What’s a bildungsroman?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: bildungsroman.

My son is studying to become an opera singer so we hear lots of languages in our house — Italian, German, Spanish and French among others.

When I saw bildungsroman I knew it was a word my son would love (he favours Germanic terms). Here is the sentence in which it appeared, in the New York Times, Aug. 28/13:

Simple Dreams is less an autobiography than an artist’s bildungsroman.

The story, by Sam Tanenhaus,  focused on Linda Ronstadt’s new memoir (Simple Dreams) and talked about her Parkinson’s disease.  (I’d had no idea she was sick until I read this article.) Incidentally, it also carried the perfect headline: Like a Wheel, but Turning Slower.

But what’s a bildungsroman? I could tease out the French word roman, meaning novel, yet I wasn’t sure what bildungs meant. It seemed Germanic to me. Sure enough, it dates back to 1910 and comes from bildung meaning “education, formation, growth.”

Simply put, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story, focusing on the psychological and moral growth of the main character from youth to adulthood. If you have any interest in Linda Ronstadt, you can read the article on her new memoir here. (It’s particularly fascinating to learn what she has to say about writing.)