10 of the greatest coming-of-age stories Red Bulletin

5 classic coming-of-age stories every man should read

Words: JJ Dunning
Images: Wikimedia Commons

These five classic books capture the essence of adolescence. How many have you read?

Growing pains: we’ve all had them.

At the time, the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood just seems like an endless sequence of injustices. It’s only when you look back that you realise how brilliant everything was.

But hey, that’s fine. Teenagers are supposed to be self-absorbed dickheads. Don’t be sad – you nailed it!

Facts about coming-of-age novels:

  • One of the first novels, Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, published in 1749, is a coming-of-age story.
  • The German word ‘bildungsroman’ is the official literary term for coming-of-age stories. Use it if you want to sound clever.

Here are five classic books that capture the gawkiness, the anxiety, the sexual tension, the hormones and the desire to just run away, and turn them into timeless literature. How many have you read?

1. On The Road (1957)

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel follows the young Sal Paradise and his erratic, thrill-seeking friend Dean Moriarty as they zig-zag around America.

The book is partially autobiographical; Paradise is a pseudonym for Kerouac, while Moriarty is modelled on the maverick Beat icon Neal Cassady. Other figures – including the poet Allen Ginsberg and the writer William S. Burroughs – also appear under aliases.

It is the energy of On The Road that lends it such an unparalleled sense of adventure. Give it a few pages and you’ll be desperate to pack a bag and get going.

Factoid: Kerouac wanted his prose to emulate the “fluidity of  jazz”, so he typed up his manuscript on a 120ft-long scroll. 

2. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969)

“Never in my life had I felt so fat with time, so free of the need to be moving or doing.”

Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie told the story of his childhood in rural Gloucestershire. As I Walked Out… recounts the next phase of his life; an epic journey on foot, armed with only a violin to busk for his supper.

The young Lee first walks to London, where he works on a building site, then boards a boat to Spain. It’s here, as he traverses the country from north to south, where his romantic notions of a nomadic lifestyle are gradually sobered by the onset of the Spanish Civil War.

A third book, A Moment of War, rounds out the author’s trilogy of memoirs.

Factoid: This is adventurer Alastair Humphreys’ favourite book. As a tribute, he is planning to recreate Lee’s journey and methods. That’s despite being a dreadful violin player.

3. The Catcher In The Rye (1951)

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“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye is probably the most famous coming-of-age book.

The main character, Holden Caulfield, is an angsty, cynical teenager who has flunked out of school and run away to spend the final days of term in a New York hotel.

Here, he struggles with the issues that bother all of us at some point in our lives; who do we belong to? How do we deal with loss? And, like, what’s the point of everything?

Factoid: The success of The Catcher In The Rye did not agree with its author. Salinger withdrew from public life. Though he didn’t publish any new books after 1961, he carried on writing privately until his death in 2010. There are believed to be several unpublished novels in the care of his estate. 

4. To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee only wrote and published one novel in her lifetime.

That book was the million-selling To Kill A Mockingbird, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for literature, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was even named the Best Novel of the Century by the Library Journal. Talk about economy of effort…

To Kill A Mockingbird is powerful stuff. Lee drew on her childhood experiences in Monroeville, Alabama, to weave together a story that deals with rape, racism and injustice and yet somehow retains a warmth and sense of humour.

Factoid: Following the author’s death in February 2016, a “new” novel, titled Go Set A Watchman, was published. The book is, in fact, an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.

5. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982)

“Just measured my thing. It has grown one centimetre. I might be needing it soon.” 

Coming of age books don’t have to be hard-hitting literature. That’s not to do-down the quality of Sue Townsend’s hilarious classic, the diary of Ashby-De-La-Zouch’s most nerve-shredded teenager.

Adrian Albert Mole is nearly 14 and a frustrated intellectual. He is bored, alienated by his parents’ disintegrating marriage and consumed with lust for the beautiful Pandora. Naturally, their love is doomed.

Townsend skewers the over-earnestness of teenage life brilliantly, covering everything from zits to the Norwegian leather industry (the latter of which Adrian is something of an authority on).

Factoid: Allegedly, Townsend selected Ashby-De-La-Zouch to be Adrian’s home town because of its geographical position in the slap-bang centre of the country; it’s literally Middle England.

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08/2016 Red Bulletin

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