No matter how old you are, the back-to-school season holds a certain kind of allure – be it nostalgia for scholarly tradition, the crisping of the days, a Pavlovian need to buy books, or just the satisfaction that you don’t have to be in class ever again. If you’re looking to indulge yourself without the schoolwork, you may take pleasure in another hallowed tradition: the campus novel. That is, books concerning the lives of students, professors, and miscellaneous academics, generally in or around a college. Here are 50 of the best of these, limited to one per author. Read them all and you’ll definitely get an A – or take another tack and amend the syllabus in the comments.
The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy
One of the first college novels, The Groves of Academe is still one of the best, a sharp satire that follows a Joyce expert after his teaching position is threatened, based on McCarthy’s own teaching experiences at Bard and Sarah Lawrence.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
If you’ve been paying attention to this space, you might have noticed the regard the Flavorwire editors have for all things Tartt, and especially for this novel, a strange, perfect book starring a set of mysterious Greek scholars, pagan rituals, and fatal flaws. P.S: If you haven’t read it, time’s a-ticking – Tartt’s long-awaited third novel, an epic art-world caper, hits shelves in October, and it’s best to be fully prepared.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
Consistently named as one of the funniest books of all time (usually battling for the top spot with A Confederacy of Dunces), Amis’ slim first novel is a comedy of errors centered around its eponymous James Dixon, a junior professor at a provincial university. He rather hates it, though, and what’s more, can’t seem to stop fouling things up for himself. Hijinks in the department head’s house, overlapping love triangles, “Merrie England” – what more does a campus novel need?
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s sardonic, tragicomic take on university life draws on his own time as a professor at Cornell, and its eponymous character is said to be based on a professor there (something he’s probably not particularly happy about). Bolstered by Nabokov’s trademark language and sparkling powers of observation, our poor bumbling Pnin looks at the academic world from the outside and the inside at once, even as both mock him.
On Beauty, Zadie Smith
This luminous campus novel is an insightful investigation into the stuff of life: adultery, religion, identity crises, racial tension, classism, an art professor who can’t see real beauty when it stands before him. Just to make the academic-ness a little more meta, the book is also a kind of literary study on its own, a tribute to Howard’s End. As Smith writes, “My largest structural debt should be obvious to any E.M. Forster fan; suffice it to say he gave me a classy old frame, which I covered with new material as best I could.” Luckily, she has a great hand for upholstery.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
One of the greatest campus novels of all time doesn’t even much take place on a campus – though there are certainly enough scenes in scholars’ offices to get a picture. This beautifully written book is billed by Byatt as a romance, but really it’s a romance within a romance, and a caper and a mystery besides, all set in gorgeous landscapes both literal and literary.
Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers
In Powers’ wonderfully cerebral novel, the protagonist (that’d be, er, Richard Powers) is the Humanist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences, where he seeks to teach a neural net the secrets of literature.
The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is no stranger to the campus novel, and her most recent effort can keep pace with the best of them. Just ask Stephen King, who wrote of it in the Times, “Joyce Carol Oates has written what may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it. I wish I could tell you more.”
Moo, Jane Smiley
Wickedly witty and tons of fun, Smiley’s novel, set at “cow college,” is one of the greats of academic satire.
Straight Man, Richard Russo
On the goofy end of the spectrum is Russo’s Straight Man, wherein William Henry Devereaux, chair of a woefully underfunded English department, gets into all sorts of trouble — like threatening to kill a duck a day until he gets the budget he’s requested. A perennial favorite for its uproarious laughs, but also for its serious side.
Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon
Professor Grady Tripp has some troubles – he’s addicted to pot, his wife just left him, his mistress is pregnant, and he can’t for the life of him finish the long-awaited follow up to his acclaimed novel. Add to that his accidental involvement in the bizarre and criminal hijinks of his prize student, and you have a proper mess. A modern classic, written with Chabon’s usual warmth and verve.
Porterhouse Blue, Tom Sharpe
This hilarious satirical novel follows the events that unfold after the master of Porterhouse — a fictional college at Cambridge — dies without naming his successor. The new guy, once he’s throned, has a rather lot of exciting (and liberal!) ideas to implement, fought tooth and nail by the head porter. And well, you all know what happens when someone comes in and starts doing the things that just aren’t done.
Tam Lin, Pamela Dean
This novel is a bit of an outlier on this list – a campus novel that’s also a modern fantasy, based on the Scottish folk ballad of the same name. But its greater project is truly an academic one — Dean has described this novel as a “love poem” to “my college, and ultimately to the study of English literature.” Indeed, the book is a study in allusion, drawing from a host of sources, from Keats to Shakespeare. A must-read for any English major.
Stoner, John Williams
Many of the books on this list are satires, but this is something better. The eponymous William Stoner is an unremarkable man, a farm boy who becomes an English professor at a rather undistinguished Midwestern university, unable to reach the academic heights he wishes, unable to connect with his wife, and this perfect, too often ignored novel renders his quiet failure so beautifully that any reader is inevitably moved by its depth. It is a novel that redeems the everyman — that makes even a small, unimportant life seem beautifully poignant.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
Harbach’s much buzzed-about 2011 debut is a compulsively readable story (that is, you’ll bring this book to the bar with you, or, like Jay McInerney, barely even make it to your meals) about friendship, scholarship, love, and truth. Oh, and you know – baseball.
Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
A campus novel-cum-mystery by a veritable master of the mysterious, Gaudy Night is thrilling and engaging on its own. But Sayers raises the 1935 novel to the next level with its philosophical bent and pointed investigation into women’s right to be educated – which led some to deem the book to be the first ever feminist mystery novel.
White Noise, Don DeLillo
DeLillo’s National Book Award-winning novel follows Midwestern scholar Jack Gladney, a pioneer in Hitler studies who, along with his fourth wife, can’t stop worrying about his own death. This is sort of a cheat, because after the first section, things take a turn away from any semblance of satirical campus novel territory and rather spread out, but then, an airborne toxic event can do that.
Pictures from an Institution, Randall Jarrell
Another of the founding fathers of the campus novel genre (and even featuring an unflattering portrait of Mary McCarthy in the rude Gertrude), Jarrell’s first book is clever, satirical, and rife with verbal pyrotechnics — as a contemporary review put it, “Mr. Jarrell coins epigrams, scatters paradoxes, strews wisecracks and drops fanciful exaggerations around him as he prances through these polished pages with a facility and wit that are almost breathtaking.”
Giles Goat Boy, Or, The Revised New Syllabus, John Barth
The book that catapulted Barth into the public eye is allegorical, meta-fictional, flat out bizarre – and also an engaging campus novel about a boy raised as a goat who becomes the leader of New Tammany College, which may or may not represent the United States in its entirety. Trust Barth to explode the genre into its most far-reaching implications, while bringing joy in all the littlest moments on the page.
Changing Places, David Lodge
David Lodge might be the master of the campus novel genre – Changing Places is just the first of his “Campus Trilogy,” the second two of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The first amusing installment concerns the universities of Plotinus (in the state of Euphoria) and Rummidge, modeled on UC Berkeley and England’s Birmingham respectively, who exchange professors for six months. It’s a goofy cross-pond romp with serious undertones. Fun fact: according to Lodge, Morris Zapp, the American professor, is based on Stanley Fish.
Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Fariña
A cult classic of counterculture literature, Fariña’s only novel is a hallucinatory account of, among other things, young Gnossos Pappadopoulis’s adventures in an upstate college town – the fictional Athene, based on Ithaca, home of Cornell. Thomas Pynchon, who was a friend, described the book as “coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch… hilarious, chilling, sexy, profound, maniacal, beautiful and outrageous all at the same time.” Another fun fact: Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Fariña.
The Masters, C.P. Snow
Touted by some as “the best academic novel in English,” The Masters is all politics, treachery, and ambition in the cloistered world of Cambridge in 1937 as the fellows gather to elect a new Master. Fun fact: in a later novel of the same series, Strangers and Brothers, Snow coined the common idiom “corridors of power.” Relevant!
The Big U, Neal Stephenson
Stephenson himself hates this novel, his first, a wild satire of a universe-like university all contained in a single building – but other people love it, so what does he know?
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
Disgrace is barely a campus novel, though it is often categorized as such. All the campus happens at the beginning, when literature professor David Lurie, after taking advantage of a student, refuses to apologize or acknowledge any guilt and is removed from his post. It’s after this, well, disgrace that the meat of the novel happens, and so the academic setup is easy to forget. Still, it’s such a fantastic novel, harrowing, brutal, and morally complex, the winner of the Booker Prize, that even this much academia gets it onto this list.
Blue Angel, Francine Prose
In this withering look at aging, art, and academia, Prose tackles the teacher-student affair trope with aplomb. The teacher: a past-prime creative writing professor filled with repressed lust and bitterness at his own lifelong “high-minded self denial.” The student: a talented, ambitious punk who, like Lolita before her, toes the line between possessor and possessed. The book: pretty delightful.
The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury
Bradbury’s 1975 novel investigates moral responsibility, gender roles, and the state of the world, both academic and otherwise, in early-1970s Britain. Though the book garnered mixed reviews in its time, it has since been recognized as an important classic, and not just of the genre. In The Guardian, aforementioned campus novelist David Lodge writes, “The counterculture radicalism which the novel anatomised is now itself history, as is (in Britain at least) the right-wing radicalism which superseded it. But today there are new forms of radicalism, fundamentalisms of various kinds, and The History Man is still relevant, warning of what can happen when, in the words of WB Yeats, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’”
My Education, Susan Choi
The newest addition to the canon is Susan Choi’s My Education, which begins on familiar ground (celebrated professor, sexy young graduate student) and, after only a slight amount of teasing, takes rather an unexpected turn as the student falls for the professor’s wife. Filled with delightful observations and witty, sharp prose, this tale of obsession is likely to obsess you.
The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits
Like a few of the other books on this list, Julavits’ most recent novel only begins as a campus novel, before venturing outward (like life, for some). This particular campus, however, is peculiar: the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology is graduate school for psychics – they call it “the Workshop,” like a certain graduate program for writers. When Julia, stenographer to the great Madame Ackermann, gets on her mentor’s bad side, she finds herself the victim of psychic attacks, sent, like so many more reality-based versions, via email, or perhaps sneakily implemented at departmental parties. Then there is Julavits’ prose, sophisticated and playful, and not to be missed.
Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
One of the very earliest campus novels, Beerbohm’s 1911 satire lampoons the undergraduate life at Oxford – not to mention the swooning passions of collegiate men, who can’t be kept from offing themselves over the beauty of the eponymous Zuleika.
A New Life, Bernard Malamud
This semi-autobiographical campus novel is one of the great Malamud’s least appreciated – Jonathan Lethem called it “An overlooked masterpiece. It may still be undervalued as Malamud’s funniest and most embracing novel.” Within, a New York teacher makes a new start in a college in the Pacific Northwest, but is somewhat less successful than he had hoped.
The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes
This academic satire is rather enhanced by its wacky supernatural twist: poor Nelson Humboldt, “a former visiting adjunct lecturer, on his way to failed academic,” is crossing the quad when the clock strikes 13, someone calls out his name three times, and he falls backwards over a woman to find his finger sliced off by a passing bicycle. It’s when the finger is reattached that the strangeness begins, however, as it has the power to induce others to do his bidding.
The Human Stain, Philip Roth
If you’re a fan of Roth, you’re already familiar with a certain Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of this tale – but the novel is truly about Coleman Silk, a former professor who was ousted due to charges of racism. You may remember the time that Roth wrote to Wikipedia to correct their entry on the novel, and they told him that he wasn’t a credible source. If not, get meta with academic novels and online sources here.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, Lan Samantha Chang
Chang has been the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop since 2006, so she knows her writing-school business. She’s also an excellent writer herself. This novel follows the careers of two young writers, beginning in a prestigious Midwestern writing program, of course, and along the way investigates relationships both academic and personal, not to mention the shifting sands of ambition, talent, and not a little bit of narcissism.
The War Between the Tates, Alison Lurie
Lurie’s classic of campus fiction is set in the oh-so-turbulent late ‘60s, tackling not only the regular lineup of academic politics and extramarital affairs but also the Vietnam War, feminism, drugs, and the changing sexual rules of the time. Like a few other authors on this list, Lurie taught at Cornell. What is it about that place?
The Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis
Let’s say it gently: Bret Easton Ellis has, via Twitter, rather undermined his literary prestige. Still, that doesn’t keep this dark, twisty campus novel from being worth your while. Also, Donna Tartt fans should keep an eye out for the classics majors at Ellis’ Camden who “dress like undertakers.” You probably know them.
The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
The San Francisco Chronicle called this bestselling literary puzzle-box thriller “one part The Da Vinci Code, one part The Name of the Rose and one part A Separate Peace.” Decoding the mysteries of Renaissance literature has never been so compelling.
The Name of the World, Denis Johnson
Johnson’s spare, beautiful novel is no satire of college parties and philandering, but an investigation into the world of a middle-aged professor who has lost his family in a tragic accident. Who, yes, then meets a sexy redheaded student to drive him into moral hysterics. Johnson’s ultra-specific vagaries work wonders here.
Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain, Jeffrey Moore
In this charming first novel, a young Shakespeare professor tries to parse the truth, The Page (which supposedly holds the secrets to his entire life), and his own “dark lady.”
I am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe
Critics and readers both were pretty split on this novel – Wolfe’s story of a sheltered young woman’s experiences at a thinly veiled Duke University. But the thing is too sprawling and full of both great and terrible moments to ignore. It is, at any rate, worth reading so you can decide which side of the fence you come down on.
Waking the Moon, Elizabeth Hand
Be careful at school this semester – it might be that you discover that your hallowed halls are actually a sanctuary for the Benandanti, a cult devoted to suppressing the Moon Goddess. Well, probably not, but such is the case in Hand’s lyrical post-feminist fantasy, in which the Goddess is a destroyer and sex has serious consequences – if you’re one of the Chosen Ones.
The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
This novel, set at Cambridge in 1912, is a love story, a ghost story, and a novel of ideas, centered around a physics student (a junior fellow at the all-male St. Angelicus College) and the pretty nurse he runs into on his bicycle.
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
In some ways the archetypal campus novel, though certainly much more earnest than the most famous books of the genre, Fitzgerald’s mostly autobiographical tale of life and love at Princeton is wonderful, and too often forgotten in the shadow of that other book he wrote.
The Translator, John Crowley
Under the pressure of the overhanging Cuban Missile Crisis, a young college student develops a complex relationship with her professor, an exiled Russian poet. It makes the list for this description of the act of translation alone: “She thought, long after, that she had not then ever explored a lover’s body, learned its folds and articulations, muscle under skin, bone under muscle, but that this was really most like that: this slow probing and working in his language, taking it in or taking hold of it; his words, his life, in her heart, in her mouth too.”
Swann, Carol Shields
In this literary mystery, four academics converge around an obscure poet murdered by her husband. Sure, the book may fit more comfortably into the “academic novel” category than the tighter “campus novel” designation, but it’s worth the squeeze – after all, the venerable Margaret Atwood called this stunner “one of the best novels I have read… deft, funny, poignant, surprising and beautifully shaped-in total command of itself and its language.”
Obedience, Will Lavender
On the first day of Winchester University’s Logic and Reasoning 204, Professor Williams lays out their assignment: follow a set of clues to find a (fictional, probably) missing 18-year-old girl before she is murdered. As the class/conspiracy widens, thickens, and generally starts to take over everyone’s lives, the students begin to question what exactly is real, and what is just classwork.
The Gadget Maker, Maxwell Griffith
An unusual variant of the campus novel, Griffith’s 1955 book details the life of a student at MIT in the ‘40s, who goes on to build a guided missile in the early years of the Cold War.
A Tenured Professor, John Kenneth Galbraith
In this clever satire, Harvard economics professor Montgomery Marvin sets out to get rich quick – so he can use the money to effect social change, of course. Things don’t quite work out that way, of course, but at least Marvin has tenure.
Another You, Ann Beattie
Witty and compassionate as ever, Beattie’s Another You follows an emotionally stunted professor as he gets sucked into the bizarre world of a student.
Harvard Square, André Aciman
“Cambridge was a desert,” Aciman’s narrator – a broke Egyptian graduate student – tells us at the beginning of his third novel. There’s always something thickly nostalgic about school in the summer, and something existential, and both of these are borne out by the narrator and his new friend, a brash taxi driver named Kalaj. Affecting and beautiful, this is Aciman’s best yet.
The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies
As resident campus novel expert David Lodge (him again) puts it: “The Rebel Angels reads like the result of an unlikely collaboration between C.P. Snow and Muriel Spark, with assistance from Thomas Love Peacock and the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. Snow’s relish for the cosy intrigues of academic politics is combined with Muriel Spark’s zany supernaturalism, Peacock’s love of good talk, and Burton’s sardonic delight in esoteric learning and human eccentricity.”