Mid-Twenties to Late-Thirties: Golden Years? (Whop, Whop, Whop)

To Kill A Mockingbird_Misfortune of Knowing BlogHaving observed that the majority of the books on composer Brian Eno’s top 20 books for “rebuilding civilization”* were published in the 1970s and 1980s, when Eno was in his mid-twenties to late-thirties, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings wrote:

[This may be] the golden age within a lifetime, when we have transcended the know-it-all arrogance of youth, haven’t yet entered the know-it-all complacency of old age, and live with that wondrous combination of receptivity to new ideas and just enough not-yet-calcified intellectual foundation with which to integrate and contextualize them.

I’m in this purportedly “golden age” right now, and I’ve managed to make it this far in life without having read a single book on Eno’s rather obscure list.** Some of the selections look appealing; however, if any of these books ever got off of my already insurmountable-in-a-single-lifetime TBR pile, I wonder whether it would have much of an effect on me.

While I certainly like to think that my intellectual foundation hasn’t calcified, it remains the case that none of the new-to-me books I read each year — many of which I’ve really enjoyed and which have come highly recommended — has been meaningful in the way that the books I read in my youth were. As good as some of my recent reads have been, very few would end up on my post-apocalyptic bookshelf (it would be a different matter on my limitless e-reader–if such a device worked post-apocalypse– but that defeats the purpose of this exercise!). Plus, with three kids and a full-time job, this “golden age” doesn’t leave much time for reading.

At least for me, the “golden age” for reading was much earlier in my life. The “know-it-all arrogance” commonly associated with adolescence certainly doesn’t apply to everyone nor does it necessarily get in the way of fictional friends who offer new ways of seeing the world.

As author Lois Lowry observed about her readers:

[K]ids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don’t think thats [sic] true of adults as much.

I noted in a previous post featuring Lowry’s quote, When Do Books Stop Changing Our Lives?, that research suggests we become more set in our ways after our early twenties. That comports with my own experience. The books that have meant the most to me are the ones I read in my preteen years through my early twenties. In my preteen years, for example, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird helped me develop my own sense of justice and inspired me (and many of my colleagues) to go to law school and eventually join the public interest legal profession.

The books I read during that time in my life are the ones that I re-read frequently and recommend the most enthusiastically to others. When creating a list of “must read” books, I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of books written for children and young adults. If they’re good enough to build young minds, they’re good enough to rebuild society.

*Compiled for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization (“We have named this collection The Manual for Civilization, and it will include the roughly 3000 books you would most want to rebuild civilization. While this may sound a little apocalyptic, we are not predicting any collapse of civilization. As it turns out, using this as an editing principle just seems to give us a very interesting collection of books.”)

**You can find Eno’s list in Popova’s post (linked in the first paragraph). I’d be curious to know how many of these books you’ve read. I’m not the only person who hasn’t read any of them.

***I don’t think Brian Eno worked on David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” but it’s the song that came to mind while writing this post. I apologize if it is now stuck in your head!


  1. I quite a bit older than you–and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that each decade of my life has been better than the previous one. Life is a wonderful adventure.

  2. I really liked reading this: [K]ids at that pivotal age, 12, 13 or 14, they’re still deeply affected by what they read, some are changed by what they read, books can change the way they feel about the world in general. I don’t think thats [sic] true of adults as much.

    Maybe that’s why I’m attracted so much to YA and MG. Books meant everything at that age. Plus I like that many of the characters in that grouping do amazing things despite limitations. Just seems like nothing is impossible at that age, and maybe it really isn’t. 🙂

    1. So true! YA and MG books make it seem like everything is possible. Those books really are the ones that have meant the most to me in my life. I’m really excited to see what books end up being my kids’ favorites. My twins are going to be reading middle grade books soon. Thanks for stopping by, Jae. I hope you’ve been doing well!

      1. Thanks. I’m surviving. 🙂 I keep trying to make more time for the blogging but life. Argh. I’m sure you understand. Always glad to be able to stop by when I can. 🙂

        1. Yeah, I definitely understand. I still enjoy blogging, but my enthusiasm for it isn’t what it once was. I went from an average of 3 posts a week to 1. I’m okay with it, though. It’s going to vary depending on how much is going on in my life. I do hope you’ll stick with your blog–even if it’s just sporadic entries until you manage to find more time for it. The blogosphere wouldn’t be the same without you!

  3. Well, I haven’t read any of the books on his list. And to be completely honest, I don’t want to.

    1. It’s such an obscure list! I’m interested in at least one or two of the books on his list, such as the Ehrenreich one (Dancing in the Streets), but my TBR pile is already long enough.

  4. I agree that one’s 20s and 30s are usually the best years–the later years necessarily involve decline in vigor no matter what health practices are followed to stave it off, and no matter how much denial that cheerfully proclaims 70 as the “new 55.” I don’t agree that getting older confers a feeling of omniscience–the older I get, it seems the less I know about things. Civilization itself does change and evolve, and I’m willing to accept some changes I don’t personally care for, but can see as appropriate for younger generations. However, society cannot really be changed according to plan or design, since no person or group can ever occupy the position of ultimate sculptor.

    1. Yeah, the older I get, the less I think I know and the more comfortable I am with not knowing. If I’m lucky enough to reach old age, I doubt I’ll feel like I have all the answers, but who knows. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I’m not trying to be a grump, but just the title of the list “20 Essential Books for Sustaining Civilization” seems a bit of a stretch. I’ve never read any of the books on the list, nor do many look interesting (to me). I think a big question behind this is: What drives us to read? For those of us that look for purely intellectual reads to change the way we think or perceive, Eno’s list may be great. But others seek refuge and serenity in books, they don’t want to drag themselves through heady topics and outdated ideas.

    I love your posts… they always make me step back and assess myself as a reader!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad that you enjoy my posts. Your comments are always very thoughtful. I agree with you that there are many reasons why people read. What drives me to read is the need for an escape. So, the books on Eno’s list aren’t really going to work for me (though I might check out one or two of them).

  6. “A collaboratively curated library for long-term thinking” sounds too pretentious for me. Are the lists just a contest to compile the most obscure books? In the event it’s all that remains of our intellectual heritage (you know, “post-apocalypse”), we’re going to look like we took ourselves way too seriously. I’m unimpressed.

    1. I can see that. I’m not really sure what they mean by “a collaborative curated library for long-term thinking,” but I applaud any effort to collect an interesting set of books (even if there’s no overlap between their lists and what I would put on mine).

    1. I read fiction primarily for its entertainment value, too. There might be a couple of fiction/nonfiction books out there that could impact my world view at this stage in my life, but I’m not optimistic I’ll find them. I doubt they were on Eno’s list!

  7. I would say too that the twenties was when books had the greatest impact, but that also was a time of graduate school and all the influences from that environment. Peers had much to do with both books and the way they influenced.

    1. Hi Donna! I agree that peers have a lot to do with the impact of books. I miss being surrounded by those kinds of influences (though being part of the blogging community helps!).

  8. It is the books I read in my twenties that left the most lasting impression on me, my life. After two kids I can’t even function half the time, much less read any serious literature…. That being said, John Irving still gets me with each of his new novels.

    1. Yeah, it’s so hard to find the time to read any serious literature now that I have a family. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!

  9. I never read any of them either, although I contemplated War and Peace until I saw the movie, which convinced me it would be long and sad and difficult or impossible to get through. A list like this is subjective; I’d choose different books entirely, and why would my opinion be considered less valuable than this guy’s? Consider posting your own list. 🙂

    1. It’s pretty rare to find a list of “top books everyone should read” with such obscure selections. My list would definitely include lots of books I read during my teenage years and early twenties (like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). How about your list?

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