For most of us, our 20s are a particularly consequential period of identity formation. It’s during our 20s that, for the first time in our lives, we’re challenged to eschew parental support and the predefined success barometers provided by schools and other institutions. Indeed, this is the decade where we are challenged to set out to build lives of our own. And it’s during this time that we begin to cement the identities that have been in development since our teen years.
For such a crucial phase of life, it won’t come as a surprise that the number of books dealing with it is truly staggering. Given this, it can be challenging to sift through the available options and find truly great books about finding yourself in your 20s.
To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of our 8 favorite books on the subject below:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Donna Tartt, was 29 when her first novel, The Secret History, was published. It follows a group of wealthy Classics students at a small liberal arts college in New England in the aftermath of the death of one among them. But apart from Tartt’s excruciatingly powerful storytelling, The Secret History, has surprising insight for those of us trying to find ourselves in our 20s. In particular, delves into just how easily privileged youth can be corrupted. A fascinatingly detailed psychological roller coaster that can cause any 20-something to reflect on the beliefs that define her identity and morality.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may not have been in her twenties when she wrote Americanah. But through the eyes of but she provides a captivating perspective on how we define our own identities, through the eyes of a young Nigerian woman at the intersection of national and racial identities. The story follows, Ifemelu, a Nigerian teenager who moves to the United States to study and ends up creating a blog describing her perspective as a non-American black in America. Cultures collide in an immensely poignant return to Nigeria, where Ifemelu is confronted with a society far different from her, culturally, than she remembers. Americanah is a beautiful meditation on the things that make up identity and how dramatically they can change.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Christopher McCandless had just graduated with a double major at Emory University when he donated everything he had to charity and began to live a nomadic life along the Colorado River. He eventually hitchhiked to Alaska where he lived for months in the Alaskan bush with scant supplies. In the fall of 1992, McCandless tragically died of starvation at just 24 years old. Into the Wild is journalist Jon Krakauer’s brilliant portrait of McCandless’ fascinating life story. McCandless’ romanticization by popular media has made him a controversial figure, but no matter how you feel about the choices he made, it’s impossible to ignore this profound picture of a young man on his remarkable journey of self discovery.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
“We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.” This is a quote from The Opposite of Loneliness, an article originally published in the Yale Daily News by 22-year-old Mariana Keegan upon her graduation. Keegan tragically perished in a car accident just five days after her graduation. She was a talented writer who had accepted a job at The New Yorker and who’d even had a play in production. The Opposite of Loneliness is a collection of her essays, stories, and musings. Though young, Keegan’s storytelling shows the immense potential of the renowned author she would have no doubt become had she been given the chance to.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho weaves an enchanting, allegorical tale about a young shepherd who travels from Spain to the pyramids in Egypt in search of a treasure buried there. The Alchemist is a modern-day fable about the relentless embrace of one’s dreams, no matter how impossible they may appear. It is a fantastic reminder about just how transformative it can be to follow one’s heart and to believe, with conviction, in one’s self. Coelho provides something for everyone in this dazzlingly simple story about the journey to find one’s self.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Despite being so core to our humanity, creativity is becoming a distressingly difficult skill to practice modern society. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the outstanding self discovery book, Eat, Pray, Love, provides an inspiring yet practical glimpse into her own creative process. In sharing the details of her process, Big Magic creates the spark that Gilbert hopes will ignite your inner creativity so that you can apply it to any aspect of your life. Partly a memoir of Gilbert’s life, Big Magic spends a great deal of time on Gilbert’s 20s when she was still in the very early stages of finding herself. Whether you’re an aspiring artist or an aspiring executive, everyone has something to learn from Big Magic.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham, widely known as the creator and star of the HBO Original Series Girls, shares what she has learned in her 20s using her unique brand of candid and often brutally frank storytelling in Not That Kind of Girl. In it, Dunham provides an intimate portrait into her formidable years, including a very controversial—not out of character for Dunham—sexual encounter involving Dunham and her younger sister while they were children. If scenes like this sound like too much for you, skip it. But if like many of us you relate to Dunham’s on-air persona in Girls, this memoir and writing collection is a riveting perspective on what it means for a woman to find herself in modern times.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Published over a half-century ago, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road remains a timeless masterpiece of storytelling. It was often said that On The Road“defined” the beat generation, and in many ways it did. Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical tome chronicles his journey across the United States in the 1950s with his friend, Neal Cassady. Like a modern day Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Kerouac and Cassady’s epic road trip took the two on a path of self discovery deeper than they ever could have imagined. It’s no stretch to say that On The Road influenced generations of people trying to find themselves in their 20s. If you’ve never read it before, take the time and treat yourself to some of the most influential writing of the twentieth century.
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