Mountain View

The world in books

“But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into the depths of confusion you didn't know existed”, writes Evelyn Waugh of his protagonist’s fellow students in Brideshead Revisited (1945). Perhaps the most iconic ‘campus novel’ of all time, the book recounts Charles Ryder’s days at Oxford University, its many witticisms encasing a chasmic, oozing nostalgia.

The ‘campus novel’ sub-genre has been comforting and challenging future, past, and present students since its first incarnation, allowing readers to find at once familiarity and discomfort in such stories of solitude, of ambition, of growth. However, there’s only so many times you can re-read The Secret History, and sadly Caroline Calloway’s earlier Instagram captions don’t yet count as literature, so below is a selection of slighter lesser-known books about university to get you back in the academic spirit, without having to tackle your actual Michaelmas reading list.

The Idiot (2018) by Elif Batuman

One of the best novels I read all summer, The Idiot follows Turkish American student Selin through her first year at Harvard. Selin meets all the same intolerable people you met during freshers, faces all the same humiliations, and asks all the same questions, which amounts to a painstakingly accurate depiction of the balancing act that is student-life. As clever as it is funny, Batuman’s debut novel allows us to laugh at our own stupidity, and celebrate our own cluelessness.

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Looking at university life from a rather different perspective, Stoner’s protagonist experiences it both as a student and an academic. As war breaks out and time moves on around him, William Stoner stays on campus, not only a part of, but subsumed by, the institution. While most campus novels work based on the very liminality of their setting, Williams details an entire lifespan within the walls of the University of Missouri, creating a cycle of awakenings that entraps the reader as much as its protagonist; it is addictive in its very tragedy.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce

Arguably the greatest Künstlerroman of the 20th century, Joyce’s first, heavily-autobiographical novel tracks the intellectual awakening of Stephen Daedalus. Although only its final act is set at university (Specifically University College, Dublin), the novel is concerned throughout with the limitations of both philosophical and theological education; it reaches a symphonic climax in Stephen’s acceptance of alienation as he leaves behind a higher education that he sees as claustrophobic in its emptiness. While it’s unlikely to help you fall back in love with academia, its sweeping introspection brazenly addresses the loneliness of student life that we are often too afraid to acknowledge.

Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World (2019) by Lucy Ives

A much lighter take on university life, American academic Lucy Ives’ dauntless second novel satirises postgraduate education, and specifically targets creative writing as an academic discipline. Interspersed with extracts from different student’s work (of crucially – and sometimes unbearably –varying quality), Loudermilk puppeteers its charmingly ego-centric characters into exposing the depressingly commodified nature of higher education under late capitalism, keeping you smirking all the while.

Journals (1955-1957) of Sylvia Plath

Admittedly, this is not strictly (or even vaguely) a novel, but it is required reading for any Cambridge student; I routinely press the brick-esque paperback into the hands of anyone who will listen. Plath crafts a meticulously, often excessively detailed portrait of her time at Newnham, complete with a healthy supply of academic, social and romantic successes and failures; there is nothing more amusing or galvanising than her resolutions for the Easter term of 1956. In fact, every entry perfectly encapsulates the chaotic, sprawling expansiveness that makes the Cambridge experience what it is: the best of times, the worst of times.