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Classic Campus Novels

By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Mia Walby

It’s September again, which means there’s a whole new wave of eighteen-year-olds cramming their cars with IKEA essentials, donning questionable fancy dress and enduring the excruciating ritual of repeating their name, hometown and course to everyone they meet. But in a time before Instagram photo dumps existed to document these formative years, the chronicler of the university experience was the campus novel.

Offering timeless, enduring insight into all the growing pains that accompany this time in the student experience, these classics capture the messiness and self-revelation which has always characterised campus life. Whether you’re just starting out, returning to campus, wistfully reminiscing, or cringing at past decisions, we hope these classics can impart some invaluable wisdom not just for university, but for all time.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember,” so confides the eccentric aristocrat Sebastian Flyte to Waugh’s protagonist, Charles Ryder, on an afternoon the pair have stolen away from Oxford’s confines. This desire to “dig it up and remember” emblematises Waugh’s novel, where nostalgia for the past repeatedly blots the present.

During their time at Oxford University, Sebastian touches Charles’ life with a lasting iridescence, the shimmer of which he routinely returns to in order to observe and ruminate on the past. Waugh takes us on an evocative, reflective journey, demonstrating not only how pivotal those halcyon years at university can be, but also how detrimental they may be too, if we allow the nostalgic past to snake through and constrict the present. Magnificently poignant and beautiful, Waugh depicts both the destruction and delight which may stem from that influential time.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is a novel by John Williams first published in 1965. The story follows the life of William Stoner from his childhood on a farm to his career as a literature professor at the University of Missouri. Throughout his career, Stoner is faced with professional rivalries, and with one colleague in particular, Hollis Lomax. Stoner is also engaged in an unhappy marriage with a woman named Edith, where misunderstandings and conflict lead to a lack of emotional connection between the two. However, Stoner finds solace in the world of academia. This novel romanticises studying and learning as a way to find purpose and meaning.

The novel explores themes of finding purpose and fulfilment, the complexities of human connections and the role of learning and academia in one’s construction of their identity. The writing has been praised for its beautifully constructed prose and deep exploration of human relationships and the meaning of life. This quiet and introspective novel is perfect to motivate you to learn and study.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Tartt’s modern classic, The Secret History is a captivating novel following a clique of six university students from the fictional Hampden College in Vermont. The students immerse themselves in the classics discipline, secluding themselves from the outside world as they study poetry and perform bacchanal rituals, and in doing so, create their own morality – which can only lead to evil.

These students are pretentious, arrogant and self-absorbed, but, in a peculiar way, utterly fascinating, and Tartt does an incredible job at uncovering their multi-layered identities and friendships in a way that makes their actions somewhat understandable to the reader. The novel is engulfed in suspense and tension, and the reader is immediately drawn into the story just like the main character, Richard, who is the newcomer to the clique. The murder that ensues leads to a chain reaction within the group and the crumbling of their young lives – yet even the most unappealing character can draw us to their side at the worst of times. This dark academia thriller will have you hooked from the first page.

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

For a more light-hearted and easy read to settle you into university life, Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution is full of all the humour you need. Published in 1954 by this American poet, the novel brilliantly observes and satirises academic life. Subtitled A Comedy, Jarrell meets this expectation through cleverly crafted wit that captures some of the most remarkable aspects of university life.

The titular institution is a women’s college in America: Benton. Packed full of authentic characters, Jarrell’s novel not only completes the full satirical reception, but is also packaged with esoteric references to the arts and humanities. This is an excellent little book full of good humour to keep you company at the beginning of the new academic year.


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