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

20 books everyone should read by 40

Here are some great reads for anyone at that stage in life where things are getting a little bit more serious.

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.

“Anyone who devotes their life to fighting society in order to be free must be pretty sincere about suffering" - Sayaka Morata

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.

'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'

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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