American campus novels

I recently published a list of favorite books on university life in America. It was tough whittling the list down to just 10 books as per the editorial requirements–I had to omit some old faithfuls, notably Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs. Here’s my list of must-reads books on the American academic world.

(This article appears in the July/Aug issue of Bookmarks magazine.)


Fiction, rather than nonfiction, has always provided the real scoop for me. So, before I moved from India to America for graduate school, I read these books to find out what American campuses were really like.


Dealing with faith and doubt and, above all, friendship, the story of Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright throughout their prep-school days in New Hampshire is especially significant to me because I studied in NH. 


When Morris Zapp of Euphoria State University in California and Phillip Swallow of Britain’s Rummidge University exchange academic positions for a year, they end up changing their lives. Euphoria State is based on the University of California, Berkeley, and Rummidge on the University of Birmingham. Lodge’s novel is so funny and entertaining that I realized only much later how much information I had absorbed about the different academic systems of Europe and America.


Who knew that academics could squabble over rare manuscripts and that college departments were just as competitive as corporations? Possession features two love stories, one contemporary and the other historical, against a backdrop of literary intrigue. Answers to the mystery are located in university libraries rather than in a CSI laboratory.

WONDER BOYS By Michael Chabon

From this novel, I first learned the significance of tenure in the academic world. English professor Grady Tripp struggles to finish a novel even as he must deal with his pregnant mistress, a troubled student, and an increasingly demanding agent. Events climax over a chaotic weekend.


Five classics students commit a murder in an elite Vermont college. The juxtaposition of sordid murder against a privileged institution made for compelling reading.

THE NAMESAKE By Jhumpa Lahiri

Gogol Ganguli, the American son of first-generation Indian parents, finds the issue of his identity puzzling-as exemplified by his Bengali ancestry, his American upbringing, and his Russian name. Although The Namesake is not an “academic” novel, I’m including it here because Gogol’s father is an engineering professor in Massachusetts and because Lahiri describes Gogol’s years at Yale with a close attention to the minutiae of student life.

LOVE STORY By Erich Segal

I first read this novel when I was 14, and wept buckets at the tragic story of a Harvard boy who loves and loses a Radcliffe girl.


Convers College, a liberal arts institution in New England, provides the setting for this story of a newly married couple’s travails (in academia and elsewhere.) Although the novel was published in 1962, Lurie’s descriptions of the pressures of academic life are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago.

ANAGRAMS By Lorrie Moore

This novel informed me that professors were often bored with their students. (I had always thought the opposite.) Moore’s playful intelligence, perhaps best illustrated in her wonderful puns (she describes one character as a “cereal monogamist”), left me breathless.

ON BEAUTY By Zadie Smith

Race, class, and gender are examined in an Ivy League setting which features two academic rivals and their families. Smith’s eye for detail is only matched by her ear for dialogue. The novel was published after I graduated, but my list would have been incomplete without it.


8 thoughts on “American campus novels

  1. I loved your list – there’s a couple on there I haven’t read. Have you read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons? That was an extraordinary campus novel, as was Richard Russo’s Straight Man. I often wonder why academics is such a fertile ground for novelists, but I think it’s because there is such scope for eccentric characters!

  2. @ Rebecca: I’m yet to read this one–Prose is one of those writers who has been on my TBR forever. And most good comedies have that submerged thread of tragedy, so this one sounds very promising.

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