One of my favorite indulgences when the weather gets chillier and the days shorter is to dig out my coziest sweater and a pair of warm socks, make a piping hot chai tea, and snuggle up with a good book.
While I’m not one to revisit my favorite pieces of literature often, I do get nostalgic about certain reads during this time of year and dust them off, even if just to skim a few passages. I’m especially drawn to stories that take place in the autumn and winter months, or are set in classrooms or campuses, preferably with a little dusting of magic or deep life lessons thrown in. In other cases, the books I long to return to are those that I was assigned to read in school and fell in love with.
Here are some of my favorite fall reads that I think pair just perfectly with the season!
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Witches and wizards and muggles, oh my! If you haven’t stepped into the wizarding world of Harry Potter just yet, it’s never too late. And if you’ve already visited Hogwarts a hundred times, it’s never enough. I always get an itch to return to this enchanting series of books (and the movies, too) this time of year!
Harry – a young, orphaned boy who lives with his cold, unloving aunt, uncle, and cousin – has his life turned completely upside down when he finds out he’s a wizard and escapes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – where he learns about and relives his past, fights off dark forces alongside his newfound friends and other magical beings, and, with the guidance of light magic and a host of remarkable mentors, matures into an admirable young man (and wizard!)
If you can’t get enough of this universe, be sure to check out The Cursed Child, Beadle & The Bard, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and don’t forget there are even more of J.K. Rowling’s short stories and creations over on Pottermore.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
In the first book of this three-part series, Gemma Doyle’s life, much like Harry Potter’s, is unexpectedly changed when, on her sixteenth birthday, her mother dies. She’s sent away to a young women’s boarding school and begins experiencing lucid visions, one of which leads her to a cave where she discovers a 25-year-old diary that unlocks a world of questions – and, as she and her friends find them, answers – from the school’s, and its students’, magical past. Eventually, Gemma and her friends discover how to enter into another realm and return back to the school again, repeatedly, but in doing so, bring dark magic back with them – and leave some of theirs behind.
I’ve yet to read the rest of the trilogy, but could re-read this one ten times over!
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Keeping on with the magical school theme, in this novel, the main character, Quentin, a high school senior, is skeptical when it comes to magic. That is, until he’s accepted into a secret, prestigious school of magic in New York.
Despite having an incredible college experience – learning sorcery on top of the social perks of being a university student – he feels lost and unfulfilled upon graduation.
His boredom is short lived, though, when he and his friends discover a magical world – one that harbors a great deal of darkness that they must work together to defeat.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
While I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath’s poetry, it’s her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, that introduced me to her work. It’s loosely based on her own life and experiences with depression. The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman who has landed an internship at a magazine in New York. Rather than being excited and living up the experience as one would expect her to, though, this opportunity causes Esther great anxiety and despondency. Readers are introduced to some of her friends and Buddy, her on-again-off-again boyfriend, and her relationships and feelings about them – trying to find herself through their personalities.
Upon her return home, she finds out she has not been accepted into an esteemed writing course – which devastates her, given that her life revolves around her academics – and in response, she attempts, without success, to write a novel. She slowly begins spiraling into a deep depression and suffers terrible insomnia. She visits a therapist and even undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, to no avail.
She attempts suicide multiple times before she finally ends up in a mental institution under the care of a female therapist, Dr. Nolan, and receives several forms of treatment – which begin to work. It is there that she comes to the realization that a great deal of her anxiety and depression has been caused by the societal standards and judgments that are placed on her as a woman. Through medical treatment and a series of life-changing events, she eventually begins to improve.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
This coming-of-age novel follows Gene Forrester as he returns to his old prep school in England, which he attended in the 1940s, during WWII. He reflects on his time at the school and his relationship with his roommate and close friend, Finny.
Much of the story revolves around the moment when Gene caused Finny to fall from a tree and break his leg – which had a major impact on the rest of both of their lives – and his coming to terms with who he was, why he did it, the envy and alienation he experienced during his time in school, and the forgiveness they eventually granted each other, as well as the impact of the war happening during their time as students.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
In this novel, narrator, Theo Decker, tells readers his unbelievable story about the series of events that caused him to grow up in a very non-traditional, chaotic fashion. His “normal” life changed abruptly and tragically when he was a young boy during a visit to an art museum in New York with his mother. A terrorist bomb explodes at the museum, killing his mother and several other visitors. Disoriented, he has an interaction with an elderly, dying man which causes him to grab “The Goldfinch,” also coincidentally his mother’s favorite painting, and run home.
Once found, he is sent to live with a school friend’s family, befriends an older shop owner in the city, falls in love with a girl who also happened to be at the museum at the time of the bombing, and begins to develop a routine – until his devious father comes to town and drags him to Las Vegas, where he lives a rough, fast, and sometimes dangerous life before returning to New York as a young adult – all the while still secretly and anxiously toting “The Goldfinch” around with him. He skips ahead several years to his more recent life – where trouble still abounds and he tries to wipe the slate clean –while reflecting on whether his life events are a result of fate or his character.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Narrator Kathy, who introduces herself as a “carer” for “donors,” reminisces about her time spent at Hailsham, a boarding school in England, as a child. While standard academics were taught there, the bigger emphasis was teaching the pupils the importance of keeping healthy and creating art – which is regularly shown at exhibits, with the best pieces being chosen and taken away by a mysterious woman known only as “Madame.”
The story focuses mainly on Kathy and her closest friends, Tommy and Ruth. They discover, by a slip of the tongue of one of the teachers (known as “guardians”), that the sole purpose of Hailsham students is to grow up to be organ donors. The story then follows Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy after they leave the school – their adventures, their time as carers, and eventually, their experiences as donors.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan, the author of this book of essays and stories, was a 2012 Yale graduate whose talent had landed her a position at The New Yorker. Just five days after commencement, she was tragically killed in a car accident. This book holds the words she left behind. Words of doubt, words of hope, and thoughts on the endless possibilities that await the millennial generation. All of it, though, can connect and resonate with any audience – of any age or background. Her writing is raw and creative and honest, and, given the circumstances in which it was published, deeply haunting:
“We can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over . . . We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
Miranda July is the queen of making readers (and viewers) feel comfortably uncomfortable. She latches onto those little quirks we all have, or know, and puts them under a microscope, making them the center of attention in her writing. She observes human nature – and the world at large – and extracts the eccentric qualities of the mundane things we universally do and say and think and feel and gives them a sense of wonder and surprise.
I have picked up this book nearly every autumn for several years and, though I’m usually only after one of the short stories, I typically end up reading it cover to cover all over again. Despite so many of the characters being lonely or strange or unlucky or sad, and so many lines cutting like knives, there is a consistent sense of comfort and hope throughout them, too.
I highly recommend July’s other works – books, art experiments, movies, and so on – too!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My quintessential autumn read – one that I actually have gone one too many years without picking up again – is Harper Lee’s masterpiece. The story is loosely based around Lee’s observations of her family, neighbors, and the state of the Deep South during her childhood years.
It’s set in Alabama during the Great Depression, and focuses on Scout, her brother Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus Finch, who is also a lawyer. The children and their friends are both scared, of and captivated by, their neighbor, the reclusive “Boo” Radley, who the adults in town are hesitant to talk about. Theories about him – what he looks like, why he hides away, and so on – run rampant amongst the children, though, and occupy much of their time.
Meanwhile, Atticus is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman – who is found guilty (even though he is clearly innocent) which results in Scout and Jem getting taunted by other kids for his doing so. This leads them to question their own morals, society’s ethics, and the justice system.
Scout and Jem are later attacked by a man tied up in the trial – an accuser of the innocent black man – in an act of retaliation on Atticus making him look bad in court, and Boo comes to their rescue, causing Scout to delve even further into the mindset of Boo and question the principles and hypocrisies of society at the time. Definitely one I think we could all benefit from reading again, given our current state.
These are just a handful of the reads that I crave during the autumn and winter months.
I’d love to hear what books you associate with cozied-up-on-the-couch-reading this time of year. I’m always on the hunt for something new and refreshing to add to my list of favorites. Share away!
All images via Amazon and can be clicked for source.