28 Books to Read Before Turning 28
By an English major
“It is what you read when you don’t have to
that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
I’ll admit, turning 27 this year hit me like a brick wall.
You may be assuming something about a quarter-life crisis, but this is nothing like that. I actually had mine on my 23rd, 24th, and 25th birthdays… so I think it’s safe to say I’m officially over it (I hope).
I read once that the habits you form in your 20s can last a lifetime. And while anyone can change habits at any age, I’m getting a head start on my future self by changing habits today. For me, taking self-responsibility is doing the most I can to set up my life for the kind of success I want. The success that comes with being healthy and happy and a lifelong learner.
I’ve spent the last few years improving my physical health (losing 60 pounds and transforming my eating habits and relationship with food in the process), mental health (going to therapy and being more open about my good days and bad days), and making time for activities that make me the most happy (writing, cooking, and spending time with my family).
Related: Date a Girl who Reads
The last thing on my “list” for my 20s is to be more intellectually curious and continually push myself to learn as much as I can. And while I learn something new every day in my current role as both a team leader and an SEO, there are just some things you can’t find on the internet.
Learning to Read, and Reading to Learn
From the moment my high school English teacher gifted me Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a graduation gift, I realized that reading was about much more than just escaping or hearing someone else’s perspective—it’s about what you do (or don’t do) with that knowledge afterwards.
I began actively engaging with the texts I was reading; writing notes in the margins, underlining meaningful quotes and passages, and discussing these insights with my friends and family. It became a two-way discussion with the text.
Mostly, this was for the purpose of writing papers and meeting point-minimums for class discussions. But it also helped me feel like I wasn’t just passively consuming information; I was internalizing and contextualizing the things I read and applying the takeaways to my own life.
The reason 27 hit so hard wasn’t just #Because2020, but also because I realized it has been over 4 years since I graduated college… and 4 years since I was a thirsty English major, actively reading literature, poetry, and historical works on a daily basis.
Whether it was better understanding my power as a consumer from Michael Pollan; appreciating my privilege from Zora Neale Hurston; celebrating a different culture with Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, and Gloria Anzaldúa; getting inspired by works of horror and imagination from Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne; or expanding my understanding of my relationship with the world from Daniel Quinn; I always took something away from each work I opened—and the people who led me to open them.
Related: Wisdom From Great Writers
I don’t have to be a full-time student to keep learning and growing from people who are smarter than me. I don’t have to have a structured class discussion the next day to take notes in the margins. And I definitely don’t have to have a grade stamped on anything to force myself to talk to my peers about what I’m reading.
28 Books to Read Before You Turn 28
For context, I’m a lifelong Harry Potter fan, used to reading fantasy and fiction. In college I took classes on Native American Literature, American Women in Literature, short stories, poetry, and history. (My senior capstone project was an adaptation of various historical works into a feature-length screenplay about Gertrude Stein’s life during World War I.)
For my personal reading list this year, I have listed a few forgotten classics (i.e., I’ve never read them… #BadEnglishMajor) included. However, I’ve also set my sights on expanding my horizons to include both personal development and non-fiction for more helpful tools and insights that can set me up for my 30s and beyond.
I trust my friends more than anyone else to give me great recommendations—so I let them pick my first 6 personal development books for this list. I admire each of them for their ingenuity, creativity, intellect, and grit, and if I have any chance of becoming more like them, it will be by reading the books they recommended for me. I have no doubt that I’ll get something unique and personally challenging or insightful from each of these.
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant
# of Pages: 326
Ever since I watched The Elevator Experiment in my high school creative writing class, I knew I was going to be a nonconformist. And since then, through every work I’ve read or every TV show/movie I’ve watched, I’ve related to and been inspired by the most noncomforming of characters. I’m hoping this book will help me continue to question the world and to never do something simply for the sake of doing it.
Related: 31 Steinbeck Quotes to make you think
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, by Mark Manson
# of Pages: 224
I’ve seen this book in just about every bookstore since it was published, but I’ve never thought to pick it up for myself. I’m excited to see what it has in store, and hope it inspires and challenges me to be authentic and original, regardless of what society dictates.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown
# of Pages: 260
Since my days as an Environmental Studies minor, I’ve always been aware of minimalist movements. And for a while, I lived it. Not out of theoretical beliefs, but rather of practicality. In my late teens and early 20s, I was moving at least once a year, sometimes twice. Whether it was for school, work, or ~love~, my constant moving led me to keep my physical belongings slim for ease and convenience. That said, even after I came to a more “settled” place in life, I didn’t even think to hang a painting or picture on my wall, because no place ever felt like it would be around long enough for me to bother. I’m hoping this book recommendation will help me find meaning in the things and places I do have, and help me find more of a balanced approach to building a home.
You Don’t Need to be a Title Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference, by Mark Sanborn
# of Pages: 128
I’ve always felt more purpose in my life in a position of leadership, not because of the title, but because of the satisfaction of taking on more responsibility and successfully leading team efforts on a project. I hope this book will help me clarify my own sense of the line between leadership and ambition to discover what it really is that I’m looking to get out of my 30s in regards to leadership at work, in my family, and in the community.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
# of Pages: 499
I’ll be honest, I have no clue what I’m in for on this one. Discussing two parts of the mind? Two different ways of thinking? Maybe I’ll learn something about how I make decisions, or how I should be making them. Either way, I’m strapped in for almost 500 pages, so let’s hope it’s a good one 🤞
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek
# of Pages: 256
I’ve been following Simon Sinek online for years after his work was continually brought up to me during always-thought-provoking discussions with innovative people. I think it’s about time I dive into his written work. Rather than on a personal level, this work relates much more to the business perspective when it comes to leadership, which I’m equally excited to learn about and internalize in preparation for my 30s.
Happier at Home: Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, by Gretchen Rubin
# of Pages: 320
I had always heard good things about The Happiness Project, this book’s predecessor. Why isn’t that on my list? Well, seeing as I just got engaged (eeeee!!! 💍) and I’m going to be getting married at 28, I thought I should include at least one book that specifically addresses happiness in a relationship. And frankly, all the other recommended marriage books just seemed either old fashioned or too mature for my situation. It sounds like Rubin is the way to go when it comes to millennial marriages.
Non-Fiction & Memoirs
The easiest books for me to get through are memoirs. Quick, conversational, and anecdotal, memoirs are without a doubt the best “rebound” books to keep me going after a rigorous four years of lit classes.
Many of these, however, are more than memoirs. They’re stories, insights, and opinions from well-respected people, some of which I know have the same (or similar) ideologies to mine, and others that I know do not.
Wow, No Thank You., by Samantha Irby
# of Pages: 336
As someone who tries to look ahead whenever possible, Samantha Irby’s new ode to turning 40 is going to be, if nothing else, an entertaining joyride along someone else’s midlife crisis. Of course, it made it onto Time Magazine’s 100 Must-Reads of 2020, so I’m crossing my fingers it’s going to leave me with more than a few funny jokes or stories.
Political Risk: Facing the Threat of Global Insecurity in the Twenty-First Century, by Condoleezza Rice & Amy Zegart
# of Pages: 336
I have high expectations for this one, as it came recommended from a friend who works at a high-profile Manhattan policy think tank. During our many discussions regarding the implications of the quickest of Tweets, or the smallest of leadership changes, Political Risk came up time and time again. It seems like if I want more of an educated insight into how the world works, a book all about “rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics” is a pretty good start.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
# of Pages: 289
Recently, I conducted a series of interviews to hire for several copywriting positions on my team (I’m happy to say they’ve all been happily filled). One of my favorite questions to ask was, “What are you reading right now?” A number of people answered with Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, all with glowing recommendations and positive things to say. If that many smart people have the mind to read it, I just can’t stay away.
Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality, by Sarah McBride
# of Pages: 272
As open as I am about my own sexuality and my allyship, I still have a lot to learn when it comes to gender and gender identity. As a cis woman, I feel like it’s one of my many duties to better understand my fellow women, and this book comes highly regarded from a variety of sources.
“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish
# of Pages: 288
Tiffany Haddish’s is a memoir I will gladly turn to in between the other bangers on the list. If this is anything like Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, I hope it will be a quick, enjoyable, and insightful piece that discusses success, stardom, and personal relationships.
The Holy Wild: A Heathen Bible for the Untamed Woman, by Danielle Dusky
# of Pages: 312
I picked this one up on a whim at our go-to metaphysical store. Turns out, it has pretty good ratings! I think and hope this one will provide a good counter-argument to many of the books on this list. The idea of being a “wild woman” can come in many, many forms, and part of what I hope to get out of this read is to better define what wild means to me.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown
# of Pages: 287
I’ve heard nothing but great things about Dr. Brené Brown. This title particularly struck me as one that I would find beneficial to living an authentic and unapologetic life while taking advantage of all of the opportunities that might come my way before I turn 30.
Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Y. Davis
# of Pages: 84
If I want to learn to question the world around me, why not start with one of America’s oldest systems of conformity? This book came highly recommended from various BLM activists. Published by AK Press, an independent publisher of radical essays and other anarchist works, Angela Davis writes this novella (or very long essay) regarding the evolution of the prison complex out of slavery—and discusses the abolition of both.
Unpacked: Travel Disaster Stories, by Tony Wheeler and Other Lonely Planet Authors
# Pages: 251
I can’t tell you how long this one has been sitting on my shelf. I randomly found it in a thrift store some years ago and haven’t picked it back up since. But I think now is the time, because there is a lot to be learned from reading other travelers’ disaster stories. Not only will it help me learn what not to do in my future travels and travel planning; but it will also appreciate all of the disasters I could have potentially avoided in the past.
Related: 27 Pieces of Advice for your 20s and Beyond
Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
# of Pages: 418
Another work in the world of sociology, Evicted is a well-regarded novel that touches a topic I find both fascinatingly disturbing and sickeningly preventable: American homelessness. Through all my readings of communist literature and essays (I highly recommend The Problem With Work by Kathi Weeks) one thing I’ve never had a firm grasp of is the “why” behind the growing homeless population, from rural areas to larger cities. Perhaps this will help me further understand the issue and lead me to future, more important questions and works to help solve the problem.
Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, by Jonathan Van Ness
# of Pages: 269
I can’t tell you how excited I am to learn about radical self-love and radiating confidence from the great Jonathan Van Ness. Theirs is the only podcast I ever gave a fighting chance—because even just listening to their voice brings me great joy. I have a strong feeling I won’t be disappointed in this one.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
# of Pages: 368
Unlike most other writers I know, I’m more of a spreadsheets kinda gal. I like organized lists, strict visual hierarchies, tables, and equations to help me organize my thoughts and keep track of my progress. So the idea of comparing computer algorithms and equations to human decision making is beyond fascinating. I think it will be hugely insightful for me, even if only to tell me what can and can’t truly be resolved using a predictable and replicable formula.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
# of Pages: 391
I’ve always had this vision in my head that when I turn 30 I’ll magically learn how to garden… and be good at it. Meanwhile, I’m 27 and can barely keep a single cactus alive. Hardly the “farm the land and grow your own sustenance” situation. I have high hopes that this book, which comes highly regarded, will help me reconnect to my love of environmental literature, which, looking back, seemed to have been some of the most impactful work for me during my college years.
For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, by Sasha Sagan
# of Pages: 288
If you told me a single book contained the meaning of life, I’d probably roll my eyes. But with raving reviews, Sasha Sagan might just be the key piece of information I could have been missing out on in my early 20s! The synopsis mentions that this work is “a celebration of life itself, and the power of our families and beliefs to bring us together,” which sounds like a refreshing necessity going into 28.
The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza
# of Pages: 336
Written by one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, this work discusses community, activism, and finding inspiration in dark times—things I think we could all use a little of this year. Not being more involved in my own community up until this point has been one of the bigger let downs of my 20s; and I hope to make up for it by reading Garza’s personal stories and anecdotes, getting inspired and called to action by a woman who has already made waves.
Fiction & Classics
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
# of Pages: 468
As Book #1 of the Broken Earth Series, The Fifth Season is a survivalist fantasy set in a “scorched earth” setting. I’ve always been drawn to post-apocalyptic young adult novels, and I’m hoping this will provide me with the engaging imagination of a fantasy novel, with the maturity and tone of a more “grown up” story. Plus, because it’s only the first in a series, it will be something I can continue into my 28th year if I want 😇
Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu
# of Pages: 273
As an aspiring TV writer, I will always try to read anything I can get my hands on from other (actually acclaimed) TV writers. Charles Yu has written for HBO, FX, AMC, Facebook Watch, and Adult Swim, and has published 4 highly regarded/awarded novels.
This one in particular was listed in Time Magazine’s Top 100 Must-Reads of 2020. It’s a fictional work that explores the life and disappointments of an Asian actor constantly put into generic roles. I’m hoping Yu’s unique industry experience and perspective will help push me to see others past the boxes or roles I might place them into; and to help encourage others to do the same for me.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
# of Pages: 353
While I’ve heard countless positive reviews about Infinite Jest (an earlier work by David Foster Wallace) I currently feel more drawn to this 1997 collection of essays, as recommended by The New York Times as a book to read in your 20s.
Related: Dramatic Love Stories in Classic Literature
The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel
# of Pages: 406
If Time Magazine tells you to read something, you do it, right? The Veins of the Ocean was one of the most colorful selections I could find in their list of books to read before you turn 30. Characters seeking redemption is a weak spot of mine (just ask my D&D group!), and I think having a transnational novel to throw into the mix will definitely help balance my 28 Before 28 reading challenge.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
# of Pages: 228
If you Google “books to read in your 20s,” “books to read before you turn 30,” or just about any other similar keyphrase, you’ll probably find this book on your list. This inescapable quality definitely caught my eye and what helped contribute Hamid’s work to my list.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
# of Pages: 294
Yeah, that thing about being a bad English major I mentioned earlier? Probably 90% of that guilt comes from never having read The Bell Jar. It’s been collecting dust on my shelf since I bought it as a hopeful intellectual my freshman year of college. Well, that was about 8 years ago, and not once did I have a class that even grazed an excerpt. So my hope is that by putting it on my list, I can clear my name and finally move on to some bigger classics. And who knows, maybe I’ll get something out of it at 27 than I wouldn’t have been able to properly absorb at 19.
Honorable Mentions, or, Books I’m Probably Going to Also Read in the Next Year
I’m not going to lie; before I made this list, I bought a bunch of books that had really cool covers and now they’re sitting on my shelf guilting me into reading them. So for good measure, here are a few other books I’ll probably also read before I hit 28, even if for no other reason than enjoyment:
- The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
- The Master & Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
- In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2) by Patrick Rothfuss
How did I compile this list?
Since I gave myself the limit of 28 books, rather than 50 or 100, I had to be selective about what I chose for my upcoming reading challenge.
My general goal for this list was to include a variety of genres, author backgrounds & ethnicities, and overall intention of what I could potentially get out of reading each work. I also tried to give myself enough of a balance of intensity, page length, and topic to get me through the next year. I did NOT include any re-reads, because as much as I love going back through the same books time and time again, I thought for the sake of personal growth that I needed to expand my library a little more.
Related: 10 Books to Read while Stuck at Home
From sorting through top Google results to asking my friends and family, I think I’ve drilled down a “reading challenge” that will not only make me a better and more well-rounded reader; but will also be a fun and exciting journey along the way. I’ve been out of practice for a long time, but I hope and believe that after I read through this list that I will be back to being a well-read friend and colleague.
You can follow along with my progress on Goodreads if you’re curious or would like to see my ratings of each work as I go. Otherwise, check back with me in a year to hear about my favorites! 👌