A gif of a birthday cake with '40' candles atop, with flickering flames.
A gif of a birthday cake with '40' candles atop, with flickering flames.

Life, in your 30s, is starting to take on more responsibility: work, family, ageing parents. Meanwhile, you're starting to think more about the world and your impact on it. These books are the perfect accompaniment.

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2018)

Karl Ove Knausgaard shot to instant fame in 2011 with the publication of his series of autobiographical novels, My Struggle, a visceral scrutiny of a stormy marriage. But those wishing to dive into his work, Spring makes an excellent introduction.

Like My Struggle, this is a real guts-on-the-table novel that throbs with honesty. It's presented in the form of a letter to his baby daughter – a sort of record of his world before her memories begin – recounting a single day when he's home caring for the kids (his wife is in hospital with bipolar disorder). Domesticisty reads like a bare-knuckle psychological thriller.

Knausgaard's talent for finding profundity in everyday life is awe-inspiring. Spanning themes from depression to the the inescapable shadow of our past, Spring offers a crucial lesson in life and the art of ruthless self-reflection.

Expectation by Anna Hope (2019)

"You must keep hold of your friendships," Lissa's mother tells the struggling actress at one point in this book. "The women. They’re the only thing that will save you in the end." That, ultimately, is what Expectation is about: a warts-and-all ode to the long-term power of female friendship.

It follows three 30-something friends, each struggling to meet their own expectations – a new mother imprisoned by maternal duty; an actress failing to achieve the career she believes she deserves; and a successful charity director who struggles to conceive.

In their 20s, the world (or at least London) was theirs for the taking – they were young, ambitious and head-turningly cool. But as life draws on, the women face adultery, rivalries, and pinching guilt over the failures of their past. 

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995)

There are few books that capture the essence of pre-fatherhood man better than Hornby's laugh-out-loud classic, High Fidelity

It tells the story of ennui-crippled record shop owner Rob Fleming, and his mess of a love life, past and present. Hit by a creeping sense of what might have been, he spends the novel remembering his top five breakups, reigniting old flames and confronting a few of life's bigger questions in the process.

It is a story that should speak to anyone who's ever felt stuck in the mud of their past, or hankered after those halcyon moments when time somehow seemed to go slower. Throughout, it ripples with nostalgia – for music, idealism and lost love. "I'm very good at the past," says Rob. "It's the present I can't understand."

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016)

This beautiful tale about friendship through time follows two girls of mixed heritage – both raised in the council estates of north London – brought together by a shared love of dance and a desire to belong. They both want to go pro, but only one, Tracey, has the talent, and embarks on a dazzling career as a globetrotting backup dancer.

The other, the unnamed narrator, takes a different path. She goes to college before getting a job at a music video TV station and finally lucks into a gig as PA to a global pop star.

Fox-trotting back and forth through time and place, from that first dance class at which they met to a career-ending scandal a quarter century later, Swing Time is a wonderfully energetic tale that dances with humanity and life – a story about friendship and music, class and race and a woman's search for meaning in a volatile world.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (2006)

Nora Ephron's writing is so wise and insightful that it really can sneak up on you when you don't expect it, walloping your mind with the sheer force of her humanity and hilarity. All in, this delectably dry collection of essays by the mind behind When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle is an ode to getting older – gracefully or not.

With searing self-mockery, Ephron delivers hard-earned truths on all aspects of womanhood, touching on inner-city living, cooking, ageing and its reversal, not to mention why she hates her purse.

Ephron was in her 60s when she wrote it, but your 30s is the time to read it – an unstoppably frank, jaw-achingly funny and moving masterclass on how to laugh at yourself. By the time it’s over, you’ll definitely want what she’s having, now and for the rest of your life.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

"No one interested in books by or about American Negroes should miss it," wrote The New York Times when Ellison published his masterpiece in 1952. And now, with America's racial politics still keenly felt, Invisible Man is as important as ever.

Ellison's protagonist is an unnamed man trying to work out his place in a society that does him no favours. When he leaves the Deep South for New York City in search of a better life, he is thrust into a world of racism and rejection. In the end, he retreats into a hole in the ground, where he makes his home and grapples with what Ellison called "the beautiful absurdity" of modern identity.

Dark, defiant, and riotously funny, it shines a light onto a black psychology shackled by white society. "Life is to be lived, not controlled," Ellison writes, "and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat."

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

Big, bold and sexy, 2019's Booker Prize-winner is a slow-cooked casserole of parts and pieces, each with its own seasoning and flavours. 

Evaristo tells the interconnected stories of 12 (mostly) black British women, and one non-binary character, as they traverse life's twists and turns. In doing so, she gave a voice to those who, until really quite recently, have been little represented in British fiction.

The book is a vital celebration of the shared lives that make modern Britain and all of us, as she says in her dedication, "members of the human family." Evaristo ultimately urges us all to "be a person with knowledge not just opinions".

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq (2006)

Head-bangingly controversial when it came out in 2006, Atomised is a book about sex that's about as sexy as a cold shower. It's a spinning yarn about two half brothers, abandoned by a rich-hippie mum lost to the drug-fuelled hedonism of the 60s.

Bruno grows into a sex addict whose exploits almost always fail due to his crippling ugliness, inside and out. Michel, on the other hand, is an emotional vacuum who ploughs all his energies into molecular biology in the hope he can unlock the secrets of human cloning to eliminate sex altogether.

What emerges is a pitch-black takedown of consumer culture, materialist greed and an evocative study of the sexual condition of the information age – perfect to read in your 30s because it manages to be both intellectually challenging and resolutely world-weary. Or, as Julian Barnes wrote in the New Yorker, it has that rare ability to "take you by the ear and brain and frogmarch you, convince you with the force of its rhetoric and the rigor of its despair."

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018)

To breed or not to breed – that is the question posed by Sheila Heti's narrator in this powerful novel examining childbearing culture and the way it frames a woman’s life. Ultimately, she asks: is a woman still a woman if she opts out of motherhood?

"A person who can’t understand why someone doesn’t want children only has to locate their feelings for children, and imagine that desire directed somewhere else – to a life that is just as filled with hope, purpose, futurity and care."

Told through the narrative of a 30-something woman tussling with the social expectation to procreate, it is a weaving and complex defence of choice, both philosophical and profound, fiercely original and brilliantly illuminating. Or as the author and critic Lara Feigel put it, "This is less a book than a tapestry – a finely wrought work of delicate art."

A Void by Georges Perec, translated by Gilbert Adair (1963)

Perhaps one of the most original works of literature in any language, its translation is as impressive as Perec's French original (La Disparition in French). Why? Because both versions are completely without the letter 'e'.

Anton Vowl (geddit?) is missing and it's down to his friends to find him. Has he been murdered? Kidnapped? Or has he fallen victim to some dark accident? As they are led through a labyrinth of clues, dead bodies, forbidden passions and an ancient curse, we are asked to question how we fill the existential void that can too easily creep into any of our lives. Soon, they too begin to fall foul of whatever dark force swept him off.

It is a staggering work of creative genius by a writer that the Italian writer Italo Calvino said "bears absolutely no resemblance to anyone else". Even Perec himself told an interviewer not long before his death that he never wrote the same thing twice (he composed A Man Asleep almost entirely from sentences written by other authors). Revel in its E-less beauty.

Sula by Toni Morrison (1973)

When accepting her Nobel Prize in 1993, Morrison said, "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." Nowhere is this more viscerally true than in Sula.

Nel and Sula are two poor African-American girls who meet in small-town Ohio in the 1920s. Their souls bound together "because each had discovered years before they were neither white nor male and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them they set about something else to be." But as they grow, their paths diverge: Nel gets married and Sula runs away to follow her dreams. Only, when she returns a decade later, everything has changed.

Not only does it contain one of modern literature's most mythical characters – the courageously unapologetic Sula – the novel covers themes of friendship, identity, betrayal and forgiveness with such depth and clarity that anyone with even a crumb of life experience will wonder how Morrison so easily found her way into their heart.

Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

There are two kinds of people: those who have read Ulysses, and those who have not. If you are the latter, then this is the book to read in your 30s. It's a tough read, so some degree of literary maturity generally helps. But stick with it, and you will get from it 10 times what you put in.

Joyce's friend T.S. Eliot would hail the modernist masterpiece as "the most important expression which the present age has found," before sandblasting those who dared call it too complicated with the words, "The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers, not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs."

It is one of the greatest works of literature in English – funny, profound, grotesque – a carnival of life and a must read for anyone who interested in the magic of the written word.

Read more: How to read – and keep reading – Ulysses

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

To The Lighthouse opens with a large family – the Ramsays – spending a summer on the Isle of Skye, as the world outside teeters on the edge of the First World War. Mrs Ramsay is a beautiful and charming, a mysterious beacon of maternal instinct. Her husband is an introverted intellectual and something of an emotional dud. Family friends come and go, they return home, the war happens, the house lies dormant... until they return 10 years later.

It's a simple plot, short and tight, that reveals far more about what it means to be human than its size should ever allow. That's Woolf's genius. Few novels cut through the clutter of family life and gender conflict with more delicate precision.

What we learn, through Woolf's near-musical prose ("He smiled the most exquisite smile, veiled by memory, tinged by dreams"), is a fundamental human truth: that, as time passes, things fade – people, relationships, hopes, dreams. But what transcends are the "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark". "Some books," as Margaret Atwood said of it, "have to wait until you're ready for them." This is one of them.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)

Keiko Furukura is a 36-year-old misfit who is endlessly baffled by human behaviour. For 18 years she's worked in a convenience store – ironically named Smile Mart – a dead-end drudge of a job whose sole fulfilment is that it provides a window through which she can observe other people and think about life, love and what 'normal' really means. 

Keiko's family worry about her. They want her to find purpose, or better, a husband. So she strikes a deal with a similarly weird male colleague in search of a wife to finance him, so he can hide from the world. She agrees to have him stay with her, where she'll bring home his bacon, and in return he'll help her give the outward impression that she is, in fact, normal.

It is a quirky, dreamy story that truly lingers – a huge hit in Japan and across the world upon its release, winning Murata the Akutagawa Prize for fiction (Japan's equivalent to the Booker). Perfect for anyone who feels they don't quite fit society's mould.

The Outsider by Albert Camus (1942)

"Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know." So goes one of the most haunting opening lines in literature. They are Mersault's words, Camus' messed-up protagonist, a wonderfully unlikeable social misfit who struggles to conform to society's whims. Upon losing his mother, he descends deeper down a tunnel of madness and criminality, culminating in the murder of an Arab on a beach for no good reason.

The message? Existence is a tough nut to crack. Human psychology is a tangled mess. We are who we are, so why not just be?

The book is open to many interpretations – Camus wanted it to be ambiguous. But while on the surface it seems bleak in outlook, at its heart it presents a man who rejects the pressure to fit in, and focuses on loving life part by tiny part. Mersault loves swimming in the sea and describes his meals with the relish of a TV chef.

And there it asks another question: if Mersault hadn't stumbled across the Arab on the beach with that gun, how might his life have panned out? As he says, "If something is going to happen to me, I want to be there."

The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir (1949)

Sexuality, identity, and independence are the meat of this literary feast of feminist observation. A trailblazing work upon publication, De Beauvoir scandalised the mid-century establishment, blowing open a case for female freedom with the force of a gunshot.

The Vatican placed it on its Index of Forbidden Books, as stuffy critics of the time foamed over De Beauvoir's suggestion that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Later, she said it was her attempt to explain "why a woman's situation, still, even today, prevents her from exploring the world's basic problems."

Today, it is considered as relevant a takedown of the patriarchal values that trickle through time as anything written since. "What a curse to be a woman!" Beauvoir writes. "And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one." Essential reading for any woman – or man for that matter – entering that time in life where one wants to get to know oneself properly.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (2016)

This is a gorgeous, sweeping inter-generational story that manages to encapsulate all of the sticky, difficult things about settling down into one corner of Brooklyn. It follows a group of former bandmates from the 1980s trying to navigate their relationships and grapple with growing older as time slowly robs them of their hipster youth.

Long-married Andrew and Elizabeth (a drifting soul and an estate agent, respectively) now have a teenage son called Henry, while Zoe and Jane – now restauranteurs – have a daughter called Ruby. Soon, Henry and Ruby fall for each other and get up to all sorts of trouble.

As the narrative unfolds across one momentous summer, each character (all splendidly drawn) must confront their own set of issues around family, love and the loss of youth. It is a novel doused in feeling that burns with wit. "With its sunny cover," the Pulitzer-winning critic Michiko Kakutani wrote when it came out in 2016, "it looks like designated vacation reading — but it’s just too deftly and thoughtfully written to be relegated merely to the beach."

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (1985)

Anne Tyler is a pleasure to read at any age. But the Accidental Tourist is best savoured at a stage in life when things are a little more in place.

It follows Macon, a bereaved travel writer who hates travel, struggling with a disintegrating marriage. He is also a man addicted to routine and terrified of change. When his wife finally calls it a day, he descends into abject misanthropy as he searches for a semblance of normal life. Then he meets Muriel, a garrulous dog-trainer who opens his world to the simple joys that can be found in everyday existence.

Tyler is one of literature's greatest family portrait artists, who tiptoes through themes of love, loss and change with quiet certainty. "I'm beginning to think that maybe it's not just how much you love someone," she writes. "Maybe what matters is who you are when you're with them."

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)

Ludo is a boy of omnivorous curiosity. Brought up in poverty by his mother, Sybilla, in a tumbledown London flat, he devours information as if every nugget has a sell-by date. He learned ancient Greek, Japanese and Arabic from the age of four and reads Homer – in its original form – on the Tube (which the pair ride for hours in the winter because they can't afford heating at home).

There's no dad around, so he watches the Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai on repeat – his mum's idea to give him a male role model (or seven). And yet, the one thing he really wants is that Sybilla will not give him: the name of his father. So one day, age 11, he sets out on his own odyssey to find his Last Samurai – the dad he never knew.

When disappointment inevitably follows, Ludo embarks on a grander quest – not just for a surrogate father figure but for a "meaningful wholeness" to his existence. What grows from this is a funny, warm and poignant inquiry into the limitations of genius and how to reconcile what we know with who we are to live a good life.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)

"Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." That's the sort of hard-won wisdom that can be found in the pages of Mitchell's wondrous novel that spans time, place and genre. It melds philosophy, history, culture and politics, with no small amount of Mitchell's considerable imagination devoted to the mysteries of the human heart.

As captivating as it is complex, it tells six separate stories that carry the reader from the mid-19th century Pacific Islands to 1970s California to a dystopian future police state where clones are grown in vats.

The stories may be separate, but they fit together like a stack of perfectly proportioned Russian Dolls, as Mitchell gradually and deftly reveals how his characters connect and their fates intermingle. Perceptions of reality and identity are the game in this puzzle of a book that quivers with ideas, big and small. "My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean," says one character. "Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?"


Photograph at top: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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