Ever since I read Stoner by John Williams, I’m in the search for books like it. That is how I discovered the campus and academic novels. I realised that I like reading about professors, university life, academia and everything about this life. I also love visiting university cities like Oxford and Cambridge, so I enjoy reading campus and academic novels set in these kinds of cities as well. But what are campus and academic novels?
According to Wikipedia: “A campus novel, also known as an academic novel, is a novel whose main action is set in and around the campus of a university.” This definition is valid for the campus novel but a bit limiting for the academic novel. An academic novel doesn’t have to be set on a university campus, but it must be about academia, academics, professors or students in one way or another. So I tried to include both campus and academic novels in this list because I love reading them both. But if I have to choose one, I’d always go for the campus novel because I love the campus atmosphere.
As with all lists of books, the campus and academic novels list is missing a lot of great books. I didn’t include Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis on the campus and academic novels list because it is highly well-known. I tried not to add satiric novels on this campus and academic novels list because I don’t enjoy them a lot, and remember that I’m looking for books like Stoner.
The campus and academic novels list doesn’t have many mystery novels because I realised that mystery campus and academic novels are a massive genre within themselves. I had to make another list for it. On the other hand, this campus and academic novels list contains examples of romance, horror, thriller, dark academia, contemporary and literary fiction books. I hope you’ll find a book to your liking on this campus and academic novels list and enjoy it.
20 Best Campus and Academic Novels
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.
Truly deserving of the accolade Modern Classic, Donna Tartt’s cult bestseller The Secret History is a remarkable achievement – both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. A dark-academia among campus and academic novels.
The War Between the Tates – Alison Lurie
Brian and Erica Tate appear to have every advantage in life: academic careers, two children, nice friends and money. But when Brian begins an affair with one of his students the disintegration of their lives is swift and shocking. Things spiral when a protest against a sexist professor at the university ramps up and Brian, hopelessly compromised by split loyalties, gets caught up in the action.
Can the Tates marriage survive? Lurie skewers both sides in this brilliant campus satire of 1960s feminism, parenthood, infidelity and academic pomposity. One of the good campus and academic novels from the 1960s.
Stoner – John Williams
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world. My favourite among campus and academic novels. This is a must-read!
All Souls – Javier Marías
The pretty young tutor Clare Bayes attracts many eyes at an Oxford college dinner, not least those of a visiting Spanish lecturer (desperate to escape his conversation with an obese economist about an eighteenth-century cider tax). As they begin an affair, meeting in hotel bedrooms away from the eyes of Clare’s husband, the Spaniard finds himself increasingly drawn into the strange world of Oxford, ‘one of the cities in the world where the least work gets done’, in a story of lust, loneliness, vanity and memory. Filled with brilliant set pieces and pin-sharp observation, All Souls is a masterpiece of black humour. A great choice among campus and academic novels if you want to read translated fiction.
The Rule of Four – Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
Princeton. Good Friday, 1999. On the eve of graduation, two friends are a hairsbreadth from solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that has baffled scholars for centuries. Famous for its hypnotic power over those who study it, the five-hundred-year-old Hypnerotomachia may finally reveal its secrets–to Tom Sullivan, whose father was obsessed with the book, and Paul Harris, whose future depends on it.
As the deadline looms, research has stalled–until a vital clue is unearthed: a long-lost diary that may prove to be the key to deciphering the ancient text. But when a longtime student of the book is murdered just hours later, a chilling cycle of deaths and revelations begins–one that will force Tom and Paul into a fiery drama, spun from a book whose power and meaning have long been misunderstood. An exciting one among campus and academic novels.
The Cornish Trilogy – Robertson Davies
The University of St John and the Holy Ghost (known affectionately as Spook) has a problem – and an opportunity. Strange, eccentric art patron and collector Francis Cornish has died and faculty members have been made executors of his complicated will. But in the realization of their duties, they find themselves drawn into Cornish’s bizarre, secretive and mystical world. In this spellbinding trilogy a host of memorable characters – defrocked, mischief-making monks, half-mad professors, gypsies and musical geniuses – become entangled in a story that involves theft, perjury, scholarship, murder, love, and the squandering of plenty of cash. A strange trilogy amıng campus and academic novels.
The Bellwether Revivals – Benjamin Wood
For the Cambridge University lovers among campus and academic novels. Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has made a life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge and yet is a world apart from the students who study in the hallowed halls. He has come to love the quiet routine of his job as a care assistant at a nursing home, where he has forged a close relationship with its most ill-tempered resident, Dr Paulsen.
But when Oscar is lured into the chapel at King’s College by the ethereal sound of an organ, he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student. He follows her into a world of scholarship, wealth, and privilege, and soon becomes embroiled in the machinations of her older brother, Eden.
A charismatic but troubled musical prodigy, Eden persuades his sister and their close-knit circle of friends into a series of disturbing experiments. He believes that music — with his unique talent to guide it — has the power to cure, and will stop at nothing to prove himself right. As the line between genius and madness blurs, Oscar fears the danger that could await them all. a pageturner among campus and academic novels.
Herzog – Saul Bellow
This is the story of Moses Herzog, a great sufferer, joker, mourner, and charmer. Although his life steadily disintegrates around him – he has failed as a writer and teacher, as a father, and has lost the affection of his wife to his best friend – Herzog sees himself as a survivor, both of his private disasters and those of the age. He writes unsent letters to friends and enemies, colleagues and famous people, revealing his wry perception of the world around him, and the innermost secrets of his heart. For the ones looking to read about a teacher among campus and academic novels.
Black Chalk – Christopher J. Yates
It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: The stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you? A thrilling choice among campus and academic novels.
Swann – Carol Shields
Mary Swann is the story of four individuals who become entwined in the life of Mary Swann, a rural Canadian poet whose authentic and unique voice is discovered only hours before her husband hacks her to pieces. Who is Mary Swann? And how could she have produced these works of genius in almost complete isolation? Mysteriously, all traces of Swann’s existence – her notebook, the first draft of her work, even her photograph – gradually vanish as the characters in this engrossing novel become caught up in their own concepts of who Mary Swann was. A fine mystery among campus and academic novels.
The Professor’s House – Willa Cather
On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most. A safe choice among campus and academic novels.
The Lecturer’s Tale – James Hynes
Nelson Humboldt is a visiting adjunct English lecturer at prestigious Midwest University, until he is unceremoniously fired one autumn morning. Minutes after the axe falls, his right index finger is severed in a freak accident. Doctors manage to reattach the finger, but when the bandages come off, Nelson realizes that he has acquired a strange power—he can force his will onto others with a touch of his finger.
And so he obtains an extension on the lease of his university-owned townhouse and picks up two sections of freshman composition, saving his career from utter ruin. But soon these victories seem inconsequential, and Nelson’s finger burns for even greater glory. Now the Midas of academia wonders if he can attain what every struggling assistant professor and visiting lecturer covets—tenure. The Lecturer’s Tale is a pitch-perfect blend of satire and horror. For the fantasy readers among campus and academic novels.
Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm
Nobody could predict the consequences when ravishing Zuleika Dobson arrives at Oxford to visit her grandfather, the college warden. Formerly a governess, she has landed on the occupation of illusionist, and thanks to her overwhelming beauty – and to a lesser extent her professional talents – she takes the town by storm. However the epidemic of heartache that follows and proceeds to overcome the academic town makes for some of the best comic writing in the history of English literature. For the readers looking for an Oxford love story among campus and academic novels.
The Campus Trilogy – David Lodge
David Lodge’s three delightfully sophisticated campus novels, now gathered together in one volume, expose the world of academia at its best-and its worst. In Changing Places, we meet Philip Swallow, British lecturer in English at the University of Rummidge, and the flamboyant American Morris Zapp of Euphoric State University, who participate in a professorial exchange program at the close of the tumultuous sixties.
Ten years later in Small World, older but not noticeably wiser, they are let loose on the international conference circuit-along with a memorable and somewhat oversexed cast of dozens. And in Nice Work, the leftist feminist Dr. Robyn Penrose at Rummidge University is assigned to shadow the director of a local engineering firm, sparking a collision of ideologies and lifestyles that seems unlikely to foster anything other than mutual antipathy.
Sleepwalking – Meg Wolitzer
Published when she was only twenty-three and written while she was a student at Brown, Sleepwalking marks the beginning of Meg Wolitzer’s acclaimed career. Filled with her usual wisdom, compassion and insight, Sleepwalking tells the story of the three notorious “death girls,” so called on the Swarthmore campus because they dress in black and are each absorbed in the work and suicide of a different poet: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Wolitzer’s creation Lucy Asher, a gifted writer who drowned herself at twenty-four. At night the death girls gather in a candlelit room to read their heroines’ work aloud.
But an affair with Julian, an upperclassman, pushes sensitive, struggling Claire Danziger–she of the Lucy Asher obsession–to consider to what degree her “death girl” identity is really who she is. As she grapples with her feelings for Julian, her own understanding of herself and her past begins to shift uncomfortably and even disturbingly. Finally, Claire takes drastic measures to confront the facts about herself that she has been avoiding for years. An interesting choice among campus and academic novels.
Admission – Jean Hanff Korelitz
For years, thirty-eight-year-old Portia Nathan has hidden behind her busy career as a Princeton admissions officer and her less than passionate relationship. Then the piece of her past that she has tried so hard to bury resurfaces, catapulting her on an extraordinary journey of the heart that challenges everything she ever thought she believed.
Soon, just as Portia must decide on the fates of thousands of bright students regarding their admission to university, so too must she confront the life-altering decisions she made long ago. For the readers looking for a book set in Princeton among campus and academic novel.
Brown University, 1982. Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English student and incurable romantic, is writing her thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot – authors of the great marriage plots. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different men, intervenes.
Leonard Bankhead, brilliant scientist and charismatic loner, attracts Madeleine with an intensity that she seems powerless to resist. Meanwhile her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus, a theology student searching for some kind of truth in life, is certain of at least one thing – that he and Madeleine are destined to be together.
But as all three leave college, they will have to figure out how they want their own marriage plot to end. an excellent choice among campus and academic novels.
The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.
Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry’s gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ team captain and Henry’s best friend, realizes he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert’s daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets. In the process they forge new bonds, and help one another find their true paths. Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment–to oneself and to others. For the readers interested in sports among campus and academic novels.
Small Blessings – Martha Woodroof
Tom Putnam has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. An English professor in a sleepy college town, he spends his days browsing the Shakespeare shelves at the campus bookstore, managing the oddball faculty in his department and caring, alongside his formidable mother-in-law, for his wife Marjory, a fragile shut-in with unrelenting neuroses, a condition exacerbated by her discovery of Tom’s brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess a decade earlier.
Then, one evening at the bookstore, Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the shop’s charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to their home for dinner, out of the blue, her first social interaction since her breakdown. Tom wonders if it’s a sign that change is on the horizon, a feeling confirmed upon his return home, where he opens a letter from his former paramour, informing him he’d fathered a son who is heading Tom’s way on a train. His mind races at the possibility of having a family after so many years of loneliness. And it becomes clear change is coming whether Tom’s ready or not.
A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings‘s wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined. an uplifting choice among campus and academic novels.
Japanese by Spring – Ishmael Reed
Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt, a black junior professor at the overwhelmingly white Jack London College, lusts after tenure and its glorious perks (including a house in the Oakland Hills). He spends most of his time trying to divine the ideological climate of the school and obligingly adapting his beliefs to it.
When Puttbutt’s mysterious Japanese tutor, who promises to teach him Japanese by spring, suddenly becomes the school’s new president and appoints Puttbutt as academic dean, the fun really begins—for Puttbutt sets out to stir things up and settle old scores.Turning every contemporary political and social movement on its head—from feminism to nationalism to jingoism—this boisterous and irreverent novel manages to be by turns hilarious and totally serious. A satire among campus and academic novels.
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Is there any other campus and academic novels that should be on this list? Please share your favourite books with us in the comments section below.