30 Books I'm Grateful to Have Read by 30


When I made my 30 by 30 list a few years ago, I gave myself a bonus task of reading the 30 books Huffington Post recommended reading before your 30th birthday.

The short version: I failed miserably at this task.

The long version: By my count, I've read 7 of HuffPo's recommended 30 books. And of those seven, I read every single one of them because I wanted to anyway, not because it was on this list. I've come to realize that proscribed lists of books to read are just never going to work for me. There are books on this list I have absolutely no interest in, and books on this list I'm excited about, and books on this list that peak my interest but, if I'm realistic, I'll never actually read. So rather than calling this one a failure, I'm calling it a success: success in helping me realize that strict reading lists aren't my jam.

That said, I'm a sucker for a good list, and I love a milestone as much as anyone else. And so even though my 30th birthday was two months ago now, I'm sharing the 30 books I'm grateful to have read by my 30th birthday--even if they don't appear on anyone's master list:

1. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson: Everyone should understand the systemic racism imbedded in the United States' death penalty laws, and Stevenson's writing brings this to light in ways that are compelling and impactful.

2. Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin: When I first read this book in 2015, I pushed it into the hands of as many people as possible. Crispin follows in the footsteps of women who burned tradition to the ground in search of a meaningful life; what twenty-something can't appreciate that kind of angsty searching?

3. A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: So begins a string of Mary Oliver books I'm grateful to have discovered. A Poetry Handbook is first on the list because it taught me, more than any English class I've ever taken, how to actually read a poem. I'm not saying I'm perfect, but I'm certainly better at it than I ever was before.

4. Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Volume I: I suppose I could put any single volume of Oliver's poetry on this list, but in the interest of surveying a variety of her work, this collection hits the mark. Seriously, if you haven't read Oliver, what are you waiting for?

5. Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver: There was a time when I thought I couldn't read poetry (see numbers 3 & 4), so I started my foray into Oliver's writing with Upstream, a collection of her essays. If you want contemplative, thought-provoking, lyrical writing, it's here.

6. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose: Much like A Poetry Handbook taught me to read poetry, Reading Like a Writer (re-)taught me to read literature. It was the backbone of the Readers Workshop book club envisioned by my dear friend Stephanie last year, and it so reworked how I read books that we're reading it again together this year.

7. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: I first read Atwood's masterpiece in college, picked up on a whim from the bookshelf of the woman whose children I babysat. (Sorry, Robin, I think I still have your copy, because I was so engrossed by the time you got home that night that you let me take it home to finish it.) This book not only taught me the power of dystopian literature, but opened my eyes to the importance of feminism and women's rights.

8. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West: West's essays explore feminism, womanhood, marriage, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, abortion rights, marriage, comedy, and so much more. But most importantly, West is unapologetically herself in all of her writing here, and that was an important thing to see someone else be at the time I read this one.

9. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward: This book made me fall in love with Ward. It also opened my eyes to a kind of rural poverty I knew, on some level, existed, but had never truly engaged with on an intellectual level.

10. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: I re-read this book every single year, and every single year I find a new turn of phrase to delight in. Dickens is a master with language and wit. This book also helped re-shape Christmas into the holiday as we know it today, and as someone with no small amount of Christmas cheer, it holds a special place in my sometimes Scrooge-like heart.

11. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The first book my now-husband ever leant me was Marquez' Love in the Time of Cholera, so it was tempting to list that book here. But truth be told, One Hundred Years of Solitude beats it out as favorite Marquez novel, for it was this epic family story that really made me fall in love with magical realism as a genre--and take to heart the importance of a good translator.

12. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn: Dunn's novel is a simple epistolary novel on its surface, but as town laws change rapidly to ban the use of certain letters of the alphabet amongst the letter-writers, it becomes an exploration of totalitarianism and power (and the power of language) that I wouldn't have expected in such a seemingly fluffy book. Incredibly timely these days, what with turning 30 in the year of our 45th president.

13. Evicted: Power and Profit in an American City by Matthew Desmond: Desmond spent several months embedded in low-income housing units in Detroit to research this book, and it shows. What could have been a clinical study of broken housing systems is a moving survey of the very human toll of housing insecurity. Like Salvage the Bones, this book opened my eyes to a world I knew, tangentially, existed, but never quite understood before this book.

14. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J Kenzi Lopez-Alt: I absolutely adore cookbooks: they hold such promise and such intrigue, if done well. The Food Lab, though, is more than cookbook. It's a how-to-cook-book, offering techniques and approaches and recipe concepts that form a foundation of kitchen knowledge, upon which a host of dishes can be built and customized. I always thought I wasn't a good cook; this book made me think otherwise.

15. Small Victories: Recipes, Advice, and Hundreds of Ideas by Julia Turshen: Like The Food Lab, this book is less about individual dishes than it is about recipe concepts that can be adapted, adjusted, and otherwise manipulated based on preference and/or ingredients to hand. Turshen's book inspired me to try my hand at entirely new dishes as much as it helped me improve the ideas borne from reading The Food Lab. Plus, she introduced me to roasted radishes, and my life just hasn't been the same sense.

16. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: My intro to Robinson's work, Gilead is a quiet, moving novel about three generations of a midwestern American family. This book made me think differently about religion and faith in ways that were entirely unexpected.

17. George by Alex Gino: I've read several books by and about trans individuals, but George was special. In focusing the story on a kid, Gino gave me insights into struggles my imagination failed to grasp previously.

18. Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman: Look, I know this is not highbrow literature. But this book--like The Girls by Emma Cline, and Marlena by Julie Buntin--spoke the universal experience of intense teenage friendships. Like so many others, I believed my friendship with my high school best friend was like no other friendship in the world. Lo! I was wrong.

19. Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, PhD: Everything they never taught you in sex ed, including the ever-important role of the brain in sexual health and wellbeing. This should be required reading for women and anyone who sleeps with women. (As Nagoski owns in the introduction, however, the material does not cover much about asexuality or trans experiences.)

20. Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor: My mother gifted me this book--and a pomegranate ornament--around my 21st birthday, when I was newly engaged (yes, I married young) and she and I were navigating an evolving relationship as mother-daughter when both mother and daughter are adults.

21. A Mercy by Toni Morrison: I first read Toni Morrison in high school, and admittedly, I did not like Beloved. Reading A Mercy recently made me realize that yes, I actually do like Morrison's writing--and I can't wait to explore more of her talent in my next decade of reading.

22. Wedding Toasts I'll Never Give by Ada Calhoun: Calhoun's not-so-typical relationship advice is refreshing and heartfelt, and spoke honestly to the ups and downs of marriage. As someone who married young (see #20), my marriage has been a formative part of my 20s, and I expect will continue to be so throughout my thirties. I'm grateful for any book that makes me think about marriage differently, better, stronger, or in new ways.

23. Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown: I could have put any of Brown's books up here, but this one, which I also happened to read most recently, is one of my favorites. Brown's writing about vulnerability, and showing up, and being one's own person should resonate with people at any age--but I'm certainly glad to have come to her teachings sooner than later in life.

24. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I've read this book twice now--once in print and once on audio (narrated by the author)--and I expect I still haven't absorbed everything in it. Probably I never will. As a white woman, Coates' experiences are markedly different from my own--but in order to break down systemic racism, we as white people need to make an effort to understand others' experiences of racism. I'm not saying one book can do that on its own, but I am saying Coates' writing has much to offer any and everyone interesting in listening to what he has to say.

25. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina HenrĂ­quez: Like so many of the books on this list, The Book of Unknown Americans gave me insight into the experiences of Americans entirely unlike my own. In the debates around immigration policy, works like HenrĂ­quez' keep the topic grounded in humanity, rather than in abstract concepts and numbers and data points.

26. A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah Maclean: I'm all for books that teach me new things, and that includes teaching me to love a new-to-me genre I'd previously written off as not for me. If you want smart, female-friendly romance, Sarah Maclean's an excellent entry point into the genre. No damsels in distress here; these are women who own their lives, albeit living in a time and place that does not encourage as much.

27. Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie: Adichie's book would be on this list purely for its beautiful language. But it also taught me about the very American concept of race and race relations, and what it means to be American--both to those born here and to those who journey here for their own reasons.

28. Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness: by Jessica Valenti: This book is not entirely what it sounds like. It's not, for example, an argument against having children. Or an argument for it. Rather, it's a detailed analysis of the systems that surround pregnancy and motherhood and childrearing in 21st century America, and it's a book that encourages women to probe within themselves when making this all-important decision for their own families.

29. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado: Tirado's book grew from an angry internet comment in response to an asinine question about how poor people choose to spend their money and time: why they, say, smoke cigarettes, have sex, or engage in other activities deemed irresponsible by those with higher incomes. The book, like her comment, is angry, as it well should be. Tirado rails against those who judge the poor for making "bad" decisions without understanding, on any level, the circumstances in which other people live--and without making any effort to.

30. Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone by J.K. Rowling: I couldn't wrap up this list without including Harry Potter, could I? I was gifted the first book when I was 10, and I grew up with Harry Potter. While the series is by no means perfect, its lessons were absolutely formative in my coming of age. Harry and his friends taught me about the power of friendship; that not all adults are infallible, or even truly good; that it's ok to stand up for what you believe in, even when no one believes you; that books have the power to bring people together in eternally new and surprising ways.

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It took me a few days to piece this list together, as I lingered here and there over a decision to add this or not include that. And I'm not saying I think everyone should read these books before they turn 30 (though please feel free to, should you so desire). I'm just grateful that they came into my life in the years that they did--most in my twenties, but some as a teenager or even as a younger child. Each book, in its own way, changed how I interact with the world I encounter each day.

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Looking ahead, I hope to broaden my American-centric reading to be a bit more global in the decade to come (send me your non-American/British recommendations, please, and any works in translation I should be sure to get to!). And if you have books you think a person should read before 40, be sure to drop them in the comments, or ping me on Twitter or Instagram (@kerryamchugh), or on Litsy (@kerry). Because you know I'll be compiling another list (or twenty) of books to read... someday.

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