Best Books Set on Campus, College or Otherwise

Despite their reputation as buttoned-up bastions of lofty thinking, colleges and boarding schools end up being the breeding ground for the weirdest people, strangest ideas, fiercest infighting, and the most self-destructive behavior. Students are still learning how to behave, and many of the faculty seem to have forgotten how. It’s Harry Potter plus booze, drugs, and sex; minus the sorcery.


The result is that the ivy-covered walls of campus enclose one of the richest settings ever for stories of humans at their least predictable. We've assembled some of the most memorable. If you’re in school, you might hate this list. If you’re already out, tell us -- do these bring back any memories? Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter.


Small World

By David Lodge


There are no politics like academic politics. Two professors go at each other over an endowed chair. True to form, hypocrites all. And nobody knows better than an English professor what goes on in an English department.



On Beauty

By Zadie Smith


Glen Beck meets Philip Roth in this story of what happens when lefty burned-out intellectuals get tossed into a vacation spot with a right-wing family of potential in-laws.





The Secret History

By Donna Tartt


Worried about secret societies on college campuses? This is scarier than whatever you've dreamed up.








By Curtis Sittenfeld


If you have any nostalgia for your adolescent years, this novel about an outsider from Indiana dropped into an exclusive Massachusetts boarding school will cure it.





White Noise

By Don DeLillo


Professor of Hitler Studies doesn't speak German, and the number of wives he's had puts any Hollywood player to shame. Exposure to a toxic chemical makes him obsess about death. Party over.





Love Story

By Erich Segal


Romeo and Juliet go to college, but cancer gets her instead of family feuds and a dagger. The original tear-jerker.






Wonder Boys

By Michael Chabon


What happens when a college kid becomes a professor and refuses to grow up? He smokes too much pot, gets the dean's wife pregnant, and strangles his own creativity.





The Marriage Plot

By Jeffrey Eugenides


You'll have to wait until October for this impossible-to-describe book. Leave it at this: a complicated love triangle and thinking too much about stuff you learn in school that you'll never use again. Like semiotics.





I Am Charlotte Simmons

By Tom Wolfe


You'll be manipulated and lectured at, but it's Tom Wolfe on a 21st century elite college campus. Oh, what these kids won't do. Fun.







By J. Courtney Sullivan


Four girls at Smith with too many choices and too many opportunities. Break out the vodka.







The Human Stain

By Philip Roth


Fired after being falsely accused of racism, sleeping with a woman half his age, guilty of corrosive misogyny, former Dean of Faculty Coleman Silk is somehow hiding an even more astonishing secret.





The Big U

By Neal Stephenson


Twenty years before he wrote his high-tech bestsellers, Stephenson penned a hilarious send-up of college life.







Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy

By Randall Jarrell


Originally published in 1954, Jarrell was considered the Dorothy Parker of the genre. It's set in a progressive women's college, so ladies, get ready to bite your tongue. Please don't throw the book at anyone.




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by amystery726 ‎09-13-2011 09:02 AM - edited ‎09-13-2011 09:03 AM

The Group by Mary McCarthy (set at Vassar) - how can that be omitted? Classic! Maybe post-Vassar, but still about Vassar students...

by dpcoffey on ‎09-13-2011 01:02 PM

What about Jane Smiley's "Moo"??

by DrKerr on ‎09-13-2011 01:16 PM

Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason!!!

by misshedwig on ‎09-13-2011 02:53 PM

infinite jest

a separate peace



by Ken-in-Arlington on ‎09-15-2011 06:06 AM

Actually, I've been thinking about this for my book club... a set o fbooks all on campus. I had a David Lodge on my list as well as Pnin. The Roth is a good addition to my pending suggestions.


But what about "Lucky Jim" by Kinglesy Amis ? One of those "Best 100 Novels in English". . . How can that have been overlooked?


And "Stoner" by John Willians - reprinted recently by NYRB. An unknown classic.






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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).