Thirty Books I Want to Read Before I Turn Thirty

I recently turned 29, and in honor of that milestone I've assembled a list of thirty books I'd like to read before I turn 30.

From the end of high school until a few years ago, I undervalued books. I mostly consumed writing I found online. Online articles can be a decent substitute for books on non-fiction topics of immediate interest, but only rarely do they touch on the human condition in a deep way.

Reading online content also tends to be a haphazard experience. The upside of that is serendipity, but as I look at gaps in my own knowledge and thinking, I appreciate the value of deliberate undertakings. For those reasons, I've set out to structure my reading for the next year around classic works of fiction and (to a lesser extent) philosophy. I might be better off making my way through the reading list of some great books course, but there's merit in constructing my own list.

I've provided brief explanations of why I want to read each book, but these explanations are necessarily speculative. I suspect in some cases I'm very wrong about what I'll get from reading the book. In some cases, the only reason I have for reading the book is that people I trust have recommended it. But what better reason could I have?

The Classics

Homer: The Odyssey

I read the Odyssey in 8th grade and it didn't make much of an impression. That was half a lifetime ago; I think I'll get much more from it this time. The timing works out well: Emily Wilson's recently released translation has good reviews, and the Audible version is performed by Claire Daines. I listen to a lot of audibooks simply for convenience, but since the Odyssey comes from an oral tradition I think there's an actual benefit to hearing it performed.

Homer: The Iliad

I've never read the Iliad and would like to complete the pair.

Virgil: The Aeneid

The Aeneid honestly seems to be an inferior version of the Odyssey, but that's probably just me revealing my preference for the Greeks over the Romans. Regardless, I've never read it, and I may as well get a complete accounting of all those who got lost on their way home from Troy.

Thucydides: The Peloponessian War

This book is the reason I'm including links to what I plan to read. I have a copy of The Peloponessian War upstairs, but it lacks the maps and annotations that make the Landmark edition so engaging. I took an undergraduate seminar on the Peloponnesian War, but I'm eager to revisit Thucydides with an additional nine years of perspective. Fear, Honor, Interest...


William Shakespeare: Hamlet

I'm prone to spend too much time carefully curating my list of books to read and too little time reading. Hamlet could relate. For bonus points, I intend to watch Kenneth Branagh's production of the play.

William Shakespeare: The Tempest

Who else is there? Incidentally, I'm open to suggestions on how best to read Shakespeare - particular annotated editions, commentaries to read in parallel, etc.

Jane Austen: Emma

I want to introduce myself to Jane Austen with a book that isn't Pride and Prejudice simply so that I don't know the ending when I start.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

The opening sentence of this book shows deep insight into both human experience and statistics. The book's been recommended by serveral people who I greatly admire... which is why I've had it on my phone for the last two years. Now to actually read it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

Like Anna Karenina, this book has been recommended by two people who I respect tremendously. I bought it years ago, but so far I haven't absorbed it through pure osmosis.

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim

Conrad's The Secret Agent was one of the books that stood out to me when I read it in high school, and I also read Heart of Darkness a couple years ago. I'm looking forward to another of his novels.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls

I read two of Hemingway's novels in high school and (as with the Odyssey) I didn't retain much of either of them. I want to revisit Hemingway, and I initially chose For Whom the Bell Tolls because I'm more interested in the Spanish Civil War than the settings for his other books. Since then, though, I've had the book specifically recommended to me.

John Steinbeck: East of Eden

I know nothing about this book and added it to this list purely based on recommendations.

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

Lolita is a strange book. By all accounts, it's brilliantly written, and three distinct family members recommended I read it. But unlike most of the books on this list, I don't think I've every heard anyone discuss or even reference it. Undoubtedly that's due to the dark subject matter; I expect this to be an emotionally challenging book.

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried

I'm interested in this collection of short stories for two reasons. First, the Vietnam War was a defining experience for a generation of Americans, and I don't know much about it. Second, I enjoy well-executed creative writing, and by all accounts this book fits that description.

Philosopy and Criticism

Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Capitalism has a bad name among certain members of my generation in part because of the perception that it's divorced from morality. But Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before he was an economist. He writes, "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

Herman Wouk: The Language God Talks

Wouk's The Winds of War and its sequel War and Rememberance are two of the most remarkable books I've read. The two novels follow fictional characters navigating the very real events that preceded World War II and characterized the conflict itself. They succeed both as works of history and as novels. I was particularly moved by the depictions of the relationship between father and son, the experience of loss, and, of course, the Holocaust.

I dwell on those books because, remarkably, Wouk is still alive and published The Language God Talks in 2010. The title is drawn from how Richard Feynman described calculus to the author; I'm excited to see what else this slim volume contains about religion and science.

Harold Bloom: The Western Canon

Many of the books on my list are books that Bloom considers part of the Western Canon (although he's since disavowed the list included at the end of this book.)

Alan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind

I've read at least one book (The Coddling of the American Mind) whose title references Bloom's best seller. It seems only fair to now take a look at the starting point. My suspicion is that the book will probably feel unoriginal to me as a modern reader. If so, that would be precisely backwards; if the book's ideas are conventional, it's because the author successfully shaped convention.

Contemporary Nonfiction

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson: The Elephant in the Brain

I'm not sure this belongs on a "Read before 30" list, but it's a recent book that I'm interested in reading. Anyone who's gone through an undergraduate econ course has been told that much of the value of education comes from signalling. Simler and Hanson take it much further, arguing that almost everything we do is signalling of one type or another. (Why am I writing this post, after all?) It's an interesting premise; I'm curious to see if the whole book feels worth the investment after I've already heard Hanson make the core argument on a podcast.

John Carreyou: Bad Blood

The news stories about fraud at Theranos were riveting, and I'm looking forward to reading the whole story.

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz is as smart an entrepreneur as you'll find. The episodes of the a16z podcast with him and Marc Andreesen are all fascinating. I'm currently helping my brother build a company, and there's a lot I can learn from reading this book.

Just for Fun

James S.A. Corey: Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)

By the time this comes out in March, I'll be ready to put down the Russian authors and just enjoy the next installment of an excellent Sci-Fi series.

John le Carre: Call for the Dead

This is the first book in the George Smiley series which includes the better known The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. My sense is that the series is actually though-provoking in addition to being enjoyable, but in either case I want to give it a shot.

Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

Highly recommended to me, including by an aunt and uncle who named their cat after one of Terry Pratchett's characters. I'm looking forward to finally reading it.

That makes 24 books. I'm deliberately leaving myself room to read six more to this list. Perhaps I'll decide to go deeper on one of these authors, or maybe a new non-fiction book will catch my eye. Additionally, I'll continue to read thrillers and the like without adding them to this list.