Six Soul-Searching Books for Every Thirty-Something

Six Soul-Searching Books for Every Thirty-Something
The best way to shape your own story is to read someone else’s.

Our thirties can be a strange time.

Most of us have established ourselves in a career. Many of us have started families. The houses that used to only be places to store our stuff have slowly transformed into homes. Despite the fears that some of us may have had, we’ve come to the realization that life doesn’t, in fact, end at thirty

Which leaves us with the bewildering question: now what?

Now that we’re (relatively) stable, do we pursue that advanced degree? Now that we have some money, do we party like we wished we could’ve a decade ago? Is starting to settle down the mark of maturity or a kind of complacent conformity?

There’s no easy answer. The freedom to be anything can paradoxically terrify us into doing nothing. While there’s never going to be any instruction manual for how to live our lives, we do have the next best thing: stories. 

Stories that grapple with what it means to live. Stories that let us weigh the cost of our decisions (or our failure to make them). Stories that give us that all-important chance to explore and reflect the lives we could be leading and the choices that could be ours. For the thirty-something man looking to reflect, reassess, and reclaim direction in life, here are seven of our favorites:

Stoner – John Williams

stoner book cover

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Considered by many to be a forgotten classic, Stoner invites us to follow along the life of its titular character William Stoner, from his arrival at a small, Midwestern college to the very moment of his death. And that, quite simply, is all there is to it. No world-threatening conspiracy to unravel. No adrenaline-pumping heist, no radioactive spiders. Just a picture of life as it is for so many millions of people – not heroic or exciting or even uniquely tragic. Only mosaic of days where we all do the best that we can.

While a story about an uneventful life might not sound gripping, nothing could be further from the case. The portrait we’re given of William Stoner – a thoughtful, intelligent man struggling through life – is one we’ll recognize in our fathers, our neighbors, and perhaps most terrifyingly, ourselves. It’s there that the brilliance of this simple story truly lies. Not in the rocky marriage or the stalled career but in the unspoken question behind every day that passes: is this really all there is?

This novel won’t give us the answer to that question. Instead, it forces us to take that same examination we gave to Stoner’s life and turn back upon ourselves. As we work towards being all that we can, there’s few books that better remind us how fast time goes, and how urgent it is to live a life we can be proud of.

The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

the heart of the matter

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It’s the darkest days of WWII, and in a sweltering, far-flung colonial port, Major Henry Scobie is in trouble. An intelligence officer tasked with rooting out smugglers and spies, Scobie is forced daily to decide between carrying out his brutal role or breaking the rules in small acts of mercy. As his wife grows more distant and as his protégé undermines him, Scobie struggles on a razor’s edge between duty and desire, fear and faith, salvation and sin. Something has to give – and it’s happening soon.

Beneath the web of contraband diamonds and secret codes, Greene gives us the story of imperfect people trying to do the right thing in a world where the line between good and evil shifts with evening shadows. Whether we’re looking to challenge our codes of conduct or rethink which hills we’re willing to die on, The Heart of the Matter pulls us into an enthralling tale of ambiguity, absolutism, and the people caught in between.

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

metamorphosis book cover

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One of the marks of a truly great book is its ability to shift and grow along with us, and there’s perhaps no story that does that better than Franz Kafka’s classic nightmare The Metamorphosis.

While many of us are already familiar with the story of a young man waking one day to find himself transformed into an enormous insect, re-reading the story at this stage of our lives can offer us an entire new world of startling perspectives (not unlike the experience of watching The Office in our teens and our experience of watching it now).

For those of us in our thirties, reading The Metamorphosis gives us more than just an incredible body-horror tale. We’re told the story of a man who can no longer provide for his family. The story of a man who can no longer communicate with the world around him. The story of a man who no longer has ownership of his very own body.

In a world that can so often feel alienating and dehumanizing, The Metamorphosis gives us an unnerving and darkly hilarious reminder of the importance of retaining our sense of self.

The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary – Atef Abu Saif

the drone eats with me book cover

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“Today is calm. No explosions so far.”

Over the past year, we’ve been forced to face how chaotic and uncertain the world can be – how little control we often have to shape our destinies. In times like these, it can be helpful not just to inspire ourselves with hope but to look at the stories of courageous men and women who’ve gone through worse, and few books capture that better than The Drone Eats With Me.

With heartbreaking prose, a simple family man recounts the 2014 bombing of the Gaza through the entries of his personal journal, outlining his efforts to keep his family together in the face of uncertainty, sorrow, and the simple, crushing boredom that comes with times of crisis.

Though we’ll hopefully never have to face the same degree of hardship, life will inevitably bring us times where we feel powerless. In those moments, how do we endure the unendurable? How do we outlast something that never seems to end?

One day at a time.

sleepwalk and other stories book cover

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A twenty-four-year-old tries reconnecting with his ex. A twin snoops through her sister’s diary. A blind man goes shopping. These and a dozen other short stories make up Adrian Tomine’s Sleepwalk – a gorgeously graphic novel stringing together momentary glimpses into the lives of strangers. The concept might sound simple, but hiding behind each splintered story is an emotional gut-punch that hits with the force of a freight train.

Empathy isn’t just a quality to be desired, it’s a skill to be honed, and few books give us a better crash course in seeing the world through the eyes of others than this fantastic collection. Weaving together regret and forgiveness, passivity and impulsiveness, longing and loneliness, Sleepwalk is a perfect encapsulation of the isolation so many of us feel, and a call for the compassion we all desperately need.

My First Summer in the Sierra – John Muir

john muir book cover

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The great paradox of contemporary life is that, for all the easy access we seem to have to everything, it’s never been easier to feel more atomized and disconnected. That was true before the pandemic, and ever since the waves of quarantines and social distancing, the feeling has only amplified.

It’s during times like these that it’s so important to remind ourselves that we don’t exist in a vacuum – that the world isn’t a soulless machine where we’re supposed to “fit” but a vibrant, living place where we’re meant to belong. And there’s likely no western writer who’s captured that better than the explorer, conservationist, and only-man-to-out-flex-Teddy-Goddamn-Roosevelt: John Muir.

My First Summer in the Sierra may have started as Muir’s journal but exists today as one of the most masterful pieces of nature writing ever put to paper. In simple, powerful prose, we’re shown the interconnectedness of every mountain to every dust mite to every constellation. Even for those of us who might not be able to get out in nature, Muir’s work is an incredible lesson in mindfulness – teaching us to recognize and appreciate the world around us, and our place in the midst of it all.

If there ever was a time for that – it’s now. 

What stories have taken on new meaning for you as you’ve matured? Keep the conversation going below!

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.