Bundling Up with a Bildungsroman
Written by Lauren Koleszar // Illustrated by Devin Benko
Searching for a seasonal read? We’ve got you covered with nine atmospheric coming-of-age novels that will transport you anywhere from the romantic streets of Italy in the summertime to the captivating nightlife of New York City streets — plus bonus recommendations for those already familiar with our list!
With the colder months ahead of us and COVID-19 still crippling our social lives, more people are turning to literature as a quiet companion while confined by the walls of their living rooms. Isolation can be lonely, but consider the solitude a chance to finally get back into your book collection or a challenge to read something for pleasure outside of English class assignments. Maybe you’ve already decided to get back into reading, but now the challenge lies in determining which book you should read. If you’re looking for a story conducive to the autumn weather, you need a narrative that’s comforting yet thought-provoking — a work that understands your thoughts, but that can simultaneously transport you to a new setting and cast of characters.
If you haven’t already done so, now is the ideal time to familiarize yourself with the Bildungsroman genre.
Bildungsroman: a novel dealing with a person’s formative years or spiritual education
Bildung: refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation resulting in a harmonization of an individual’s mind and heart in unification of identity within the broader society
roman: German word for “novel”
If you were a sucker for “The Outsiders” in high school or rewatch “Dead Poets Society” every autumn, the Bildungsroman is your niche. The German word Bildungsroman is a high-brow and more technical term for the genre of coming-of-age stories. These stories often follow a teenage or young adult protagonist through a philosophical, emotional, and/or spiritual journey into full adulthood or realization of the true self. Because these stories revolve around topics such as young adulthood, identity and understanding, novels belonging to this genre are especially attractive to those already interested in subjects including psychology, philosophy, education or English.
"Consider this a chance to finally get back into your book collection."
Navigating this genre can be more difficult than others; the Bildungsroman is not studied or taught nearly as often as other genres, such as horror or science fiction. For instance, you probably started reading this piece because you were curious what “Bildungsroman” even meant. As you roam your bookshelves or browse online for a captivating read, consult the recommendations below. Categorized for your convenience are nine novels from the Bildungsroman genre, complete with plot summaries and reasons why they might be the cozy quarantine reads you’re looking for!
“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath
To call American poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel dark is a severe understatement. We follow Esther Greenwood as she navigates a magazine internship in 1960s New York City until her eventual mental breakdown takes us back to her hometown in Massachusetts, where she faces societal stigmatization of both her mental illness and what is expected of her as a woman. Not for the faint of heart, “The Bell Jar” is a riveting story of brutal depression, search for identity, and the painful, sacrificial road to recovery. Relevant Reads: “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen; “Hangsaman” by Shirley Jackson
“The Book Thief” Markus Zusak
Zusak’s historical fiction novel lends itself to the Bildungsroman genre. Set in Nazi Germany, we follow little Liesel whose self-discovery is married with the enlightening exposure to literature. As she reads and learns about the world and herself, Liesel’s own life is in danger because of the fact that her family is hiding a Jew from the Nazis in their basement. Zusak’s prose hints at magical realism when the audience realizes that the gentle narrator of Liesel’s story is Death itself — whose voice is surprisingly thoughtful as he drives the narrative with an aura of empathy.
Relevant Reads: “All the Light We Cannot See” by Antony Doerr; “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
“Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman
You’re probably more familiar with the 2017 film starring Timothée Chalamet, but if you’re interested in reading yourself away to the streets of Italy in the summer of 1987, you should absolutely check out the novel. Winner of multiple awards for its contribution to LGBT literature, “Call Me By Your Name” tells the story of a romance between intellectuals Elio and Oliver, who find trust and love in one another during the summer that Oliver comes to study in Italy, where Elio lives.
Relevant Reads: “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Saenz; “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger
This is arguably the ideal example of a Bildungsroman. High-school dropout Holden Caulfield wanders around New York City reflecting on his childhood, his life now and what will become of his future. Holden is introspective, sentimental and childlike but also cynical, angsty and confused. This beloved character’s thoughts are uniquely profound, speaking to the last pieces of naïvete in the transitioning teenage conscious. Pick this gentle, bittersweet read on a breezy autumn evening when you find yourself reflecting and people-watching.
Relevant Reads: “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger; “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
This classic American novel follows the perceptive Scout Finch as she recounts the effects of racism and prejudice as they unfolded in her childhood hometown in 1930s Alabama. Famous for its depictions of racial injustice and the quintessential father-figure of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s masterpiece novel is an enjoyable read at any time of the year, although the autumn weather fits appropriately with the nostalgic feeling of Lee’s writing.
Relevant Read: “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee; “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
“The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton
“Stay gold, Ponyboy” remains one the most quoted lines of literature — and with good reason. Hinton’s writing is both evocative and easy-to-read, and her story of gang rivalry in 1960s Oklahoma is a heartbreaking and poignant meditation on social classes and violence through the eyes of one of the gang’s quieter members and namesake to the famous phrase, Ponyboy.
Relevant Reads: “The Body” by Stephen King; “That Was Then, This Is Now” by S.E. Hinton
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
Remember 2012, when everyone had the quotes “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and “Ladies and gentlemen, I am below average!” on their overfiltered Instagram feeds? Such quotes came from the bittersweet novel and film of the same name, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and if you haven’t read this yet, grabbing the book and crying for hours afterward should be added to your bucket-list ASAP.
Relevant Reads: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie; “Looking for Alaska” by John Green
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward
The writing of Anisfield Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward has been compared to that of legendary writers, ranging from Toni Morrison to William Faulkner, and her writing has been compared to stories from “The Odyssey” and the Old Testament. Ward’s novel of family dysfunctionality in the archetypical rural America is extremely character-driven, and her writing is gorgeously lyrical.
Relevant Reads: “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison; “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
As Janie Crawford reflects on the relationships that have shaped her throughout her life, the influence of gender roles and race reveal themselves to have a lasting impact on Janie, as a forty-something African-American woman in 1937. Hurston manages to write both conversationally and poetically in this novel, a staple of women’s literature and the Harlem Renaissance. This Bildungsroman pick is for those looking for something beautiful but bittersweet.
Relevant Reads: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou; “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd