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5 Novels to Read on Campus this Summer

9 September 21 words: Lizzy O’Riordan

You new students are going to have your noses firmly stuck into all manner of textbooks in the coming months, but don't forget to make time for pleasure reading, too. With that in mind, our new Literature Editor offers five must-read novels to get your mits on this summer...

The ‘Campus Novel’ is a term to describe any novel set in a university or college setting. The concept dates to 1952 when Mary McCarthy published The Groves of Academe, a story about a literary instructor at a fictional college. The genre has become increasingly popular with the social media trend of dark academia – an online aesthetic that centres around gloomy libraries, old historic buildings, and romanticised versions of higher education. 

As the summer ends and Nottingham’s student population trickles back in, it seems right to recommend a few of these books to read on campus this September. Who knows, they might even inspire you into doing some work - or at the very least to sit in a library.

Often credited as starting the dark academia trend, The Secret History is a slow burn thriller that centres around a group of classics students at Hampton College. The story is narrated by protagonist Richard Papen as he tells the story of how his classmate was murdered, and how he got caught up in it. This one is perfect for anyone who likes antiheroes, dark plots, and a romantic gloomy writing style.

As I eagerly await reading Sally Rooney’s new novel, it seems fitting to remember her 2018 bestseller Normal People – also adapted into a BBC miniseries. Rooney’s novel follows Irish teenagers Connell and Marianne from their small town Carricklea all the way to Trinity College, Dublin. Whilst most well-known for its will-they-wont-they love story, this novel also dives into the Irish culture of repression, young adults’ mental health and the difficulty of communication.

You may well have heard of Jeffrey Eugenides’ other novel The Virgin Suicides which was adapted into a dreamy 1999 film by Sophia Coppola, starring Kirsten Dunst. However, Eugenides also published a campus novel called The Marriage Plot in 2011. The novel follows three friends graduating Brown University, and the love triangle between English major Madeline Hanna and her peers Mitchell and Leonard. Like Eugenides’ other work, The Marriage Plot is primarily a domestic drama, whilst also interested in great works of literature, and philosophical questions at large.

Centring on professor rather than student, Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty follows Rembrandt scholar Howard Belsey and his relationship with his wife and now grown-up children. As is trademark of Zadie Smith, the novel is concerned with being black and what it means to be mixed race, alongside the relationship between the personal and the political, and the dynamics of a family. Although the novel is loosely based on E.M Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, Smith has updated it to address modern issues in the UK and US.

Rounding this list off with a classic for good measure, Pnin is Nabokov’s 1957 novel that tells the story of Russian professor Timofey Pnin navigating his time at an American college. The novel follows bumbling Pnin around as he tries and fails to understand American culture and customs – often comedically and sometimes sadly so. Written at the same time as Nabokov’s notorious novel Lolita, Pnin is a much lighter yet still skilful novel. 

Free Bookish Nottingham Fact: When Lord Byron studied at university, he bought a tame bear and walked it around campus regularly.

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