Five Books About…

5 Academic Novels That Won’t Make You Want to Go Back to School

We (or at least I, myself) have a never-ending appetite for classroom histrionics and coming-of-age dramas. I have spent hours marathoning shows about students, now less than half my age, whether they be cheerleaders or vampires (or, more likely than not, both). But what is it about the school setting that is so engaging? Is it the familiar structure, so easy to relate to, drawing us in with that love-hate fascination of watching someone else live through it? Is it taking a potentially unhealthy pleasure in the interactions between starkly different characters who are forced to occupy the same space? Is it the delightful unpredictability of those characters who are still growing up, finding out who they are and who they want to become? For me, it’s all of the above.

The academic setting works as a literary mount just as well, if not better. Students are bound by law or narrative obligation to remain, trapped, day after day, and therefore must face their demons (sometimes literally). Maybe it’s rooting for the underdog that keeps me coming back, maybe it’s just nostalgia. In any case, I am drawn to campus novels. Still, I have no desire to relive my own school days. Fiction seems to emphasize the facts and while some stories highlight first friendships and carefree youth, others remind us that education is laced with external pressures and inner turmoil.

These are five of my favorite academic novels that do not make me want to go back to school:


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is a classic that had to be included on this list because it is full of precious memories of school days gone by, and it is also dark AF. I didn’t go to boarding school, but I assume that each of the inane yet all-important social constructions adolescents create are magnified here. Ishiguro has an amazing way of authentically recreating all of those uncomfortable and unforgiving coming-of-age feelings which on their own pull at my younger self and yet make me recoil at the idea of returning to such a time. But, of course, there are other reasons you’d rather not be a student at Hailsham…


Bunny by Mona Awad

I don’t have a creative writing degree and now I never want one. Like, never ever. This brilliant novel follows protagonist Samantha into the final year of her MFA course, at first glance an all-too-recognizable prestigious program filled with all of the stock characters we know and love: meanie rich girls, enigmatic professors, even a nice nerdy kid. Then all of these tropes are magnified and, well, beheaded. I can’t even tell you what this book is about (or what I think it is about) without ruining it. But suffice to say, if sitting through inane writing critiques didn’t make me want to go back to school, animal sacrifice doesn’t make me want to go back any more. All I can say here is that the words are so, so good.


Vicious by V.E. Schwab

This ingenious twist on a superhero story begins in college with two roommates and best friends. While researching their senior thesis projects, they discover that people occasionally develop superpowers when they die…if they are then resuscitated. So, you know, they decide to test out this hypothesis on themselves. (Personally, I’d rather fail my dissertation). The novel jumps between timelines and we find out that in the future the two friends have drifted to become mortal enemies, determined to destroy one another. After all, they have the skills now to try. But we keep returning to their time in college, the precariously youthful friendship that started it all. A carefully constructed narrative lets details drip between nonstop action and a wonderful cast of characters, and leaves you wondering where humanity starts and, perhaps more importantly, where it ends.


Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Of all of these novels, this is the book that makes me want to go back to school least of all. Throughout the story, Galaxy “Alex,” Stern is repeatedly traumatized by both the mystical and the mundane (in ways that keep you on the edge of your seat throughout). An undergraduate given a special acceptance to Yale, Alex is an apprentice, learning to keep watch over Yale’s infamous secret societies. Only thing is, the secret societies each practice their own brand of dark magic. What I love about this book is that as much as the narrative relies on mystical elements, Bardugo does not shy away from the evils of our own world. In fact, she carefully wraps them up in her own magic that keeps you speeding through the pages but leaves you with a chilling understanding of the true wickedness among us. She almost makes you believe that Yale’s secret societies really are practicing the occult, or worse.


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This is a controversial pick because I have heard some people say that they would love to attend the University. Personally, there are a few too many public floggings for me to voluntarily enroll. Kvothe, on the other hand, is desperate to be allowed in. Spurred by unspeakable tragedy and scrambling from a life of destitution, he is fueled by a need for knowledge, a thirst for vengeance, and his own extraordinary aptitude. School for Kvothe is fundamental but for others it is grueling. The unremitting pressure lands some few hundred students in an asylum known familiarly as the ‘Crockery.’ Though the ‘Crockery’ is fiction, the mental strain of college can be all too real, and for those of us not who are not ridiculously good at, well, everything, the idea of going back is less than appealing. That said, the story begins at some point in the future, where Kvothe is apparently no more than a humble innkeeper, laying low under a false name. A beautifully slow roll into a world of satisfyingly academic magic, the Name of the Wind is a fascinating character study that will leave you needing more (not least because the third part of the trilogy has yet to be released).


Growing up in the Bay Area, Akemi C. Brodsky always loved unassigned reading and making creative and unnecessarily complicated school projects. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Brown University with a bachelor of science, then moved to the UK to do a master’s in engineering at Imperial College London. She currently lives in the Bay Area and spends most of her spare time traveling, cooking, seeing family and friends, and watching TV.


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