Ghana Must Go
One of the most remarkable novels to come out in recent years, Taiye Selasi refuses to fall into the trope of the poor-African-struggle novel. Selasi is more interested in a side of Nigeria and Ghana that the Western world is less often shown: the middle class. The family she portrays has lived in Nigeria, Ghana, and most recently the United States, where the children still live, though their parents, long-separated, do not. When the patriarch of the family unexpectedly dies in suburban Accra, the matriarch begs to gather her children around her, and they find one another in unexpected places—both literally, and where they are emotionally as relatively estranged adults.
A Little Life
Yanagihara’s tome is truly nothing short of a masterpiece. A huge book, it’s worth every single moment you spend in its brick-like presence, especially as it seems like an amorphous thing, becoming lighter or heavier depending on where you are in the narrative. Centering around four men, Yanagihara’s expression of their feelings, their difficulties, the way they grow older—together and apart—is a true marvel, especially in a world that so often expects men to be stoic participants or constant perpetrators. From college to later middle-age, follow Malcolm, Willem, J.B., and Jude into the depths of oblivion and the heights of passionate joy.
The Portable Dorothy Parker
With wit, panache, and lots of zeal,
Parker’s verses make you reel;
Her stories will not leave you cold,
Her characters are big and bold,
Her criticism sharp and skillful,
Unlike our rhymes (which are pitiful).
In all seriousness, Parker’s portable version includes much of her work, though not all, and is great to rifle through when you need a short story, a verse or two, or a piece of searing-hot snark as a pick-me-up.
One of Dickens’s shorter books but no less amazing for its relatively brief length. Dickens deals with coming of age, as in many of his books, but with a far darker lens than usual. There’s some humor here, as always, but his main focus is the disappointment that life can churn out. From the hero’s difficult journey in life to the people he meets—notably, Miss Havisham, a famous literary figure with her wedding clothes unchanged since the day she was left at the altar—to his own mistaken conclusions and their dire consequences, Great Expectations is a riveting story. It is also one that leaves you with plenty of heartache and not a little introspection.
J. M. Coetzee
Coetzee is one of the most famed South African writers of our time and for good reason. Disgrace, one of his most famous novels, is a complex and beautiful thing. It portrays a dissatisfied, Byron-obsessed teacher, David Lurie, in Cape Town and can be read both as a political statement about post-Apartheid South Africa and as a rejection of any such statement, as it deals with both complete ruin and attempts at redemption on a personal level. The novel explores Lurie’s sexual exploits, his attempts to distance himself from them, the apparently random violence he finds himself being subjected to, and the way he slowly tries to put the pieces of his life together. A novel of growing up late, and maybe learning to grow up in a different way and in a different world, Disgrace is well worth its Booker Prize.
Jan Morris is one of the first famous trans women in media. She made a name for herself as a travel writer and a historian who focused on the British Empire in a trilogy named Pax Britannica. While Conundrum is a relatively old book, and perhaps some of the language is different than what’s used in the trans community today, it’s nonetheless a powerful narrative of a woman who didn’t come out to great acclaim during a time of better understanding and more acceptance (relatively speaking). Instead, Morris came out at a time when trans individuals were even less understood or accepted. In her memoir from the 1970s, she discusses knowing from early childhood that she was a girl and being forced to divorce her wife in order to be accepted as a woman in Britain (though they divorced in title only, staying together and entering into a civil partnership legally in 2008).
One of the big and scary books you probably were supposed to read in college and maybe didn’t, it’s time to take the courage to read it now—especially as it’s not as scary as you think. In fact, Moby-Dick is a worthy read because it deals with life in a universal way that may surprise you. Yes, there’s a chapter devoted entirely to different kinds of whales, but it’s a) more interesting than you may think and b) actually very funny if you read it with the right lens. Something to remember when reading this book is that it doesn’t take itself as seriously as some of us take it today, and that Ishmael, its narrator and thinly-veiled-mask-of-Melville, is both high-minded and philosophical, and totally aware of how ridiculous that sometimes is. His story is also about running away from the “real world” only to find that the real world of human love and regret and pettiness is everywhere, even deep at sea (a reminder we all need sometimes).
Jorge Luis Borges
Borges, a long-revered Latin American writer, is best remembered for his short fiction. These stories are known for their strangeness, their obsession with reality, and the little things that make it go sideways. Ficciones, Borges’s most famous collection of short stories, has a bunch of recurring motifs, one of which is the idea of a labyrinth, which seems particularly fitting for a time in one’s life when one is feeling either on the brink of finding the center of things or utterly and completely lost. Many of Borges’s main characters carry his own name, giving an odd meta quality to his work, making it self-aware in a way that feels fitting for the kind of stories he tells. Literary greatness lies herein.
Your 30s can be rough, what with student debt you may still be paying off or big life events happening all around you (people getting married, buying houses, switching up their careers). But what’s most important to remember is that this decade is an amazing sweet spot in life—you have the wisdom of being past your 20s, but you’re not yet experiencing being middle-aged. You’re ripe to learn more about yourself and the world around you, which you can do through the literature you consume. So, here are a smattering of books we believe everyone should read by the age of 40.