Arcade Book Corner: Campus novels

Cullen Fagan, Senior Staff Writer

There are some books that just do not hit the same after you are no longer in the strange, suspended reality of college life, so for this month’s book corner, we will explore the campus novel. While they can certainly be enjoyable once you venture out into real adulthood, we wholeheartedly recommend you take a stab at it while you can really get into the college student, coming-of-age mindset. For our second-semester seniors, this may be your last chance. 

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Either you’ve read it already or you’ve decided that people who like it are too insufferable to even consider picking it up. On the off chance neither of things are true about you, Tartt’s debut novel follows transfer student Richard Papen and his classmates in the classics department as they delve into the fantastical and bloody world far removed, if adjacent, to the sleepy New Hampshire town in which they attend school. The death of one of Papen’s classmates is revealed in the first few pages, and you spend the next 500 or so parsing out how it all happened in a deliciously indulgent “whydunit.” This book will either change your life or make you seriously wonder what the hype was about, but it only has the chance of the former if you read it before your 23rd birthday, so get it in while you can. 

“The Idiot” by Elif Bautman

Selin, a Harvard freshman, navigates her first year of independence in this ambitious, sprawling fictionalization of the author’s own life. The star of this novel is the narrator, and she must be, for all the time the reader spends with her. At her best, she is funny, smart, sarcastic; at her worst she is immature, cowardly and often infuriating. In short, she is an 18-year-old, a not-quite-adult who struggles alternatively with closeness and isolation, carving out a space for herself with one hand and filling it back in with another. I would not argue that this book is satisfying, but it is certainly compelling and evocative, and really, that is the most one can ask of their freshman year. 

“Real Life” by Brandon Taylor

The academics in this novel are primarily of the STEM variety, a distinct rarity for the genre, but that isn’t the only aspect of this book that sets it apart. Taylor’s debut novel follows graduate student Wallace over the course of one tumultuous weekend as he wrestles with a recent personal tragedy and his relationships with peers he doesn’t fully trust or connect with as a southern, Black, gay man at a midwestern predominantly-white institute. The central relationship in this book, which I won’t go deeply into detail on for spoiler-y reasons, is one of the most nuanced portrayals of the intersections of violence and desire, as well as intimacy and morality, that I have ever had the good fortune to read. The prose is wonderfully immersive and at times immensely harrowing — there are books that burrow into your brain and come out through your fundamentally altered thought process, and this is one of them. 

“My Education” by Susan Choi

“My Education” is the only book on this list that was not a fictional debut. It is Choi’s fourth novel, and her careful prose has only gotten sharper and richer. There is little I can give you on this book without major spoilers, but at its bare bones it follows graduate student Regina Gottlieb as she runs headfirst into an engrossing entanglement and infatuation that is simultaneously distinctly specific to her youth and resoundingly universal in its emotional impact. This is also the only book on this list to substantially venture into the narrator’s post-university life, and thus serves as a fascinating transitional novel for those who will soon make choices that will take them far away from their own larger-than-life collegiate relationships. This story demonstrates explicitly the chasm between who we are as students and who we are as adults, years apart, while insisting on recognizing the past lives we carry all the while.

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