A little over a month ago my little sister officially turned 30. I was surprised to see that she seemed to long to be back in her early 20s. Personally, I hated my 20s; early, middle and late. I had expected panic about turning 30, but honestly, I couldn’t have been happier to get beyond the most difficult decade of my short life. My 20s saw me fail at school, at money, at planning, at making connections with people, at almost everything I did sometimes. Granted, I would probably do it all the same if I had the chance. It doesn’t change that 99.9% of the problems that came up in my 20s were my own fault. I am sure other people played a role in my failures, but it was overwhelmingly me.
To be fair, a lot of great things happened in my 20s. I found a career I was passionate about, I made friends I still am close to, I moved to Boston, I got a graduate degree, I graduated with honors from my BA program, I got a job, and I learned what made me happy. The lessons I learned from the mistakes I made in my 20s have ensured that I have been as successful as I have been in my 30s. I had no idea about that when I turned 30 though. I only realize it now that I begin to near my 40s. When I turned 30, I just didn’t want to be in my 20s anymore. I was more than ready to move beyond that decade of my life.
As critical as my parents were to helping me get through my 20s (and believe me, they were critical), most of the work had to be done by me. They could bail me out over and over, but until I learned why I was making these mistakes, I would be doomed to repeat them. When I accepted my first absolute failure at the age of 21 (yep, I started failing quite early in my 20s) my parents brought me home and made me focus. I was depressed, in debt, had not completed a degree, and had few local friends. I was lucky to get a job because of my father and his amazing friends (mostly Howie and Linda). All I had was work and books. See, the things is, books are at the center of my world. I can look at a book and tell you when I first read it, where I was in life, how it changed me, and why it is important. I use books to trigger memories (good and bad) more than I use anything else (even food). I can pull out my copy of Pride & Prejudice and remember the first time I read in at 15, well before my friends and classmates. I can tell you directly how it impacted what I expected from the boys around me and the men in my future. I can tell you exactly what it says about me. More to the point, there are 10 specific books that I read in my 20s that helped me deal with what was going on around me, understand myself, and move past it. Without these books I would probably still be living in my childhood bedroom with my parents.
Here is a list of the books that got me through my 20s, what was happening, and why they helped.
1) A Confederacy of Dunces
I can admit it, I read this book to impress a guy. Still, at 20 when I first read it, I had a connection to Ignatius. I felt that I could easily slip into Ignatius’ skin and be him. I was at Florida State and at the very beginning of a depression that would take me back to Miami. My own obsession with New Orleans (and desire to be there) and the absurdity of what happened in the book kept me going back to it. In fact, I think that over 3 years I read it about 6 times from cover to cover and many passages inbetween. I would always bring it with me when I traveled. When I found myself unable to connect with other people, I relied on Ignatius to make me feel like it was OK. When Ignatius blamed fortune, I remembered that I was doing this to myself and I could get myself back to where I wanted to be. This was the story of everything I didn’t want to become.
2) The Red Tent
I think the main reason I fell apart at Florida State was because I let others convince me what I wanted was not a good idea. I wanted, above all, to major in religion. I had no idea what to do with it in the future, but I found myself energized by learning about people’s faith and how religion made people act. Practicality pushed me away from this and I learned the first lesson about myself: I will be miserable and will shut down if I am not doing what I love. The Red Tent, which my mother got autographed for me, reconnected me to my own religious background and to my own feminist ideas. In the end, as much as I loved this story, I was frustrated with the fact that this was fiction and not the way biblical Judaism actually talks about the women in the stories. As wonderful as this story of sisterhood was, I couldn’t reconcile what I knew about my beliefs with what I was reading in the story. It was probably my first step to accepting that organized religion was not for me and eventually my accepting that I truly was an atheist.
3) Tao of Pooh & Te of Piglet
Yes, these are two books, but I think they are really two parts of a whole. My second summer in Miami found me still floundering. Financially, I was getting back in shape, but I had no idea what to do beyond that. I was just taking classes at the local community college to do something. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a librarian, but I was struggling to put all the pieces together. My parents helped me get a summer job at a leadership camp. The camp needed some administrative help and to run a bookstore. I wrote about that experience a bit when I went to Chicago. Anyway, these two books were part of the collection the teens could buy from. At this point I was not considering eastern religions in anyway, but I did know that Judaism wasn’t really going to be more than a cultual world for me. I knew I had problems with the way Judaism approaches life and faith. It had been no help because, from my point of view, I had to learn how to get myself out of my problems because I had gotten myself into them. I could not turn to a higher being because I was quite positive there wasn’t one there. These two books taught me how Taoism saw the world and people’s place in it. As I read and re-read them that summer, I understood what I was doing wrong and why I was not finding a path. I understood I was fighting against everything instead of flowing with the world and making a place for myself in it. The copies I bought that summer are the copies I still have and go back to when I need to re-focus.
4) Fight Club
I came home from that summer in Wisconsin with a better sense of what I was doing wrong, but I wasn’t there yet. It would take Fight Club to make it happen. I had seen the movie, enjoyed it and found the beginning of something in the movie’s message. I knew the book would be better to help me. The heart of what helped me was this underlying message that we have lost our own identities to fit into a specific mold. The men in the novel were dissatisfied with the world around them and took extreem action to carve out something for themselves. For me, I realized that I was trying to live up to the expectations I believed others had for me. It taught me to stop trying to be what I thought the world wanted me to be. In the end I knew I couldn’t live in other’s expectations. I had to do what I wanted in the way I wanted so I could be happy with who I was. I wanted to study religion, I wanted to be a librarian, I wanted to live in Massachusetts. After reading Fight Club I knew what I wanted and had the ability to make a plan to get what I wanted.
While Tolkein was part of my childhood, Dune was much too mature for me. Even in my early 20s I could never had mad sense of what was going on. Even in my 30s there are parts of it I struggle with. Herbert had some really big ideas. I decided to finally tackle Dune in my mid-20s when the Sci Fi channel did the mini-series. I was actually getting ready to graduate when I picked up Dune. I was house sitting for some family friends who were spending 6 months in France. I lived in the house, took care of their cats and was living on my own again after about 2 years at my parents. It was the perfect place for me to have my own space again. I had a senior thesis to write so I could graduate with honors (a big deal when you fail out of one school) so I needed to be able to spread out and work in peace. I read Dune when I couldn’t take transexuals in India anymore. I was reading Dune when 9/11 happened. To be able to see politics and society through the lens of science fiction helped me make peace with what was going on in the world around me.
6) A Handmaid’s Tale
I may not be a radical feminist, but I certainly have a strong identity as a feminist. Part of it comes from reading this Margaret Atwood novel. Once I got my AA degree, I quickly enrolled at FIU and started one of the best religion programs I have ever found. FSU’s program focused on Judaism, while FIU had eastern religions as well as classes on religious anthropology. I had the opportunity to explore the role of women in religion and develop my own understanding of women in the world. A Handmaid’s Tale remains fiction, but it remains my fear of what can happen if the religious right takes over. Even now, when reproductive rights are being fought over, I find myself going back to this book to strengthen my resolve and remind me of what is important. I didn’t read this book until I was in graduate school though. Some of my FIU professors suggested it, but I didn’t get a copy until I was living in Brookline.
7) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Of all these books, this is the one I don’t actually have a copy of anymore. It was probably because it wasn’t a book that I have a positive association with. It is not a book that helped me deal with the world around me or with where I was in life. It is a book that reminds me of something negative. I was living in Boston when I read it and working at Simmons. A few people wanted to start a book club and I made the mistake of thinking I was invited because they talked about it with me. I had already read the book by the time I realized I had simply been around when they planned the club, I was not invited. I had been desperate to make friends and finding it difficult. Add to it a book that is about overwhelming loss and finding a place in the world… well, it didn’t have the greatest effect on me. It is an amazing book and speaks to the state of my generation. Still, because of when I read it, I will never keep a copy for myself.
I read Wicked well after it came out. In fact, I read it after I heard the musical was coming out. I had read other Maguire books and I loved them. The OZ series was the problem. It is one of my most favorite stories ever. My childhood is peppered with Oz books, movies, and more. I was afraid of Wicked. I had been told it turned Oz on its head. I had heard it was a lot like Dune in what it said about society, politics and culture. When Maguire came to Brookline to promote Mirror, Mirror I found myself ready to finally read Wicked. I was about to graduate with my MLS and was very unsure about what was going to happen after that. I knew money would be very tight, but I could live. I knew job hunting would take up a lot of my time, but without school to work on, I needed to fill my time. I had a huge pile of books I had been collecting just for this time. Wicked went right to the top and I am so glad I finally accepted its awesomeness. My friend Becca and I bonded over Wicked as the musical had just been announced and she was a musical enthusiast. A few years later we would try to get into the lottery for tickets to the show (we failed). I had Maguire autograph my copy instead of the sequel when I saw him at Book Expo one year. Wicked reminded me that things are not often what they seem, the people are not black and white beings who live in a vacuum, and that I should always give people the benefit of the doubt because I don’t know their story.
9) In Her Shoes
I don’t typically care for Chick Lit. I can read it and read it quickly, but very little of it resonates with me. That is not true for In Her Shoes. This book deeply resonated with me a overweight older sister with a much thinner younger sister. I understood where Rose was coming from and the things she was struggling with. She gave me hope that, even though I knew I didn’t want the same things as she did, I could have what I did want. Not only could I have them, but I could take them without apology. I read this at a time when I was hunting for my first professional job. I had six months to do this after I graduated and then I had no idea what I would do. I use those six months to read, loose weight, and learn more about myself. I had just enough money to squeak by. This was the time I started my first goals notebook listing life long and big picture goals along with smaller goals to accomplish over the next 5 years broken down by year. It was all a bit out of my control though. I happened to get very lucky and had a job offer within 3 month of graduation.
I will admit that I didn’t read Persuasion until I was in my late 20s. Actually, I didn’t read most of Austen’s novels until my late 20s and early 30s. Pride & Prejudice had always been my own personal little bubble of romance. I am often accused of being too cynical, but I am convinced that a cynic is just a romantic who understands how difficult the world can be. Still, I have an obsession with the idea of second chances. It’s not so much the chance to do the same thing over again, but more that I will find myself forgiven or allowed to learn from my mistakes in future situations. Persuasion is the Austen novel that speaks most to that. Anne and Capt. Wentworth’s romance is primarily about the idea that we make mistakes based on so many factors, but sometimes life gives you the chance to correct those errors. This is exactly what I needed in my late 20s. I was living alone in Fitchburg with no money trying to pay my dues in a career I had worked so hard to find. I had so little money that I took a second job at a gas station on weekends just to pay heating bills. This time I knew to ask for help before things got really bad. This novel reminded me that this was my second chance to make better decisions. It reminded me to ask for help before things got out of hand, understand what I needed to do to continue to learn more about myself, and to take any chance that came my way.
There are others that meant a lot to me during my 20s. I read the entire Dune series as well as all the Harry Potters that came out while I was in my 20s (most of them). There are others that changed my life during my 30s, but given that I still have 3.5 years until I turn 40, who knows what I might read in the future that will keep me changing. I would love to hear what books others have read that have changed their lives.
Tags: 20s, books, dune, fight club, persuasion, wicked