Monday, August 16, 2010

campus novels

every summer about this time I read a book, usually a novel, that takes place on a campus. this year's will be porterhouse blue by tom sharpe, a british novel I'd never heard of but I found a free copy this spring and that's as good a reason as any to read it. as a sort of memory game I'm listing the campus novels I've read the past decade's worth of summers:

  1. 2009: the groves of academe by mary mccarthy

  2. 2008: the rebel angels by robertson davies

  3. 2007: traveling through the boondocks by terry caesar

  4. 2006: a portrait of the artist as a young man by james joyce and lucky jim by kingsley amis (something of a cheat since I was rereading both in preparation of teaching them in the fall)

  5. 2005: the historian by elizabeth kostova

  6. 2004: the matter of desire by edmundo paz soldan (also something of a cheat since I was teaching it at the same time)

  7. 2003: straight man by richard russo

  8. 2002: small world by david lodge

  9. 2001: the glittering prizes by frederic raphael

  10. 2000: in plato's cave by alvin kernan

  11. 1999: publish and perish by james hynes

I may have juxtaposed some of the years but I don't think that matters much. this list doesn't include campus books I've read at other times of the year, like donna tartt's secret history and michael chabon's wonder boys and stanley aronowitz' knowledge factory and any of a half dozen other books about teaching and administration, or campus novels I read long before I became a part of academe, like john osborn's paper chase and robert rimmer's harrad experiment and vladamir nabokov's pnin and philip roth's professor of desire and ghost writer and john gardner's mickelsson's ghosts and francine prose's blue angel and r.f. delderfeld's to serve them all my days and evelyn waugh's brideshead revisited.

here, I think, is the difficulty. I am pretty well-read on this topic and I admire almost all of the books I've listed and some I haven't. but there isn't a single one which I can point to and say it is similar in substance to my experiences as a student or as a teacher. (the closest might be the gardner novel with its failed and mediocre academics. I imagined it happening in my undergrad school throughout, which makes sense given that gardner's binghamton university is a mere 95 miles from my alma mater and a part of the same system.) it's not that all of them have plots or topics that are too sensational to have been something I've experienced; not a single one has more than a page or 2 of descriptions of classes or conferences or meetings where I recognize myself as having been in something like it. is there such a huge difference between the types of colleges these books are about and the types I have been to that they have no overlap?

another note: all of these books involve colleges or universities. I don't know of a single novel that takes place in a community or technical college.

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