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Cherwell Recommends: University Reads

The Books editors offer their recommendations for fiction set in universities.

Trinity 2021 will see at least a significant portion of the student body return to ‘normal Oxford’, a loose collection of memories, activities, and locations so distant yet so viscerally near. Of course, Oxford means radically different things to each and every student; the higher education experience in general is portrayed in literature as a tumultuous, fleeting moment, preserved in space by historical campuses but not in time. Be it pre-war Oxford, 1990s Harvard, or another locale, university settings have created some of the most treasured texts for readers across generations.

Some of the books editors have selected their favourite reads set in universities. We hope that as you peruse these stories, images of a bright new Oxford life post-pandemic will also spring to mind. Whose words will immortalize university life in the 2020s?

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Maebh, Books Editor
Amidst the news that there will be a new film adaptation of this classic novel written by Waugh in the 1940s, I decided to pick up and finally read a copy of it during the two weeks of isolation I went through in Michaelmas term. Whilst I was confined to my small bedroom, Waugh’s evocation depiction of 1920s Oxford made me nostalgic for the Oxford I had experienced before the pandemic; the joys of roaming around colleges, meeting new people, and the highs and lows of university life. In a weird way, I guess, it gave me a sense of belonging, the characters being described as strolling down the very same street that I lived (and was then isolated) on. Waugh’s memorable characters, his powerful evocation of a country both during and after the two World Wars, and his beautiful prose style makes this novel a joy to read, and an essential for anyone who has, or will, live in Oxford.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Sofie, Books Editor
The Idiot, a semi-autobiographical novel by New Yorker writer Elif Batuman, follows a young Turkish American woman named Selin as she navigates her first year at Harvard. When Selin starts exchanging emails with an older mathematics student named Ivan (the novel is set in the 1990s), she finds herself grappling with existential questions of life, language, and love first-hand.

The Idiot is distinctively a type of university novel, but it also captures the way in which Selin experiences the world beyond ivy-clad gates: at home, in Ivan’s home country of Hungary, and in European cities. While Batuman’s prose and dialogue are, at points, overly intellectualized, the novel does capture the very real anxieties and hopes that this period in one’s life brings.

Jill by Philip Larkin
Irene, Deputy Editor
Even among dedicated Larkin fans, Jill is often an overlooked work. Written when Larkin was 21 and studying for an English degree at St. John’s, the novel is set in ‘austere’ WWII Oxford. Gone are the days of Sebastian Flyte and motorcar trips to Wiltshire; instead, protagonist John Kemp finds himself in a labyrinthe of incomprehensible social norms and strang interactions. Kemp is a scholarship student from Lancashire, suddenly confronted with a world of privilege, private-school connections, and pretense. Jill’s subjects and themes are chillingly relevant today; almost none of the challenges that drove John Kemp to the edge of sanity have been resolved, and we too find ourselves back in an ‘austere’ Oxford where societal trauma is ongoing and palpable. At the very least, revisiting Larkin finds us companions in history.

Image credit: Man vyi (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, Wikimedia Commons).

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