Skip to Content
Search Icon
Issue 12 – Assumption 2022


Burning Desire

On deep work.


If someone told me to choose the best twenty books to read in your twenties, I don’t know where I would begin. I might point to Augustine’s Confessions. Likely Newman’s Apologia. Maybe some plays of Shakespeare, novels of George Eliot, dialogues of Plato, essays of Joseph Mitchell, Pnin—but this is quickly becoming just a list of the things I myself have enjoyed reading in the first half of my third decade. For a serious answer, I’d have to think about it more. And I haven’t had the chance because about six months ago, an anonymous Twitter account called Art of Life composed a comprehensive list for twenty-somethings that has since consumed my attention. The terminally online know exactly the list to which I am referring, and those who have a more healthy relationship with the internet will likely recognize its general outlines anyway. Art of Life is one of those big accounts that posts motivational exhortations. This one was titled Twenty Books to Read in Your Twenties (although it actually consisted of about forty), all of which were self-help manuals. The account claimed that the reader who completed them would “Become your best self,” “Live a happier and healthier life,” and “Grow mentally and emotionally.” Twitter spent several days mocking the conceit, but I resolved to read the whole list and—who knows?—maybe change my life for the better.

When I sat down to my task, I surrounded myself with the tools of success: a double shot of espresso, a bowl of Jordan almonds, and a pack of Winston Red 100s. I think it was Christian Lorentzen who said that all you need to motor through a stack of books on deadline is a comfortable chair and a quiet place to chain-smoke. I had both. Everything was in place. Well, everything except for the motivation to begin. Each time I opened Atomic Habits, Make Your Bed, or Start With Why, I lost interest after a few pages. I never had read a self-help book before, and I didn’t have the hunger for improvement that a reader of the genre must possess to get anything out of it. Worse, I was easily distracted, and, in truth, I felt like I was wasting my time. I knew for a fact that a colleague down the hall was leaning back in an office chair, feet propped on his desk, reading Proust. That’s what I wanted to be doing. So I drank my espresso, ate the almonds, and moved over to cigarillos. The books sat piled against the wall for several weeks, untouched.

But then I started taking the Metro to work. Each day for about a month, I rode from East Falls Church to Brookland, which is a fifty-minute trip during peak ridership hours. Although I was constantly surrounded by noisy commuters on screeching, often un-airconditioned trains, I finally found the focus that eluded me in my office. I devoured Art of Life’s list, sometimes reading half a book on the way into work and finishing up on the way home. I never felt unmotivated. In fact, for the first time in a while, I felt satisfied. Like living in a dream. I discovered what many other self-help readers already know: the books themselves were all the help I needed. They soothe your anxieties and flatter your intelligence in a way that makes you feel that simply by finishing you have already progressed far down the road of improvement. Even when they take a harsh tone, they are quick to reassure you that the criticism is loving and necessary. Of course, the advice in each book is usually impossible to follow, so the only way to feel like you’re still improving is to read another one. When I at last had no more, I felt like Caliban shaken from his visions of riches pouring out of the heavens: I cried to dream again.

And if it weren’t for my other responsibilities—and an overlong interlude in the Midwest—I probably could have dreamed indefinitely. There are thousands of self-help books published every year. Many are bestsellers. But I knew that by the end of Art of Life’s list, I was bumping up against the outer limits of the genre. I’m twenty-four, and there are many other things I’d like to read in this decade. It was time to move on. After all, there are only five major categories of self-help, and I found that once you have identified them, it’s hard to read another book in the genre, except, perhaps, as a connoisseur.

You must or subscribe to read the rest of the article.

About the author

Nic Rowan

Nic Rowan is managing editor of The Lamp.