5 Books Every 20-Something Should Read

I saw a post on LinkedIn the other day with the headline 5 Books Every 20-Something Needs to Read. Aside from the fact that I’m not sure there are all that many 20-somethings even on LinkedIn, it’s pretty bold to tell an entire demographic that, of all the books ever published in the history of time, there are only five that they need to read. Not should read. Not might want to read. Not would enjoy reading. But need to read.

Bold statements intrigue me, so I clicked over to learn about these essential books and was immediately smacked in the eyeballs by a sensationalistic party scene photo featuring presumably shallow 20-somethings doing presumably shallow things (trigger alert: tongues).

I didn’t think the recommended books would have titles like How to Party Until Dawn and Still Make It to Work (even though that could be valuable advice for any demographic), but on first glance that certainly was the message.

Then the opening line of the article told me that “the media is dead wrong.” Not a terribly original statement. This has been uttered countless times by countless groups who took offense to some piece of reporting. But it was obvious what the author was going for. So far, this was straight out of Content Strategy 101.

Normally I would have begged off at this point to find something worth my time, but I wanted to learn what these five life-changing books were just enough to keep reading. So for the next three paragraphs, I read about a few awesome 20-somethings doing awesome things and learned that I, too, could be an awesome 20-something. All I needed to do is read five books.

I’m going to skip over the actual list and move to the end of the article, where we learn, in author Alex Banayan’s italicized biographical statement, this piece is a plug for his upcoming book. At the end it included a call to action to sign up for his newsletter. Standard practice, sure, but it felt a little smarmy.

I’ve got nothing against Mr. Banayan. He seems like a smart guy with a bright future. But he’s 21, and while that’s technically 20-something, I’m not convinced he’s qualified to tell other 20-somethings what they need to read in order to realize their full potential, no matter how successful he himself may be. He does make some good points in his article, tough. I agree with his statements about “age vs. stage” and finding the right path for oneself, but there’s still a whole lot of living that goes on between 21 and 29 he has yet to experience.

Also, I take no issue with Banayan’s book choices. I was only familiar with three of his picks and had read only one, but they all seem like fine titles. Yet I do think he’s way off target to tell an entire generation that his five book picks are the books they need to read so they can make their mark in the world; that his five books will shake lazy 20-somethings out of their doldrums and make them realize their potential as agents of social and cultural change.

I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of other books that can help a person choose a path that fits their ideals, find fulfilling work, and even entertain them during the reading process. I’m not saying to not read Banayan’s five books. If they interest you, please do. But don’t stop there. Keep going and find more books to inspire you.

In short, read whatever you want. Just read.

I’m going to get you started with five book choices of my own that the 20-somethings of the world (whether or not they’re on LinkedIn) —or anyone, for that matter — just might benefit from (or at least enjoy) reading.

5 Books Every 20-Something Should Read

It’s Kind of a Funny Story

by Ned Vizzini

Everyone gets depressed, and this is a (kind of funny) novel about depression. Honor student Craig doubles down on his schoolwork to get into the best school around. He makes it, only to find out he’s no longer the smartest guy in the room and his future doesn’t look as bright as it used to. This isn’t something Craig knows how to cope with, so he tries to kill himself. This lands him in a mental hospital where, with the help of his new neighbors, he’s able to learn what’s really important to him and how to be happy. This book is based on author Ned Vizzini’s own experiences with depression (which he sadly succumbed to and took his own life late in 2013). I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Vizzini, but I enjoy his writing very much and definitely feel the world (at least my corner of it) is less interesting without him. I encourage anyone who’s ever been depressed or who has a friend dealing with depression to read this book.

Red Harvest

by Dashiell Hammett

Most people know Hammet because of Sam Spade, the iconic private eye from The Maltese Falcon. But I’m partial to his lesser known fictional hero, a freelance detective in the employ of the Continental Detective Agency known only as the Continental Op. In Red Harvest, the Op is dispatched to the small town of Personville (though it’s often pronounced Poisonville), a town so corrupt it corrupts everyone in it. The Op shows up to find his client murdered, so he decides he’s going to stick around, figure out whodunnit, and single-handedly clean up the notorious town. But even a person with good intentions can easily make bad choices, and from clouded judgement to self-delusional justification, we watch the Op’s morality crumble as he doggedly continues his quest to rid the town of bad guys. Trouble is, in this town, everyone’s a bad guy. It’s a tautly written tale that shows how a person’s environment can influence their actions — and if that environment is Poisonville, nothing good is going to come of that.

A Wild Sheep Chase

by Haruki Murakami

Let me be clear on this. You should really read all of Murakami’s work. But since you have to start somewhere, this postmodern mystery is an excellent place to begin. A man (most of Murakami’s work features unnamed protagonists) with a minor ear obsession who works an uninspiring job as a copywriter gets into trouble when he uses an image of grazing sheep in an advertisement. This simple decision gets him noticed by a Strange Man in black who gives him two months to find a specific sheep from the add — a magical sheep with an odd star-shaped mark on its back. Should our hero succeed in his quest, he gets anything he asks for. But if he fails, his life will be destroyed. Naturally, he takes the job. There are, like any Murakami book, many layers to the story and numerous surprises waiting for the reader on the next page. It was written in Japanese (translated brilliantly by Alfred Birnbaum), and, as such, has a very Japanese approach to the themes of love and loss, tradition versus progress, the destructive nature of blind ambition, and finding enjoyment in life’s small moments. But these are things that many people, of any nationality, can relate to.

Snow Crash

by Neal Stephenson

In the world of Snow Crash, a near future where there are no laws (everything is run by competing private corporations), a man like Hiro Protagonist—hacker, pizza Deliverator, freelance intelligence gatherer, and world’s greatest virtual samurai swordsman — does what he needs to in order to get by. I mean, he lives in a shipping container. So when his friend contracts a computer virus that fries his brain (IRL, yo), Hiro sets out to investigate. Along the way he gets some help from Y.T., a 15-year-old smart-mouthed skateboard courier (you’ll like her), and somehow ends up on a quest to save the world. While this is an ironic, perhaps cynical look at the future, it comes with a lot of cultural commentary about the Internet (called the Metaverse), video games, sword fights, the mafia, burbclaves, and lots of pizza. Snow Crash falls into the same thematic territory as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (commonly cited as the novel that set the stage for today’s Internet), but speaks more to the millennial experience — if only because it was written eight years after Neuromancer. And it has more pizza.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

by Matthew B. Crawford

Society sells us on a certain idea of what success looks like. Go to college. Get a degree. Get a job. Work your way up. Retire. But if the idea of spending the rest of your life shackled to a desk in a cube farm depresses the hell out of you, know this: you don’t have to follow the path society has laid out for you. Author Matthew Crawford, who rejected a successful career at a Washington think tank for a job repairing motorcycles, takes a hard look at his own life and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way. Some of the territory he covers includes thought-provoking ideas about how we’ve become a culture of acquisition that pits “knowledge workers” (now isn’t that a ridiculous phrase) against “hand workers” and values procedure over substance. Crawford’s path may not be for everyone, but he offers up plenty of insights anyone can apply to their own life.

This is what you call a value-added list. I’m giving you six books for the advertised price of five.

Post Office

by Charles Bukowski

“It began as a mistake.” That’s the first line of the book, and it only goes downhill from there. Bukowski’s autobiographical alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, took a temporary and supposedly easy job at the Post Office during the Christmas season. It lasted 12 years (with a brief amount of time off as a professional horse race bettor), during which time Chinaski was perpetually drunk or hungover or both. There is no better “hate my job” story than this. That said, I debated not putting it on this list. The book has its funny, insightful moments about American culture (you can’t sling letters for 12 years and not make a few observations), but Chinaski is not what you’d call a nice guy and commits more than a few repulsive acts. But, when you close the book, if you say, “What an asshole. I sure don’t want to be like that guy,” then it’s worth the read.

Tom Fassbender is a middle-aged gent who lives in Los Angeles. He’s made a good amount of mistakes (some worse than others) and enjoyed his fair share of successes. He still often approaches life like he’s in my mid-20s, and (like most writers) he has a newsletter you may enjoy. Then again, you may not. He is the co-author of By the Balls: The Complete Collection. He’s not self-important enough to include his own book in a list of books you should read, but you should totally read it anyway.

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