15 Great Novels Set at Real-Life Colleges


Now that it’s September, many of you are probably heading off to school — whether for the first time or the fourth — and even if you’re past school-age, the season does things to your heads, filling them with number 2 pencils and three hole punches and dreams of Philosophy textbooks. Or, at least, that’s all we can think about. College is an inspirational time, particularly for novelists: there is an entire genre based on the campus novel, including books about professors, students, and anyone else who spends a serious amount of time on the hallowed university grounds. In honor of the new school year, we’ve put together a list of great novels set at real-life colleges, whether explicitly stated or thinly veiled in their fictional forms. If you’re starting school this fall, you’d do well to check out what other people think of your new home and what you might expect from your next few years there, and if you’ve already finished, well, everyone likes to read about their alma mater, hopefully shouting out, ‘that’s not how it was!’ and ‘look, that’s me!’ in equal measure. Click through to see our list, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorite college novels in the comments.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Rutgers University As far as we can tell, at Rutgers, they like to pair up roommates who are diametrically opposed to one another (Yunior and Oscar? Different in every conceivable manner). Perhaps relatedly, you’re likely to have an fairly entertaining dorm life: “Two weeks later, La Jablesse gave Oscar the coup de friendship: he walked in on her while she was ‘entertaining’ the punk, caught them both naked, probably covered with blood or something, and before she could even say, Get out, he went berserk. Called her a whore and attacked her walls, tearing down her posters and throwing her books everywhere. I found out because some whitegirl ran up and said, Excuse me, but your stupid roommate is going insane, and I had to bolt upstairs and put him in a headlock. Oscar, I hollered, calm down, calm down. Leave me the fuck alone, he shrieked, trying to stomp down on my feet. It was pretty horrible. As for punkboy, apparently dude jumped right out the window and ran all the way to George Street. Buttnaked. That was Demarest for you. Never a dull fucking moment.” Indeed.

The Secret History and Rules of Attraction: Bennington College Attention matriculating Bennington students. Your next four years may or may not be filled with pagan rituals, love triangles, and deviant sexual practices. We know, we know, now you can’t wait. Though The Secret History was set at Hampden College, and Rules of Attraction at Camden College, both Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis went to Bennington, and each book is well known to be based on the authors’ alma mater. Even better, each of these two novels references the other, for deep intertextuality that you can ask your first-year lit professor about.

Brideshead Revisited, Jude the Obscure, Gaudy Night, every other novel ever: Oxford University There seems to be an entire subset of the campus novel literary tradition based on Oxford University and its many colleges. Perhaps its because so many of the greatest English authors went there, or wanted to, or maybe the place itself is so romantic and steeped in tradition that it simply breeds fine literature. Either way, expect conspiracies, class struggles, dysfunction and everyone’s expectation that in four years you’re going to pop out a masterpiece.

Absalom, Absalom! and On Beauty: Harvard University Harvard is another school that seems to invite novelistic interpretation at every turn. You may encounter many cyclical conversations about race, cultural straining points, and the endless clashes between differing contemporary value systems, which will probably be repeated over and over until you graduate. We guess that’s what it takes to be a Harvard man.

This Side of Paradise: Princeton University First of all, it seems relevant to mention that Fitzgerald only wrote this novel, his first, to try to become famous so Zelda would take him back after their first big breakup. Well, it worked, so all you Princeton lads and ladies, if you need to get your lover to forgive you, just write a novel clearly based on yourself and your existing relationships and that will totally, totally work. “Book One: The Romantic Egotist,” indeed.

Joe College: Yale University After a night of particular excess and group ruminations on Leon Czolgosz, the man who shot President McKinley, Danny wonders what his parents might think. “Was this what they scrimped and sacrificed for all those years? So their son could spend his Tuesday nights drinking beer, smoking dope, eating weird food, and learning to see the assassin’s side of the story?” Yes, yes it was. Welcome to the college experience in America, Joe.

Pnin: Cornell University Nabokov’s Waindell College is most likely based on Cornell, where he taught, and the eponymous character on Cornell Professor Marc Szeftel, who we can imagine was not overly happy about his representation, lovable as our Timofey Pavlovich Pnin might be. This novel explores the university setting largely from a professorial perspective, so you’re probably safe from a fate like Pnin’s — but perhaps after reading you will have a little more sympathy for even your most clueless professors, who, after all, are people too.

Wonder Boys: University of Pittsburgh Chabon has admitted that his character Grady Tripp is based on Chuck Kinder, a novelist and Chabon’s own professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh in the 80s. If that’s so, cozy up to him to have your own chance at bizarre dog and Marilyn Monroe-related crimes, as well as some stellar (if somewhat alcoholic) mentorship.

I’ll Take You There: Syracuse University

Get ready for a lot of Philosophy classes, and possibly a romance with a married man. But the real lesson here is: if you’re a neurotic, left-of center intellectual, don’t join a sorority, or you’ll feel like “a freak in the midst of their stunning, stampeding, blazing female normality.” After all, college is about figuring out who you are — and who you aren’t.

Changing Places: UC Berkeley and University of Birmingham In Lodge’s first campus novel in what would be a prodigious stream of them, this comic novel technically concerns the universities of Plotinus (in the state of Euphoria) and Rummidge, widely recognized as UC Berkeley and England’s Birmingham respectively, who exchange professors for six months. As far as we can tell, the only thing you’ll learn about your college from this novel is that you may have chosen the wrong one (or that it might not matter which you chose), but for some people, that could be important information. Fun fact: according to Lodge, the American professor, Morris Zapp, is based on Stanley Fish.

I Am Charlotte Simmons: Duke University Tom Wolfe denies that the fictional Dupont University, a place where everyone is “drunk on youth and beer,” is based entirely on Duke, where his daughter attended school, but critics mostly ignore him on that count. Regardless, the message of this novel is an important one if you’re going to go to Duke: don’t date the athletes. Actually, don’t date anybody. Just concentrate on school, like a good girl, and then you won’t be completely jaded and materialistic by the time you get to sophomore year.

The Broom of the System: Amherst College Basically everyone in this book went to Amherst, which is not necessarily such an endorsement. But if you’re lucky, you’ll get to buy your contraband from the artificial leg of a bright red kid who calls himself the Antichrist.

Porterhouse Blue: Cambridge University This hilarious satirical novel follows the events that unfold after the master of Porterhouse — a fictional college at Cambridge — dies without naming his successor. However, what you need to know is that the very phrase “Porterhouse Blue” refers to a stroke induced by eating too much of the school’s notoriously fine cuisine. So, you know, you should probably go for the salad. At least sometimes.

Tam Lin: Carleton College The fictional Blackstock College in Minnesota is based at least partially on Carleton, where Dean spent her undergraduate years. She has described the novel as a “love poem” to “my college, and ultimately to the study of English literature.” A modern fantasy based on the Scottish folk ballad of the same name, the book is a study in allusion, drawing from, well, just about every source you’ll read as an English major at Carleton. For maximum satisfaction, we recommend reading this book once before you start, and again once you graduate.

The Groves of Academe : Bard College One of the first college novels, McCarthy’s Jocelyn College is based off of her experiences at Bard. The main danger at a college like this one, it seems, is becoming entangled in one’s own intellectualism, to the point of continual inwardness with no escape: “they had succeeded in leading him up the garden path into one of their academic mazes, where a man could wander for eternity, meeting himself in mirrors. No, he repeated. Possibly they were all very nice, high-minded, scrupulous people with only an occupational tendency towards backbiting and a nervous habit of self-correction, always emending, penciling, erasing; but he did not care to catch the bug, which seemed to be endemic to these ivied haunts.” Sounds like college to us.