A book list for the start of the university year

This year I have moved away from classroom teaching to a job in a university, so the first part of September has been unusually restful.  I’m aware that the term start for uni students is coming up though so, in honour of this and of my new job, now feels like a good time for a list of my top University-set novels.

imgres.jpgIt was back in 1992 that Donna Tartt wrote her thrilling debut ‘The Secret History.’  The novel begins after terrible crimes have been committed, the opening paragraph setting out the writer’s skill and her narrator’s chillingly measured tone: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.  He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.’  What seems at first like an experiment in plural first person writing soon reveals itself as a masterful exploration of college cliques and aspirations.  The narrator, Richard, is enamoured by the sophisticated charm, class and glamour of a small group within the college.  Questions about who is in and who is out, about how much power dominant personalities can wield and about how far fate can be avoided all make this doorstop of a novel a fast-paced page turner guaranteed to make your own university experiences seem blissfully prosaic.

imgresI mostly revere Larkin for his poetry, but he was also an accomplished novelist and his 1946 book ‘Jill’ was written during his own years as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford.  It’s a short novel, but it still finds space to take its protagonist, John Kemp, to the extremes of social humiliation.  Kemp is a studious young man who is completely out of his depths among the hideous public-school cliques that surround him.  In his introduction to the novel, Larkin references ‘Brideshead Revisited’ (another wonderful university novel), but unlike Waugh, or Donna Tartt, he’s not the kind of writer who will let his protagonist somehow find a place amongst the elite.  If painfully cringe-worthy social scenes are your thing, I really recommend ‘Jill’ for a timeless story of shy adolescence.

imgres.jpgA real English classic of privileged and eccentric university life, this 1911 novel’s full title is ‘Zuleika Dobson or  An Oxford Love Story.’  The all-male world of the university is shocked to its core by the ravishing presence of Zuleika Dobson.  Undergraduate after undergraduate falls for her facile and superficial charms, but it seems the outstandingly attractive Duke of Dorset may be her equal, even if ‘he was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring any one else.’  Beerbohm met Oscar Wilde during his own Oxford student days and while the topics of his satire may seem more dated than those in Wilde’s prose, his studied irreverence remains a joy.  This is hardly a book that recalls the modern university experience, but it is a great period piece and an exotic look at the educational system behind an empire.

EqR.cover.jpgIf the dated charm of ‘Zuleika Dobson’ doesn’t work for you, a more modern look at a woman infiltrating a men-only university is given in Terry Pratchett’s 1987 ‘Equal Rites’ the third novel in the now epic Discworld series.  The first two novels featured the UU (Unseen University), but here it really takes centre stage as the first female wizard attempts to gain access to the magical knowledge therein.  I read this book before going to university myself, so I could only partly appreciate the depiction of characters who ‘savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things’; those who ‘really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.’  I can guarantee that more knowledge only makes reading Pratchett more fun, so I recommend Equal Rites to anyone with a taste for comic fiction – whatever their own experiences of education might be.

imgres.jpg‘Emotionally Weird’ was my favourite Kate Atkinson novel while I was at university.  Published in 2000 it is a laugh-out-loud funny account of student life in a fictional University of Dundee in 1972.  Peopled by an eclectic mixture of stoners, hippies, academics and the odd confused civilian it’s a brilliantly playful take on the detective story, with a lovely gentle satire on modern creative writing thrown in for good measure.  The narrator, Effie, is trying to complete her degree, including a a creative writing assignment ‘another degree paper I was probably going to fail, and to make matters worse my assignment, ‘The Hand of Fate’, was a crime novel, the least reputable genre there was, according to Martha (‘Why? Why? Why?’) and I had to pretend to her that crime writing was a postmodernist kind of thing these days, but I could tell that she wasn’t convinced.  ‘Emotionally Weird’ is a wonderful stand-alone novel from the author who was to write the excellent Jackson Brodie crime series – it’s a coming of age book in so many ways, all framed through a literature student’s experience.


Universities aren’t all about students, of course, and no book list about the academic life could be complete without Kingsley Amis’s 1954 classic, ‘Lucky Jim.’  Jim Dixon is the antithesis of the driven academic.  He’s a highly reluctant lecturer in medieval history at an unnamed and uninspiring university and the book follows his desperate attempts to hold on to his job.  The plot is full of hysterical highlights that I won’t even attempt to sketch out; instead, I’ll just give a taste of one favourite passages.  ‘It wasn’t the double exposure effects of the last half-minute’s talk that had dumbfounded him … it was the prospect of reciting the title of the article he’d written.  It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.  Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance.  ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began.  This what neglected topic?  This strangely what topic?  This strangely neglected what?’  ‘Lucky Jim’ has to be one of the most self-disgusted accounts of academia in the English language, and I love it!

imgres.jpgFor another, equally irreverent view of English academia, every book in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy is a delight.  The first is about a cultural exchange whereby Philip Swallow, an unremarkable academic from Rummidge (a fictional Birmingham) is given the opportunity to experience life and work in Euphoric State (a fictional Berkeley).  While he is off, Rummidge is hit with his US replacement, Morris Zapp.  Between getting engulfed in fish-out-of-water comedy moments, the two men start to settle into their new locations, until more than just jobs are swapped (if you see what I mean).  My favourite of the trilogy is ‘Small World’ where Swallow and Zapp are reunited and swept along a seemingly never-ending circuit of international academic conferences.  Read this after ‘Lucky Jim’ if you really want to get the most out of the dramatically unprepared academic lecture scene.  For English students especially, there is much to relish in these two novels, and the concluding ‘Nice Work,’ as academic theories and fashions are pastiched and mocked. The literary games aren’t just about content, the structure of ‘Small World’ consciously echoes Arthurian romance while ‘Nice Work’ is a reworked ‘North and South.’  Good, if not always clean, academic fun!

I realise there are gaps (I haven’t even mentioned Philip Roth’s ‘The Human Stain’ or Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’).  What other top university books would you recommend for readers with a passion for life long learning?

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23 Responses to A book list for the start of the university year

  1. Ann Marie says:

    Great post! I just added three of these to my TBR. As a blogger and a reader, I spend most of my time concentrating on new books. It’s great to learn about good books I wouldn’t have otherwise come across.

  2. Nice list! One of my favourite university books is Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” – love it!

  3. Great post! By coincidence, I picked up the Art of Fielding in my favourite charity bookshop today – I’ve heard good things. I wrote on Wonder Boys this week in my blog, although very little takes place on the actual campus!

    Jill sounds wonderful – I’ll definitely look out for it 🙂

  4. JacquiWine says:

    A very interesting selection. I was about to suggest The Art of Fielding, too – it was a hit with my book group a few years ago. Javier Marias’ All Souls features an Oxford college setting – a wonderful book full of priceless set pieces, highly recommended. Best of luck in your new role, sounds exciting.

    • Thank you, and thank you so much for the Marias recommendation, he’s a writer who’s been on my radar for ages but I’ve never known quite where to start with his canon so I promise I’m taking your praise of ‘All Souls’ very seriously.

  5. Elle says:

    I’d highly recommend AS Byatt’s Frederica quartet for some excellent campus scene-sketching; the second, Still Life, and the fourth, A Whistling Woman, are particularly good on the changing university culture of the ’60s!

    • Thank you so much for the suggestion. The only Byatt I’ve read has been ‘Possession’ which was academia, but not really university, based. It’s great to hear the quartet so highly recommended – I’ll start looking out for ‘The Virgin in the Garden’ forthwith!

  6. I’ve been mulling over my own college-and-university list, and you’ve gotten in ahead of me on some of my best ideas. But I have a few other cards up my sleeve: there’s Robertson Davies’s Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What’s Bred in the Bone, and The Lyre of Orpheus); Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (set at a magical version of my alma mater, Carleton College); and Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, which I can’t remember whether I’ve actually read or not… time for a reread, obviously!

  7. Sarah says:

    Reading Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’ and John Fowles’ ‘Daniel Martin’ certainly coloured my ideas of what to expect when I went to university a few years later. I don’t remember much of what happens in either novel very clearly (it was a very long time ago!) only I remember thinking my lecturers far more dull than reading these had led me to expect.

    • So not like ‘Emotionally Weird’ then! I nearly quoted one of the lecture scenes in my post: ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ Archie said. (Or something like that) … ‘What do you think of that statement? Anyone?’ No-one answered. No-one ever had any idea what Archie was talking about
      It would probably be only fair to try out one of your suggestions for balance!

  8. BookerTalk says:

    Good selections. To,add to your list how about Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe which is a satirical look at Cambridge or The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury, set in a fictional university in England. I think it coined the term campus novel

  9. Izzy says:

    I was going to suggest History Man, too, but it seems I’m not the only one who loves that novel. Good ! I found it much better than Lucky Jim.

  10. Izzy says:

    I’ve been trying to work out how Nice Work is a retelling of North and South, and I haven’t a clue, dammit ! Shall I pretend that it’s because of how long ago I read them, and at how long an interval ?

    • I cheated, because I was told of the connection before reading the novel so could see how it fitted into place (somewhat sheltered intelligent woman moving to an industrial town … getting to know a local industrialist … learning new things about society ….)

  11. Lisa Hill says:

    Jane Smiley writes campus novels, but I like David Lodge best:)

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