22 votes

What books do you think every eighteen year old should read?

My niece turns 18 later this month. I'm getting her a Kindle and loading it up with as many "welcome to adult" books as I can.

Not really "self-help" books per se, but more "understanding your life and place in the world now that you're finally recognized by society as an adult". Here's the first few books I put on the list for ideas of what I'm going for (all non-fiction so far but I'm open to any fiction that fits the bill):

I would include Sapiens and Homo Deus on the list but I know she's already read or reading them (after I gifted them to my brother / her dad and he passed them on to her).

What would you add to the list? What books do you wish someone had given you at this age that would have helped you navigate your early adulthood?

31 comments

  1. thundergolfer
    (edited )
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    Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky. Read it at 19 and it’s still the most important book I’ve ever read 10 years and 100+ books later. Given that your niece is only 18 and thus has a shot at...

    Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky. Read it at 19 and it’s still the most important book I’ve ever read 10 years and 100+ books later.

    Given that your niece is only 18 and thus has a shot at seeing the very end of the century, another great “welcome to the real world” book would be The Inhabitable Earth. She is part of the Climate Change generation and will almost certainly live to see the terribleness that people have warned is coming at the tail end of this century.

    9 votes
  2. suspended
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    Probably the most impact on western society at large has been the biblical texts. I have over thirty years of layperson experience with this and I am the founder of r/AskBibleScholars. I grew up...

    Probably the most impact on western society at large has been the biblical texts. I have over thirty years of layperson experience with this and I am the founder of r/AskBibleScholars.

    I grew up in a cult-like evangelical Christian atmosphere. I left this all behind many years ago and I never wanted to be a part of it to begin with.

    My recommendation would be How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

    7 votes
  3. grahamiam
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    I'd probably go with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Inio Asano's Solanin, for completely different reasons. The former for thinking about what values and goals she has in life, the...

    I'd probably go with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Inio Asano's Solanin, for completely different reasons. The former for thinking about what values and goals she has in life, the latter for thinking about how to deal with the time right after college, which is scary and overwhelming.

    7 votes
  4. [3]
    Atvelonis
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    When I was in high school I read very little except that which I was assigned, being more interested in the digital world than the real one. What I did read was generally within a specific genre...

    When I was in high school I read very little except that which I was assigned, being more interested in the digital world than the real one. What I did read was generally within a specific genre (high fantasy), and in retrospect I think I missed out on a lot of basic facets of the human condition by ignoring literary areas I assumed would be uninteresting before giving them a chance. I would have benefitted from internalizing works that subverted the expectations I'd built up about the way my life was necessarily supposed to progress, and also ones that primarily focused on emotions. I needed more introspection and more experiences of life, more stories about love and more rigorous personal analyses of trauma. What I needed was something to startle me and prepare me for the inevitable challenges and self-doubt I would experience as an adult.

    I read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day when I was a senior in high school. This might be an unusual book to give to an 18-year-old; a lot of my peers didn't like it, mostly on account of the language. I remember feeling somewhat ambivalent at first, but its exploration of the main character Stevens' vicarious sense of identity drew me in and left a strong impression at the end. I've thought about the novel and its themes fairly often since then; the title alludes to the most important one, how easy it is to waste "what remains of the day" (or of one's life) without realizing it. I also have a very vivid memory of my teacher reading a specific comment from the narrator: "Indeed—why should I not admit it?—in that moment, my heart was breaking." I probably would've ignored the affective significance of that quote if it were in some derivative fantasy novel, but in context, it taught me a lot about what it meant to reconcile with my sense of sentimentality, and in fact what it means to have such emotions to begin with.

    When I was a sophomore in college I read Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood (translated by Jay Rubin) on the recommendation of a friend. She called it "a romance." I often struggle to explain the precise nature of the impact this book had on me. It was not "inspiring" per se, it was absolutely terrifying, particularly as it was complemented by various real-life events affecting me at the time. I once remarked to a friend that the novel "broke" me for a while, or that it left me reeling. I was deeply unsettled by the interplay between my simultaneous identification with and feelings of utter repulsion toward the protagonist. It made me question who I was at my very core. Hedonism, constancy, indifference, vapidity, dynamism; an ambiguous look at the meaning of our emotional attachments, and what their manifestation means for the self. I'm not sure your niece would find it relatable for precisely the same reasons, but I would suggest it on the basis that it offers a certain perspective on emotional and romantic intimacy that is elsewhere only unsatisfactorily described.

    Because you're going to be recommended a lot of serious novels, I'd also suggest Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. You will inevitably also be recommended The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though I've never actually gotten around to it myself. There's more to books than life-altering philosophical fiction, and if anything it's important to break up one's readings of such things with lighter material. It's not that it's less valuable than "serious literature," it's that it returns us to the diversity of experience that I believe is so important to search out in the world.

    7 votes
    1. [2]
      rosco
      Link Parent
      I had a very similar reaction to Norwegian Wood, I read it the summer I finished university and started working. It was definitely impactful, but I think that may be because I am a young man....

      I had a very similar reaction to Norwegian Wood, I read it the summer I finished university and started working. It was definitely impactful, but I think that may be because I am a young man. Murakami does not write women well. They end up being 2D objects in a male driven narrative. So while I think it is a great book, I would be hesitant to suggest it to a young woman (particularly one who is still developing her own perspective of the world). It seems to pop up in any thread that mentions him.

      3 votes
      1. Atvelonis
        Link Parent
        Thank you for your careful observation. Upon reflection, I agree that Murakami's female characters are not very well-developed—I remember being bothered by some of their dialogue when I first read...

        Thank you for your careful observation. Upon reflection, I agree that Murakami's female characters are not very well-developed—I remember being bothered by some of their dialogue when I first read the novel. But it was originally recommended to me by a young woman (who presumably also had a "developing worldview"), so I think its meaning is not exclusive to any particular gender. I respect the hesitancy you express though, and I realize that my positionality lends itself to a reading that isn't necessarily universal.

        2 votes
  5. krg
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    I wish I read more good, ~important~ fiction when I was younger. I think Life After God by Douglas Coupland would be a nice collection for an 18-year-old to read.

    I wish I read more good, ~important~ fiction when I was younger.

    I think Life After God by Douglas Coupland would be a nice collection for an 18-year-old to read.

    6 votes
  6. [2]
    jgb
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    I'm 20 so not well qualified for this. Important literature I have read as a young man include Orwell's Essays (Inside The Whale is a collection with most of the really great ones, though sadly...

    I'm 20 so not well qualified for this. Important literature I have read as a young man include Orwell's Essays (Inside The Whale is a collection with most of the really great ones, though sadly missing A Hanging), which inform my politics more than any other writing and which have helped me forge my identity as an anti-fascist and anti-reactionary patriot. Homage to Catalonia is also a good read - actually, almost all Orwell is well worth reading. But start with the essays.

    I also strongly recommend Woolf's The Waves, which I think gave me a quarter life crisis but in a good way. It is somewhat hard work at first but not inaccessible by any means. It has made me think a lot about the choices I have on earth and using my allotted time well. Joyce's Dubliners is good in a similar vein.

    I also recently liked Their Eyes Were Watching God. It has all the right feminist and anti-racist themes but much more importantly it's a great story masterfully told.

    5 votes
    1. rosco
      Link Parent
      I think you don't give yourself enough credit. Those are all great suggestions.

      I think you don't give yourself enough credit. Those are all great suggestions.

      1 vote
  7. MimicSquid
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    I don't know whether your relationship is one that allows for talk about sex, relationships, and interactions with other people, but Let's Talk About It was just released and I highly recommend it.

    I don't know whether your relationship is one that allows for talk about sex, relationships, and interactions with other people, but Let's Talk About It was just released and I highly recommend it.

    4 votes
  8. vegai
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    Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens.

    Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens.

    4 votes
  9. [4]
    mat
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    When I was 19 I read The Tao of Pooh and it, in a small but significant way, changed my life. For the better. I'd also recommend Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion which is probably a bit dated now but...

    When I was 19 I read The Tao of Pooh and it, in a small but significant way, changed my life. For the better.

    I'd also recommend Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion which is probably a bit dated now but still contains vital tools for navigating the modern world.

    4 votes
    1. acdw
      Link Parent
      Tao of Pooh is one of my very favorite books, I love it!

      Tao of Pooh is one of my very favorite books, I love it!

      1 vote
    2. [2]
      MonkeyPants
      Link Parent
      The Tao of Pooh is a great book, but how did it change your life?

      The Tao of Pooh is a great book, but how did it change your life?

      1 vote
      1. mat
        Link Parent
        It was my first exposure to Taoism which is a pretty good non-religious religion-like that provides some good mental heuristics for dealing with the world and living happily in it. Also many years...

        It was my first exposure to Taoism which is a pretty good non-religious religion-like that provides some good mental heuristics for dealing with the world and living happily in it. Also many years later this inspired me to start learning tai chi, which is good for me, physically (and mentally).

        1 vote
  10. MonkeyPants
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    Sapiens is a great book. Bill Bryson: A Short History Of Nearly Everything is equally entertaining and informative.

    Sapiens is a great book.

    Bill Bryson: A Short History Of Nearly Everything is equally entertaining and informative.

    4 votes
  11. joelthelion
    (edited )
    Link
    I would really recommend The Little Prince. It's short and easy to read, with a lot of very nice insights. Some parts are also quite funny. How to win friends and influence people is also a...

    I would really recommend The Little Prince. It's short and easy to read, with a lot of very nice insights. Some parts are also quite funny.

    How to win friends and influence people is also a must-read for almost everyone. It might not have profound philosophical insight, but it really helps. Surprisingly few people understand these things.

    I would also recommend Orwell, 1984, of course, but Animal Farm is also very good and a lot shorter.

    4 votes
  12. kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    This is a very neat idea! She's lucky to have you as an uncle. :) Rather than making a book suggestion, I'm thinking it might be good to pair the Kindle with an Amazon gift card meant for books so...

    This is a very neat idea! She's lucky to have you as an uncle. :)

    Rather than making a book suggestion, I'm thinking it might be good to pair the Kindle with an Amazon gift card meant for books so that she can choose some of her own to add to her library as well. She probably has a laundry list of titles that she's interested in, and giving her a pre-allocated chunk of change lets her get the ball rolling on those.

    4 votes
  13. autumn
    (edited )
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    I haven’t read the whole book, but The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck has a great message. I think I read the blog post it was based on years ago and it changed my priorities in a big (and good)...

    I haven’t read the whole book, but The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck has a great message. I think I read the blog post it was based on years ago and it changed my priorities in a big (and good) way.

    Big edit:

    Oh! I just thought of another: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I read it when I was about her age, and it definitely spurred a healthy desire for adventure. It pairs nicely with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I read around the same time.

    I do wish I knew more books by women/non-binary authors. That may be worth researching. And books by BIPOC.

    The only one I can think of is Michelle Obama’s book. Becoming was really good and contains plenty of life advice.

    3 votes
  14. Staross
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    Maybe an anti-romantic novel like the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and an anti-drug one like A Scanner Darkly. Something to bolster skeptical thinking and fundamental science would probably be...

    Maybe an anti-romantic novel like the The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and an anti-drug one like A Scanner Darkly. Something to bolster skeptical thinking and fundamental science would probably be useful, but I don't have good suggestions there.

    3 votes
  15. WendigoTulpa
    Link
    She sounds smarter than I was at 18 if she's reading that much, good on her. If she's really interested in buddhism and would like to add some actual meditation practice to the philosophy, I would...

    She sounds smarter than I was at 18 if she's reading that much, good on her.

    If she's really interested in buddhism and would like to add some actual meditation practice to the philosophy, I would recommend Zen Mind Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It is a collection of his dharma talk transcripts, so its very conversational and gives good introductory directions on how to meditate without it becoming a chore in and of itself.

    3 votes
  16. mat
    Link
    Oh, also The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. Worth nothing that Morrison was taking a fuckload of drugs and was heavily into shamanism and ritual magic while he was writing this. Several of the...

    Oh, also The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. Worth nothing that Morrison was taking a fuckload of drugs and was heavily into shamanism and ritual magic while he was writing this. Several of the characters are his magical proxies and if he is to be believed, he got some amount of trouble - both physically and psychically - for using them like that.

    It's a very smart, daring, multifaceted and downright exciting book(s) which should help instill a healthy sense of questioning authority and of the power of youth in a reader. It did in me. I still don't believe in magic in the sense of making things appear from a hat, but Morrison and Alan Moore have some interesting takes on the topic, and I think it can be a very useful metaphor (like how chi/energy is a useful metaphor in things like kung fu and acupuncture)

    That said, it won't work on a Kindle. You need big, full colour pages for this. Ten inch tablet, minimum.

    3 votes
  17. [3]
    bendersteed
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    Well I would say Principia Discordia and Zen without Zen masters, if only to reduce the illusion of adulthood, and leave space for the true development of the self.

    Well I would say Principia Discordia and Zen without Zen masters, if only to reduce the illusion of adulthood, and leave space for the true development of the self.

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      reifyresonance
      Link Parent
      I'll second the Principia. If you're going to be adding Discordian literature, I can also suggest The Black Iron Prison. There's an epub/mobi here. Shit, throw the Illuminatus trilogy in there as...

      I'll second the Principia. If you're going to be adding Discordian literature, I can also suggest The Black Iron Prison. There's an epub/mobi here. Shit, throw the Illuminatus trilogy in there as well.

      1 vote
      1. bendersteed
        Link Parent
        Oh yeah, the Illuminatus trilogy, is something that I think you can enjoy at any or better despite any age.

        Oh yeah, the Illuminatus trilogy, is something that I think you can enjoy at any or better despite any age.

        1 vote
  18. [2]
    Akir
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    I've heard good things about Lies My Teacher Taught Me, but I haven't read it myself. How would you compare it to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States? It seems like they both...

    I've heard good things about Lies My Teacher Taught Me, but I haven't read it myself. How would you compare it to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States? It seems like they both cover the same problems from different perspectives.

    2 votes
    1. Atvelonis
      Link Parent
      I haven't read Zinn in a long time, but my recollection is that A People's History of the United States is somewhat more on the "presentation of a historical timeline" side of things, it just...

      I haven't read Zinn in a long time, but my recollection is that A People's History of the United States is somewhat more on the "presentation of a historical timeline" side of things, it just happens to take a historical revisionist approach to the material. In comparison, I felt that Lies My Teacher Told Me was specifically written to critique the textbook industry; Loewen goes through a dozen or so common books, pointing out blatant misrepresentations and other issues with the academic publishing industry in general. There's a certain amount of overlap in the topics they cover, so I would say the primary difference is the reason for publication. To some extent, Loewen builds on the revisionist groundwork that Zinn laid out a decade and a half earlier; his goal is more anti-"pedagogical misinformation" than anti-"academic nationalism" more broadly, though the difference between those themes is minute. I enjoyed them both, though it's also worth noting that A People's History is about twice the length of Lies.

      4 votes
  19. [3]
    tomf
    Link
    I'd put these in the mix How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene 48 Laws of Power has a super corny title and its presented in a way that...

    I'd put these in the mix

    • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
    • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

    48 Laws of Power has a super corny title and its presented in a way that comes off sleazy, but the basic principals are valuable for the career-minded. I wouldn't say either is a direct roadmap, but both offer a general framework for working with others in a variety of contexts.

    The audiobook for the 48 Laws of Power is performed by Richard Poe, who sounds like Satan, in my opinion.

    Might as well throw The Art of War by Sun Tzu in the mix.

    1 vote
    1. [2]
      krg
      Link Parent
      And top it off with American Psycho.

      And top it off with American Psycho.

      2 votes
      1. tomf
        Link Parent
        I loved American Psycho :) Really, though, they should have a book on business, a cookbook to work through, another on finances, something like the Five Love Languages, etc.

        I loved American Psycho :)

        Really, though, they should have a book on business, a cookbook to work through, another on finances, something like the Five Love Languages, etc.

        1 vote
  20. pseudochron
    Link
    The Complete Works of William Shakespeare A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
    • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
    • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking