Campus lives: books about university students for university students

In comparison to the many books set at high school (mainly thanks to the YA genre), there are relatively little books set at university. The ones that do have a university setting often focus on graduate students or lecturers, rather than eighteen and nineteen-year-olds moving to a new place and adjusting to a new way of learning for the first time. Nevertheless, there are a select number of books that show the ups and downs of being an undergraduate student – here are some I recommend.

We’re starting off with The Idiot and Either/Or by Elif Batuman. Both books follow main character Selin during her first and second years at Harvard University, where she goes on a journey of self-discovery shaped by her studies and the people she meets on campus. Batuman shows the joys of learning in depth through Selin’s studies of language in The Idiot and literature in Either/Or, while also connecting them with the development of her identity. What I love about The Idiot and Either/Or is their large variety of characters from all over the United States and the world, each with their own memorable personality. Through these characters, Batuman highlights how university enables you to meet people from around the world in one place. The Idiot and Either/Or are full of relatable university moments: Selin mediates in disputes with flatmates, is assigned obscure projects, and has many late-night conversations. There are also lots of comedic instances – my favourite one is when Selin’s flatmates secretly keep a cat in campus accommodation. However, these books also deal with the challenges that university can bring, focusing especially on Selin’s struggles in her romantic relationships. Both The Idiot and Either/Or pay such close attention to the everyday aspects of university life that any student should be able to relate to it.

Next, we have The Secret History by Donna Tartt. With a murder mystery at the heart of its plot, this book is definitely less relatable than Batuman’s novels, but still accurately depicts the intensity of university life. It is told from the point of view of Richard, who moves from sunny California to Hampden College, a small East Coast university. He becomes part of an exclusive group with five other Classics students, gradually discovering the horrors behind their wealthy backgrounds and seemingly perfect lives when one of them goes missing. The Secret History shows the potential for university to be a polarising experience; Richard becomes isolated from everyday classes and campus parties as his connection with his fellow Classics students grows deeper. Tartt’s extensive descriptions of character, place, and almost always cold atmosphere make you feel like you are in the book itself. As the story progresses, the reasons behind characters’ behaviour slowly emerge, revealing how people end up doing terrible things. Although The Secret History is extremely long, the unravelling of the murder mystery and its consequences will keep you turning the pages until the very end.

The final book on this list is Starter For Ten by David Nicholls, a novel perfect for anyone who wants a more light-hearted read about university. Starter For Ten documents Brian Jackson’s first year of university, where he joins the University Challenge team (hence the title of the book) and falls in love with the beautiful but out-of-touch Alice Harbinson. In an effort to win Alice’s heart, Brian says and does some hilarious but foolish things which gave me a lot of second-hand embarrassment. On some occasions, I had to put the book down and stare at the ceiling for a few seconds before I could continue reading! Comedy aside, Starter For Ten also explores the class divides that are often prominent at universities. As a working-class student, Brian experiences many instances of class discrimination at his university, with Nicholls shedding a light on how much more universities need to do to make their institutions a more accessible and welcoming environment. With its funny and serious moments, Starter For Ten accurately portrays the whirlwind that is your first year at university, including the triumphs and errors you make along the way.

All these books show that university is full of new experiences. Whether that’s falling in love for the first time, meeting people you never would have met in your hometown, or learning from your mistakes, university is a key place for discovering who you are and what you really care about. The years at university can be an exciting and overwhelming time, but these books show that you are far from alone in feeling like this.

Featured image: Dom Fou via Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel