Indulging in some late-August back-to-school nostalgia, the Daily Beast put together a list of "Must-Read College Novels" ranging from Kingsley Amis’Lucky Jim to John Williams' Stoner. As a fan of college, books, and college books, I thought I’d work up a supplementary list: the principal ingredients that no college novel can do without.
The great thing about romance in college is that it’s either totally doomed from the beginning or the participants are guaranteed to screw it up. At least, this is how I justify my ridiculous relationship with an unsuitable upper classman and the continued obsession I have but could never act on with a simply wonderful professor. Whether it’s faculty, students, or the time-honored tradition of faculty/student infatuation, college is a good time to fall hard for someone who is absolutely wrong for you, but who will continue to tear out your heart with their math skills or commitment to social justice.
College exposes you to romantic situations you are not at all ready for, as seems to be the case in Nathan Harden's new book Sex and God at Yale. You will learn a whole lot about yourself, mostly in the areas of failure and weakness. And it will all seem very important at the time, but not after graduation. Unless you insist on being totally infatuated with past professors, which is completely acceptable.
If we can think of adolescence as the time when weird things happen because of our changing bodies, college is like an adolescence for that body being in the larger world. While the awkwardness of high school has passed, the vast and slippery social dynamic of college allows for a whole new set of embarrassments. All college environments have that unique mix of shelter and independence. You have this great chance to redefine yourself, but then you're also more exposed to other people who might actually help you figure out who you really are.
Freedom means that college students will try stupid things (like bleaching your hair). Greater responsibility means that being stupid has more consequences (like having bleached hair). Just ask the characters in Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History.
Illusion of safety
College students are insulated from the real world at the same time they’re learning more about it: their sense of self in relation to the world and the possibilities of what they could do within it are totally exploding and hyper-vivid. And part of the shelter that any college provides is the impression that other people care about your ideas. Any novel can have main characters finding themselves; what makes it a college novel is that characters engage with the same kind of exploration but within a closed system that won’t pan out in real life.
This illusion can also be true for professors, as we learned in Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys.
Hyper-awareness of time passing
Whether the plot moves forward through the passing semesters or the novel as a whole is a nostalgic look back at such brief time, four years is only four years. College is always in some way about transition. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dramatic shift than Bret Easton Ellis'Less Than Zero. Hopefully, most of us don't find ourselves disillusioned by the party scene in our freshman year because the kids back home were all prostitutes for smack, but who among us didn't experience that same whiff of disappointment — the sense that home had changed without you? The sense that you'd maybe surpassed home?
Serious transition happens with or without college. It's just really, really nice to undergo that transition without your parents looking.