The best campus novels that mix poignancy with humor

Stephen D. Senturia Author Of One Man's Purpose
By Stephen D. Senturia

Who am I?

I spent 36 years on the MIT faculty, an exhilarating stint in the academic fast lane. For 25 of those years, I served on my department’s promotion and tenure committee. I was also a journal editor, a book-series editor, and I ran technical conferences, just the kinds of things one expects from someone in my position. Along the way, I started reading novels about the academic life. Finding many of them wanting (too silly, too dysfunctional), I decided that after my retirement, I would write my own novels, presenting a realistic insider’s picture of life in the academic fast lane and the familial stresses that can result.


I wrote...

One Man's Purpose

By Stephen D. Senturia,

Book cover of One Man's Purpose

What is my book about?

While many campus novels are farces, set in dysfunctional departments at poorly run schools, One Man’s Purpose tells a serious story within a first-rate university, run by smart, competent people, where in spite of everyone’s best efforts, things can still go horribly wrong. One Man’s Purpose is the first leg of what has grown into The Martin Quint Trilogy.

Martin Quint, Professor of Engineering at the Cambridge Technology Institute (think MIT), is charged with mentoring Katarina Rodriguez through the tenure process. The tenure case turns out to be razor thin. The more Martin works on helping Kat, the more jealous his pregnant wife becomes. When confidential information about the case turns up on the internet, the simmering kettle explodes.

The books I picked & why

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Straight Man

By Richard Russo,

Book cover of Straight Man

Why this book?

I prefer a combination of poignancy and humor over the silly farces that are typical of many campus novels. While there is, indeed, plenty of dysfunction at the university depicted in this amazing novel, there is rich poignancy and hysterical, even farcical humor in the way the protagonist deals with his frustrations (he’s unable to get a departmental budget commitment from upper administration, and his stunts are downright funny), plus intense emotional engagement as these frustrations spill over into his home life. Exactly the kind of novel I enjoy. So many things ring true.

Straight Man

By Richard Russo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Straight Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hilarious and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down, Straight Man follows Hank Devereaux through one very bad week in this novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls. Soon to Be an Original Series on AMC Starring Bob Odenkirk.

William Henry Devereaux, Jr., is the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character—he is a born anarchist—and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans.  

In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have…


Pnin

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Pnin

Why this book?

Pnin, a Russian émigré teaching at a not-wonderful college, is a remarkably endearing protagonist. I would welcome him into my home. Constantly swimming upstream, he is resolute yet humble. He takes on life in America with thoughtful determination and becomes victorious even in defeat. A stellar individual. Nabokov’s deftness with the English language enriches this short and highly accessible novel.

Pnin

By Vladimir Nabokov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pnin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Professor Timofey Pnin, late of Tsarist Russia, is now precariously perched at the heart of an American campus. Battling with American life and language, Pnin must face great hazards in this new world: the ruination of his beautiful lumber-room-as-office; the removal of his teeth and the fitting of new ones; the search for a suitable boarding house; and the trials of taking the wrong train to deliver a lecture in a language he has yet to master.

Wry, intelligent and moving, Pnin reveals the absurd and affecting story of one man in exile.


Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis,

Book cover of Lucky Jim

Why this book?

Jim, the protagonist, is swimming upstream in a highly dysfunctional academic department. The first time I read it, I was not amused. The second time, and then the third time, I got hooked. This is a character study about surprising inner strength emerging from the shards of distressingly bad events, both academic and personal. Jim is indeed lucky at the end, but his luck is clearly deserved.

Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Lucky Jim as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Penguin Decades bring you the novels that helped shape modern Britain. When they were published, some were bestsellers, some were considered scandalous, and others were simply misunderstood. All represent their time and helped define their generation, while today each is considered a landmark work of storytelling.

Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim was published in 1954, and is a hilarious satire of British university life. Jim Dixon is bored by his job as a medieval history lecturer. His days are only improved by pulling faces behind the backs of his superiors as he tries desperately to survive provincial bourgeois society, an unbearable…


Changing Places

By David Lodge,

Book cover of Changing Places

Why this book?

The academic life provides plenty of opportunity for hanky-panky, and this delightful novel, in which two distinguished professors participate in an exchange program involving more than academic responsibilities, has plenty of it. The first leg of a wonderful academic-life trilogy, this novel is anchored in the self-importance that can eat at the edges, even the core, of successful faculty members.

Changing Places

By David Lodge,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Changing Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Philip Swallow and Professor Morris Zapp participate in their universities' Anglo-American exchange scheme, the Fates play a hand, and each academic finds himself enmeshed in the life of his counterpart on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Nobody is immune to the exchange: students, colleagues, even wives are swapped as events spiral out of control. And soon both sundrenched Euphoric State university and rain-kissed university of Rummidge are a hotbed of intrigue, lawlessness and broken vows...


Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher,

Book cover of Dear Committee Members

Why this book?

Over the course of my career, I have written hundreds of letters of recommendation—graduate school admissions, faculty hiring, faculty promotions and tenure, election to the National Academy of Engineeringthe works. Writing such letters is serious business. What hilarious relief this book provides! It is an exquisite parody of several dozen archetypal recommendation letters, demonstrating both with poignancy and humor the kind of damage that a less-than-woke writer can do. I loved it.

Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Dear Committee Members as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Finally a novel that puts the "pissed" back into "epistolary."

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can't catch a break with his brilliant (he…


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