When my thirties were looming, I asked the novelist Annie Dillard what I should be reading. A week later an envelope arrived, crammed with a densely typed list of every book she'd ever read. I'm about 600 books behind her right now and losing ground every decade.
You can only do so much. Your thirties are about choosing, about work and relationships, about compromise and leadership, and the triage that makes adult life possible. My own decade of reading was a mix of Dillard-esque greats (Gibbon, Cervantes, and Jefferson), the less than great (Tom Clancy), and the merely necessary—in my case, a lot of obscure anthropology, CIA memoirs, and Latin American history.
This is a time for correcting mistakes and bearing down to get stuff done. If you wasted your youth properly, you are now broke, brokenhearted, and ready for ten years of fixing on the task, the relationship, the life. Even worse, you'll need to start exercising soon. —Patrick Symmes
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
I carried this in my fishing vest as I hitchhiked through Chile, carefully rereading each page as I waited by dusty gravel roads, hoping for the sound of a car. Last and greatest of the Bard, it’s a joyful schooling in illusion, self-delusion, and storytelling.
Sportsmen's Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
Just the thing for those of us who have been transfixed while holding a fishing rod, suffered transports of courage while on a thirsty hike, or stood in silent awe as darkness fell over the woods.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
If you ever thought about going back to the land, read this. Smiley’s version of King Lear in Iowa is a cautionary tale about that other thirties phenomenon, the family, with three bad daughters and an attempted murder by pickle.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas by Charles C. Mann
Mann’s cool and dispassionate book does a Guns, Germs, and Steel–type job of overturning our environmental fantasies about precontact North America.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
At some point in the your thirties, you become old enough to understand mistakes, which is the point of this chronicle of a woman burning off her messy, mean twenties amid a splendid, daring adventure.