Reading About My World: Books Set in Academia

One would think that, given all the hours I spend helping people with their research, doing my own research, and essentially hanging out with academics all day, I would want to read something completely different. One might also think that reading about someone reading dusty tomes would be boring*. And yet, books set in libraries with characters finding remarkable texts are like catnip to me—the more true-to-life** the better**.

Edouard John Mentha

I had to think about why I like books set in academia so much. There definitely are days when I want to go home and not think about periodicals or scholarly communication or deal with people who need that document yesterday. There are days when I have so many questions at the reference desk that my brain is mush. In spite of this, I think it’s the process of discovery that I get to witness when I read many of these books. The feeling of joy I get when I see someone learn something helps me get through my days as a reference librarian. I suppose it’s not so surprising that I like to shoulder surf characters who are digging around in overlooked books****. The lives of academics, whether student or tenured professor, are not easy, so it’s nice to see an academic make a discovery that could make them famous—or at least discover something that is incredibly cool, phenomenal, or otherwise fascinating.

I also get a kick out of books that satirize academia. There are so many stereotypes of professors and graduate students that I’ve seen in real life that it’s so much fun seeing an author take the piss out of them. I mean, there’s a reason why some stereotypes exist. When an author makes fun of a navel-gazing poet, a blowhard economist, or scientist who no one is sure what they’re up to, it’s like being included in an in joke that people outside the academy won’t get.

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite novels set in academia*****:

  • A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness. Witches! Vampires! Magical texts in the Bodleian Library! What’s not to love?
  • Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. This is the funniest, truest book about the frustrations of academic life I have ever read. I once recommended it to someone who didn’t finish it, because it “was too real.” Seriously, this book is like seeing someone else saying out loud the things I either have to bottle up or can only shout about on Twitter, semi-anonymously.
  • Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg. “Document that will rewrite history” is an old trope by now. It’s so overused that I usually stop reading reviews that use the phrase, but I’m glad I jumped at Rosenberg’s take on the history-shaking document. This time, the document rewrites what we know about the transgender experience centuries before the word came into common usage. I also loved this book for the way that Rosenberg used footnotes to support an entire major plot line.

* That yell you may have just heard was all the Dan Brown fans.
**As you will see, I make exceptions for vampires and witches.
*** Although, I get mightily annoyed by librarian stereotypes. Librarians are helpful, dammit.
**** Archivists are regularly infuriated by articles that announce the “discovery” of “lost” manuscripts/photos/items. Those items weren’t lost. It’s not their fault no one was paying attention to their finding aids.
***** This is a post about books set in academia. Can you blame me for using so many footnotes?

1 Comment

  1. well, I like reading books set in a place I know (geographically or professionally), either because I want to remember that place or time, or because I can see if the writer saw things the way I do or differently. I think it’s a universal human trait (vampires or witches too?)

    Liked by 1 person

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