The best novels set in the world of academia, prep schools, and campus life

The Books I Picked & Why

Lucky Jim

By Kingsley Amis

Book cover of Lucky Jim

Why this book?

Lucky Jim is the hysterical book that made me fall in love with the academic novel. It’s a perfect example of how setting functions as a character. In an academic novel, it’s not enough that a character attends or is employed by a school; the setting of the school must be so integral to the plot and the protagonist’s arc that the story could not be set anywhere else. Lucky Jim’s protagonist is a university lecturer who has fallen into his job and first inwardly, then outwardly, rebels against the provincial, class-bound values of the school and 1950s British society. It’s both socially significant and deeply comical.

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Gentlemen and Players

By Joanne Harris

Book cover of Gentlemen and Players

Why this book?

What school doesn’t have at least a couple of skeletons in the closet? The venerable St. Oswald’s is no different. What I love about this psychological thriller is that it pulls no punches about the dark side of boarding school. It explores my favorite literary themes: class warfare, family secrets, and identity, and masterfully unravels a complicated plot. The setting of St. Oswald’s, like all the best academic novels, functions as a looming, dangerous character in itself.

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The Chocolate War

By Robert Cormier

Book cover of The Chocolate War

Why this book?

If you haven’t read The Chocolate War by age 25, there may be something seriously wrong with you. Jerry Renault is a regular kid, struggling through adolescence at his Catholic high school; for reasons both simple and complex, hinted at but never fully explained, he refuses to sell chocolate bars for his school’s annual fundraiser. He is then targeted by a teacher and a secret society headed by a sinister sociopath. An all-out war is waged on three fronts: between Jerry and his conscience, the school at large, and the secret society. The brutal ending upset many readers (particularly parents and school administrators), but this story, after all, is a tragedy. It presents an unsettling but accurate portrayal of human cruelty and conformity within the confines of a Catholic school.

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Wonder Boys

By Michael Chabon

Book cover of Wonder Boys

Why this book?

Complicated relationships often exist between teachers and students, but many novels paint one or the other as the enemy. In Wonder Boys, we have a joyous but still complicated friendship between Grady Tripp, a pot-smoking English professor who has lost his way, and his student James Leer, a budding writer who is emotionally troubled. I can relate to both the “going nowhere” middle-aged Grady and the troubled teen, James. The plot devices of the tuba, dead dog, and snake (most of it) that end up in Grady’s trunk somehow provide both gravitas and humor.

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A Separate Peace

By John Knowles

Book cover of A Separate Peace

Why this book?

Don’t let this book’s appearance on ninth-grade reading lists for the last 50 years convince you that it has no modern message for adults and teens. I toyed with putting a different title on my list here, something scathing and contemporary, but the truth is, few books have affected me as much as A Separate Peace. Yes, I read this in high school, and under duress, like most things I did in high school, but I was captivated by the trifecta of elements that have informed many of my favorite books: New England setting, boarding school, and complex feelings about friendship. I aspired to be like the well-loved all-around athlete Phineas, yet deep down I knew I was more like the defensive, lonely, and jealous Gene. I identified with this dark portrayal of adolescence and still do.

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