10 Novels That Nail the College Experience


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Is there one single novel that captures the college experience? Well … no. The institution you decide to attend, the subjects you choose to study, and your own predilection for hitting the books versus enjoying all of the other , ahem, distractions that college has to offer, all help to define your personal "experience" of college. But, though one novel alone doesn't tell the whole story, we've found 10 that each nail at least some aspect of the college experience. Have a look.

  1. Stover at Yale by Owen Johnson

    Originally written in serial form back in 1911, Johnson's Stover at Yale is a classic that might be read now as a primer of what people used to think the college experience was like. Which means, it's kind of dull, and probably serves more as an interesting period piece than anything else. That said, you could probably write a solid comparative thesis using Stover's book and any of the titles below.
  2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

    Published in 1945, Waugh's novel is notable for its first half, which focuses on an intimate friendship between Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. While at Hartford College, Oxford, in the early 1920s, Ryder and Flyte booze it up, decorate their digs with flowers and a teddy bear named Aloysisus, and never seem to spend much time studying. The descriptions of debauchery at Oxford and Ryder and Flyte's intense and eventually estranged friendship will resonate with many a contemporary freshman.
  3. The Paper Chase by John Jay Osborn Jr.

    Okay, this book actually takes place at law school, but regardless of the institution, any student who has had a teacher that they completely, almost pathologically admire and yet intimidates the bejeezus out of them will empathize with The Paper Chase's earnest and driven protagonist, James Hart. The film and television adaptations of the book are worth checking out as well.
  4. The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis

    Ellis, the then-college-aged author of the much maligned "just say no" classic Less Than Zero, begins and ends Rules of Attraction mid-sentence. It's a deeper book than its predecessor, somehow inspiring empathy in the reader for a trio of spiritually vacuous and what should be completely unsympathetic characters.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

    Greek and Latin studies snobs can rejoice, for this is a psychological thriller written just for them. Well, them and anyone else who enjoys seeing intellectuals lose their proverbial sh-t, try to cover their butts after committing a heinous act (or two), and then turn on each other like Siamese fighting fish. Sound like college to you?
  6. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

    From the author of two celebrated contemporary classics, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, The Marriage Plot uses the Victorian novel, as well as literary devices from plenty of other sources, to tell a very post-modern tale of three college students. This is a compassionate and humorous novel that probably comes closest to "nailing" what it's like to be a particular age wrestling with life's deeper questions.
  7. I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

    Acute social commentator, or an old fart desperate to appear hipper than he is? You can't really have a list like this and not acknowledge the fact that the author of The Bonfire of the Vanities and the scarily prescient A Man in Full attempted to take apart the college experience. If some of the satire in I Am Charlotte Simmons is cringe-inducing maybe that's the point? Remember that comparative analysis thesis we proposed at the top? After Stover at Yale, Wolfe's novel reads like a study of life on another planet.
  8. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

    Surprisingly, it was challenging to find novels about the college experience that acknowledged the ethnic diversity of that experience. No question Smith, the young author of the highly praised White Teeth, is up to the task, although On Beauty, whose characters include college kids and professors, is more contemporary satire than coming-of-age story. Add it to your booklist, and see where Smith's observations and wit lead you.
  9. The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

    This one's for those of you in art school. This quirky, surreal, and completely enjoyable novel describes "two semesters" as an art major. The author is actually a well-known graphic designer, this being his first work of fiction. Anyone who has chosen a path of study not guaranteed to make you rich or famous, but instead develop a creative talent, will love this book.
  10. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

    "O I forbid you, maidens a' / That wear gowd on your hair / To come or gae by Carterhaugh / For young Tam-lin is there." So begins the inscrutable lyric to the Scottish ballad whose fairy tale storyline is recast by Dean in this novel set in the 1970s at a college in the Midwest. A charming coming-of-age story with enough otherworldly elements to please female college students with dog-eared copies of Twilight hidden in a bedroom drawer back home.
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