On the occasion of my 30th birthday, here are my 10 favorite books that I have read in my 20s:
I couldn’t pare it down any more without losing too many good books that I wanted to mention. They’re not in an order, but are arranged by type. Not all of these books are new, but I read them all within the last five years (along with dozens of other books). These descriptions do not often involve explaining the plot, which you can easily obtain by clicking the link. Instead, these reasons of mine are all about what drew me in and captivated me about the books. They are the spectacular and the sublime, the agony and the joy, the small moments that turn your mind inside out, the rushing forth of understanding at a twist, the times that I got goosebumps.
A note about my 20s – from 22 to 25, I was in law school, which means I read very few things that didn’t have a legal caption on them. As such, all of these books are from the last five years. From 20-25, I read (and highly recommend) The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, The Princess Bride, and every original story about the legend of King Arthur, with very little else of note.
Historical Fiction – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Why? – The premise is interesting. The main character, Ursula, dies again and again, only to restart her life sometime before whatever last fatal decision or occurrence caused her to die. I kept reading to find out if she remembered anything from her past lives, and how she would integrate that knowledge in her current one. It took me out of myself long enough to start to evaluate the question – of what purpose is life? Similar to Groundhog Day, except not at all, because it is never as clear what Ursula should be doing with her life as it is for Bill Murray. Should she look for love? Have a child? Try to stop WWII? Dedicate herself to work? The writing is also fantastic in the book. The author does an unbelievable job starting with nothing but a shell of a character, and as she lives each life, building on who she is, to become a complete person. In this way it doesn’t feel like Ursula gets to start over each time, but instead like she is living a series of completed lives until she can find her true path.
YA Dystopian Science Fiction – Divergent Series by Veronica Roth https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13335037-divergent
Why? – Well, dystopian Chicago is awesome. And unlike some other YA books (looking at you Harry Potter and Hunger Games), the action starts immediately. There’s no waiting around until the end for people to die. Allegiant, the final book in the series was my favorite. To quote, “…in an attack, surviving is an accident. It doesn’t take skill to stand in a place where no bullets find you, or to fire into the dark and hit a man you didn’t see. It is all luck.” Allegiant has one of the best, most adult relationships I have ever read. The emotional complexity and understanding between the characters is as intense and real as anything I’ve read since Dick and Nicole Driver from Tender Is the Night. Also, once you read Divergent, you’ll want to read the other two, so they all go together.
“Urban Fantasy” (It’s in quotes because it’s a stupid genre name.) – Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5776788-sandman-slim
Why? – I’ve always enjoyed books that took the biblical stories and used them as a jumping off point (similar to what the Iliad does with Greek gods). This series starts with that as a premise, takes it by the balls and lights it on fire. It’s told from the point of view of someone always late to information which makes for a fun read. Plus he’s nearly indestructible and hangs out with a really cool cast of supporting characters who are his friends, but often don’t like him. Stark, the main character, walks out of a cemetery, alive, after having spent 11 years in hell. He tries not to kill people unless they really piss him off, but after killing so many demons, sometimes it’s hard to remember to check his violent tendencies. So take all that, and then add in that it’s funny, and you have a winner.
YA Fantasy – Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8490112-daughter-of-smoke-bone
Why? – I always had the feeling that something else was going on in this book that the main characters were missing. They live in Prague, and the story does a nice job detailing the city. Also, Karou, the main character, collects teeth for a monster behind a magic door. It’s weird and none of the characters have any moral high ground, kind of like in real life.
Detective Noir Science Fiction – Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40445.Altered_Carbon
Why? – The main character, Takeshi Kovacs (rhymes with catch), is a former member of the Envoy Corps, a fighter trained to perfect discipline in mind. Which is good, because he wakes up in a new body and is hired to figure out why a super-rich guy would choose to kill himself in an age where it is possible to live forever. It’s a dark story, everyone lies, and Kovacs gets beat up a lot, but it’s also a brilliant future with body switching, new moral implications, and humanity spread out across multiple worlds. Some of the sub-plots were really fascinating such as really old people choosing to basically hibernate until important family events and Catholics refusing to re-sleeve (be put in a new body) because they believe that the soul does not transfer. That was an interesting take on the sanctity of life argument.
Classic Fiction – Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4981.Slaughterhouse_Five
Why? – So it goes. I listened to this as an audiobook, read by Ethan Hawke. I don’t care if you like him or his movies, his quiet cadence throughout felt like he was bleeding out this book instead of simply reading it. It was an intense experience and one of the greatest books I have ever heard. I want to say a million things about this book, but here is my best one line. This book does not let you breathe.
Science Fiction – The Unincorporated Man by Dani + Eytan Kollin https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4025200-the-unincorporated-man
Why? – This book has so many creative themes and questions that I love it and I am willing to overlook the simple writing, mind numbingly bad sequels, and one-dimensional characters. But it asks profound questions such as the following. If AI ever develops the ability to think, will it bother to tell us? Could we get to a point in the future where technology gets so fast and good that we don’t even notice that it is sentient? What if everyone was incorporated from birth like a company? The premise to the book is that each person born is given a set of shares in themselves. The government takes 5% of your shares at birth and 20% are given to your parents. You keep the remaining 75%. You sell it to pay for school, and then whoever has a majority can pick what job you take. Your goal is to buy back a majority of your shares so you can choose your destiny. Is it perfect? Definitely not. But is it preferable to taxes, student loan debt, and a crappy economy? Maybe. The main character is cryogenically frozen in our time because he has terminal cancer, and he wakes up hundreds of years in the future where nanobots can find the cancer and kill it. The utopia (or dystopia depending on whether you think incorporating people amounts to slavery) comes to a head because the man that wakes up was born in a time where he was not incorporated and he eventually sues for the right to remain so. I also loved that all the incorporated characters take it as a given that he will incorporate as soon as it is convenient and they are all stunned when he balks.
Dystopian Science Fiction – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9969571-ready-player-one
Why? – This is like a video game super hero fantasy book (being good at video games being the super power of the hero). I really liked the description of the hero’s home as well as the basic fairness rules put in place for the game. My favorite part of the book though was that I listened to it as an audiobook and it was read by Wil Wheaton. He was so enthusiastic about everything you could tell he was really enjoying himself performing it. This book is ideal for anyone who enjoyed playing games at arcades back in the day and always had a stack of quarters ready to go hidden somewhere in their bedroom. In my head, this book takes place in the world of The Unincorporated Man between when the protagonist is frozen and when he wakes up, which added a lot of elements to the story for me.
Historical Science Fiction – Anathem by Neal Stephenson https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/816.Cryptonomicon
Why? – It’s called historical sci-fi, but it’s more like alternate reality sci-fi. It involves math convents, which really sells it right there to me. The world persecutes pure mathematical thought, so leading mathematicians retreat into convents as a way of escaping the world. The idea of a peaceful convent life merged with pure pursuit of math and logic is quite appealing, especially since they are able to be self-sufficient and avoid religion and wars. I found the brief philosophical struggle between the protagonist and his engineer sister (maybe cousin, I don’t remember exactly) who opted to stay in the world as an engineer because the world needed her to be quite interesting. It reminded me of the struggle between Dagny Taggert and John Galt. My favorite idea to come out of this book was the punishment the math monks had to endure. They had two choices, leave the convent or do a certain number of chapters in the Book. The Book is full of logic puzzles in reverse. It is illogic puzzles. Basically an early chapter would require you to memorize a mathematical system where 1+1=3 and other things don’t make sense. Then the elders would quiz you once you thought you were ready. It was torture to the monks because they had to fill their brains with wasteful knowledge, and it was a true deterrent for them. There’s a fantastic plot too, but you can read about that anywhere.
Classic Science Fiction – Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29579.Foundation
Why? – And lastly it comes down to this. This is a seven book series, but two are prequels. I read them in the order they were written, which I recommend. That means the order is: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation. Setting the prequels aside, as they are more biographical and move much slower through time than the other five, each of these books has a great twist ending. It is also really fun to read these and to put yourself in each character’s position, trying to figure out how much they know, which groups they are tied to, and what their motivations are. After one chapter of the very first Foundation book, I knew I was going to want to read all seven. My experience reading this series was like a movie buff seeing Star Wars for the first time or a musician hearing Beethoven’s 9th for the first time, or a foodie’s first taste of perfectly cooked steak. Same as those experiences, I knew all the science fiction I had read owed some small part to this series, and that Asimov had laid a wonderful groundwork (ha, I almost used the word foundation, but that would be too obvious) for all that was to come. It wasn’t the first sci-fi series or the best I’ve read, but it is monumental. My best analogy is still Star Wars. Imagine if you never saw that movie, but remembered all the cultural references to it. Then when you finally watched it, you would simultaneously experience all those subtle nods to the original from TV, movies, books, and even everyday conversations. Like a flood of consciousness, your brain would be making connections faster than you could even comprehend them. This is what it was like for me to read Foundation.
Honorable mentions –
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (science fiction)
Why? – Spectacular dual story about WWII and a present day treasure hunt. If you’ve ever wanted to learn about Alan Turing and WWII code breaking without jumping into a biography, read this book.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (war science fiction)
Why? – Traveling close to the speed of light causes time to go slower for you than it does for objects not moving close to the speed of light, relatively speaking. Therefore, if you travel on a ship to a faraway planet to fight in a war and you go close to the speed of light to get there and back, the Earth you return to will not contain a single person who was alive when you left. That will tend to mess you up.
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman (non-fiction)
Why? – There are so many implications in this book of how little we have control over our own brains, it was fascinating.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (science fiction set in Bangkok)
Why? – I started this book before I went to Thailand, and finished it on the way home from Thailand. Not coincidentally, I thought the first half of the book was eh, and the second half spectacular.
City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist (non-fiction)
Why? – Because Chicago has always been a city of scoundrels, and I often wonder if there will ever be a time when it is not. This book is a statement of why non-fiction history about Chicago doesn’t need to be trumped up with fiction about a serial killer a la The Devil in the White City (which I did also enjoy).