when EVERYONE was reading it — I was in my early 20s, and it seemed like Gilbert basically went on a long study abroad after a couple bad relationships. In your 30s, you’ll have a better idea of what it really means to rebuild your entire life from the ground up, one country at a time. (And what it means to live out of luggage for an entire year.)
'The Handmaid’s Tale' by Margaret Atwood
In case you haven’t dusted off your copy of The Handmaid’s Tale since high school (aka: you’re the only person who didn’t give it a reread in honor of the Hulu adaptation) then your 30s are definitely the time to do so. With another decade-and-a-half or so of experience with the systemic oppression of women under your belt, you’ll definitely see this one in a different light.
'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante
If you’re still BFFs with your childhood bestie in your 30s — meaning the challenges of high school, the transitions of college, first jobs, and maybe even marriages and kids haven’t shaken your bond, there’s a good chance nothing will. My Brilliant Friend celebrates the ups and downs of female friendships that last lifetimes.
'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed
By the time you’re in your 30s, you’ve experienced enough of life to know how much you actually don’t know at all — and therefore you’re way more receptive to taking the hard-won advice of someone else. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is the kind of book that, (I’m pretty sure) will have its unique uses in every decade of a woman’s life.
'Just Kids' by Patti Smith
It’s hard to truly appreciate the lessons of both the starving artist lifestyle and the friendships that survive it when you’re still living out your own starving artist (or writer or teacher or nursing student, etc.) days yourself. I appreciate Patti Smith’s Just Kids much more from the other side of my 200-square-foot studio-living days than I would if I was still sleeping on that threadbare, secondhand futon that got me through the mid-2000s.
'Sula' by Toni Morrison
Frankly, I think practically everything by Toni Morrison only gets better with age. Sula, in particular, is another novel about the women you’ll know throughout your life — the ways they can become inextricably linked to you, while also disappointing and betraying you; the ways the custodians of you childhood memories can move so far away from your shared history.
'Bad Feminist: Essays' by Roxane Gay
If you’re anything like me, when Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist was first published, you just used it as an excuse to BE a bad feminist yourself. Now — a little older, a little wiser — I can better see it for the social and political analysis and critique that it is.
'The Woman Upstairs' by Claire Messud
Oh, angry women narrators. How I love you in my 30s. As a young reader you just seemed pretty uptight, not at all chill, that dreaded "unlikable." Now that I’ve had enough time to become an angry woman narrator in my own life, you’re just my kindred, pissed off spirits.
'An American Marriage' by Tayari Jones
Fifty-two percent of American 30-year-olds are married — but you don’t have to have said a formal “I Do” to understand the devastating complexity of the relationships in Tayari Jones’s 2018 bestselling novel, An American Marriage. It looks at exactly what happens when the love that leads someone to pledge “until death do us part” doesn’t actually last very long at all.
'The Argonauts' by Maggie Nelson
Celebrating the life and love of a queer family, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is part memoir, part cultural analysis, and all thought-provoking. You’ll appreciate her musings about gender fluidity, marriage, and child-raising in a non-traditional family much more if you’ve actually attempted to do any of these things yourself.
'The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: The Japanese Art' by Marie Kondo
A little bit different than the other books on this list, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: The Japanese Art by Marie Kondo was totally trending when I was in my 20s. But here’s the thing: you probably don’t actually have STUFF in your 20s. (You might think you do, but 30s-year-old me is telling you, you really don’t.) The flotsam you accumulate in your 20s is nothing compared to the practically endless amounts of crap you’ll pile up in your 30s. (I mean, people in their 30s have garages. Garages are basically endless crap receptacles.) You know the rule: If it doesn’t give you joy…
'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth Strout
There is something just so deeply, uncomplicatedly human about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge — the Pulitzer Prize winning that looks at the frustration, pain, solitude, anger, beauty, and ferocity in the rather average, rather unremarkable life of one retired school teacher. It’s a meditation on life and the human condition in all it’s messiness.
'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn
This one might be a personal observation, but I feel like, in your 20s, everything is very dramatic: every fight with your mom epic, every disagreement with your boyfriend warrants an emotional Facebook status — that kind of thing. By your 30s, hopefully you'll have much better mastered the cool, calculated rage that is Evil Amy (I mean, not the murderous part, obviously.)