Giving It the College Try: Four Books that Encapsulate University Life

In normal times, this would be an exciting time in the life of a college freshman. Ordering dorm room furniture, finding out who your roommate is and registering for courses that will provide a solid foundation for your four years away from home.

With so many things up in the air, we don’t know what the future will look like. Gone will be brisk walks on the quad amidst the splendor of fall, learning with a diverse set of peers, the dorm parties, tailgating, and everything else that makes the college experience. Schools like Harvard are looking into a model where only freshmen will be on campus for the Fall Semester, before leaving and being replaced by graduating seniors. Meanwhile, everyone else will have to learn from the comfort of home. Whatever happens, it seems like things will be different. Here are four books that share the college experience for those that will be missing out.

Secret History by Donna Tartt

There are five college novels set at Vermont’s Bennington College, four of them written by members of the institution’s infamous class of ’86: Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt. The most enduring of these books is Tartt’s. Set in “Hampden College” Secret History follows outsider Richard Papen and his introduction to an elite Classics program, taught by the mysterious Julian Morrow. Richard’s friendship with this cultish cohort of classmates unfolds against a backdrop of privilege, murder and lessons on Homer and Plato in a college campus that feels untouched by the rest of the world. The aesthetics are irresistible, the situations are ridiculous and the personalities are simultaneously unbearable yet obsession-worthy. Tartt based the professor and some of the students on real people, which makes it even more of an exhilarating read. Written within a few years of graduating, it turned her into a bona fide literary superstar. It’s not hard to see why.

We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan

The fifth Bennington College book is set not during the undergraduate years but during the MFA Writing Program (of which Caroline Zancan herself was a student). Written in the voice of students at the program (a Greek chorus of collective “we”), the book is differs from Secret History’s murder and revenge plot, instead being more about ethical misdeeds in literature and revenge.  The end result is different but no less compelling, asking the question of why writers write and do the things we do.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Set in the fictional Westish College, The Art of Fielding follows the peaks and valleys of college athlete Henry Skrimshander’s baseball career. A highly feted player whose athletic feats attracts attention from Major League Baseball scouts, Henry experiences a reversal of fortune after injuring a teammate on the pitch. Born from the trauma of the moment, things like a simple throw suddenly become impossible. Alongside Henry, teammates and friends make do with his new situation, finding themselves dealing with a future that, like today, suddenly seem unsure.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Set in Harvard University during the 90s, The Idiot is a bildungsroman focusing on college freshman Selin, as she adjusts to university life, makes new friends and falls in love with unsuitable people (also while dealing with the indignity of moving boxes, an experience that international college students know too well). Written in a wry tone that exposes both the warmth and humiliations of young life unleashed out into the world, it’s tempting to wonder what college-age Selin would make of our current predicament.

Books available on Fully Booked and Amazon

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