Now that we’re well into September, most college students are getting back to classes (unless you took summer classes, in which case I’m sorry that I’m reminding you that you can’t ‘get back’ to class because you never left). And that means one thing for current students… no sleep ‘til Brooklyn! A full course load! Work study jobs! Endless papers and labs! Attempting to maintain a social life!
So what with your extremely busy student schedule, you probably want to read a novel or two just for fun. Right? I’m not the only one who reads to unwind, right?
Seriously, though, if you ever find yourself with any unfilled time, you should pick up one (or all) of these 5 great campus novels. And if you’ve already graduated and have some actual free time, you can still read these novels to invoke some college nostalgia.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This is actually the novel that inspired me to write this post, as I just read it and it’s still fresh in my mind. Set at the fictional college of Wellington (which is maaaybe supposed to be kind of like Harvard), the novel follows a middle-aged art history professor and his family as they contend with infidelity, academic rivalries, and _______. My favorite character was Zora, the professor’s daughter and a current student at Wellington. I think she’s likely to strike a chord with anyone who was or is a type A, overachieving and slightly insecure college student.
Another really cool thing about the novel is that it looks at the perspective of characters who are both inside and outside the university system, and the characters who are outside the system manage to draw attention to just how ridiculous policies in academia can be.
Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy
I have to admit, I didn’t like this book when I first read it. I think that’s largely because I read it for a class on 1950s novels, and everything we’d already read in that class basically boiled down to ‘white man has an existential crisis’, and then I saw this book on the reading list and thought, “Mary! That’s traditionally a woman’s name! Finally, another perspective.” And then it was a novel about a white male professor having an existential crisis.
Looking back on it now, though, I realize it’s about a lot more than just that, and while it’s not the easiest read, it’s definitely worth it. I think it’s the kind of novel Jane Austen would have written if she went to an American college in the 1950s, in that there’s a lot of really clever, funny, and subtle commentary on the social microcosm that is a university campus. The section about the faculty trying to get a visiting poet to come to their campus in the middle of nowhere is particularly great and reminded me a lot of my own experience going to a small college in the middle of nowhere.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
At times this book felt like it hit eerily close to home to me, in part because of the obvious reasons that the main character majored in English (like me!) and shares me name (she spells it wrong by adding an extra ‘e’, but still). It begins during the main characters’ senior year at Brown in the 1980s and follows them during their first year out of college.
Probably less than half the novel takes place on the Brown campus, if I’m remembering correctly, but what I like about this book is that it looks at the way the relationships and ideas we form in college continue to influence us after we graduate.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
This is a fairly recent one that doesn’t show up on too many ‘best campus novels’ lists, which is a shame because it’s freaking awesome. A lot of people might not consider it a campus novel in the first place, instead categorizing it as a fantasy novel in which the main characters go to a secret college for people who have magical powers (it’s Harry Potter with more sex, drinking, and swearing). I’ve always liked fantasy novels, so that aspect of the story appeals to me, but I also like that underneath the spells and evil creatures, it’s a pretty accurate look at college and post-grad life.
I know that probably sounds like a weird thing to say, but I think the novel is spot on when it comes to depicting the stress of an academic workload, competition in college, and the close friendships you form during this time of your life. It also examines a theme that a lot of campus novels don’t—the idea that students leave college with a skill set and then don’t know what to do with themselves afterwards. Sounds kind of depressing (and at times the book is) but it’s also a great read. I’d say if you only find time to read one book on this list, make it The Magicians. (This post brought to you by the Committee to Elect The Magicians Best Campus Novel Ever.)