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5 Campus Novels to Help You Through It

In the age of aesthetics, Pinterest, and a stunningly shot 15 second Tik-Tok, the need for inspiration is an obvious motivator on the ways we want to look and interpret our lives. We look to our 2022 outfit board for what to wear this week, or a quick google search of “How to dress ‘cottage core’ when its still 95℉ outside” will do the job quite efficiently. But when it comes to such an individual topic like the college experience, it can be harder to channel that same motivation from aesthetics just through photographs of your college campus, trust me, I wish it would. Personally, I find that whenever I become closely connected with a character via a movie, television show, or book, I start to mimic that character as a way of inspiration as I would mimic an outfit or recipe. While I do enjoy movies, and binge the occasional show, being an English Major, I have to say that the characters I interact with most.

The Secret History by: Donna Tartt

This is one of those “If you know, you know” books. I read this right before I started my college journey and I truly believe that I am a better student since reading this book. The book follows new student and outsider Richard Papen as he enrolls in the classics department of Hampden College in Vermont. Once there, he befriends the oddly small group of students in his department, getting so worked up in their studies that one small twist of fate leads them to murder their friend. There are many fun ways to look at this story as either a modern Greek tragedy, or even a how-done-it instead of a who-done-it. But personally, I like to look at one of the best campus novels, from a master storyteller. While my group of friends has not – and does not plan to – murder someone from our group, it does inspire you to have nice conversations with your professor, and maybe pick up a classics course every now and then. 

The Marriage Plot by: Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides is mostly known for his novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, but let me just say, that this novel is a hidden treasure of campus novels. The story follows a group of students who eventually create an Austen-like romance throughout their senior year of Brown University. The characters are people you have come across many times, like the stoic philosopher boy and the maybe a bit pretentious English studies girl. The story is witty, sexy, academic, and inspiring in its conversations. I also give props as it shows life after college for the characters, and how they apply their education out in the “real world”.

Vladimir by: Julia May Jonas

Okay, I’m going to be honest, I had no idea this was going to be a campus novel until I started reading it. I picked it up because of the cover and I won’t apologize for that. In the end, I’m glad my female intuition to go towards the hot, shirtless man cover won because this is a great book. I would compare this book to the works of Otessa Moshfegh, in the sense of it being a strong, opinionated, and powerful female lead, who makes some questionable decisions throughout the book. Our main perspective is from a middle-aged female professor whose husband is going on probation for having affairs with the students. While this is only a sub-plot of our main character, the topic of lust is heavy throughout the novel. There is also some unexpected dialogue throughout the novel in the lecture she gives, talking about the political conversation surrounding classic literature. This novel gave me an interesting prompt to listen to group discussion as the teacher may be thinking about it, as well of the way that I think about it. Throughout her lectures, personal life, and social life, our main character is consistently lusting after something. What that is – or who – I’ll leave you to find out.

On Beauty by: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of the best writers of our generation, period. I think everyone should read at least one of her works of nonfiction to truly grasp her greatness, other than that, everyone should read On Beauty. On Beauty is an homage to Howard’s End by E.M. Forester, which just shows the level of appreciation that Smith has of great literature. The story is of two rival academic families in New England which goes further than just academics and comes down to the topics of race, sexism, and identity. Smith shows the hypocrisy of academics and how the debate of “should these people be allowed to be” is cruel and unjust, while creating a whole conversation, on the conversation itself! The characters take the world, and flip it upside down with their actions, causing a chaos that deserves praise. It’s insane, it’s perfect literature, and it’s inspiring as a reader and writer. (While the amount of campus is limited in comparison to the others, I think conversation you’re able to have afterwards makes up for it).

Groundskeeping by: Lee Cole

Groundskeeping is one of those beautiful “slice of life” books that I will just devour any day of the week. This is a debut novel by Lee Cole, whom I will be keeping a very close eye on, as he has nailed the thought of feeling too old for college perfectly. I am a transfer student, and a couple years older than some of my classmates. I relate heavily to Owen, our main character, and how he feels when talking about his academic process and the ache of wanting to complete your academic career while also itching to start your post-graduate career. The plot is over the course of the 2016 election and weighs heavily on politics, with the overarching conversation being how to escape one’s past, without completely leaving your loved ones behind? It’s really a beautiful story of love, grief, family, and the art of writing. It may have slipped under the radar for some people, and I feel one of my purposes in life is to get people to read this book.

Some honorable mentions: 

  • Normal People by: Sally Rooney – While inspiring, I can find this one to cause too much heartbreak and melancholy for me to even leave my bed to go to my campus.
  • Stoner by: John Williams –  A classic and deserves to be one, but again, a bit depressing to cause me joy in my college career. 
  • Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – Ivy League and secret societies. While it wasn’t my cup of tea, it may be yours so check it out! Plus, who doesn’t want to exist in Yale for 500 pages?
I am a transfer sophomore student here at CofC, majoring in English with a concentration of creative writing. I love to read and write (duh), but also surf, enjoy good food, go to the movies, and then surf again. I also appreciate philosophy, stimulating conversations, and exciting academic studies.
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