Set in the 1800s, R.F. Kuang’s historical fantasy novel Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution follows the adventures of Robin Swift, a Chinese student at the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, where the act of translation is used to derive magical power. Though languages like Bengali, Haitian creole and Robin’s native Cantonese are the source of much of this power, Britain and its ruling class reaps almost all of the benefits. As Robin progresses at the institute, his loyalties are tested when Britain threatens war with China. The politicization of language and the allure of institutional power are among the book’s rich discussion topics.
Jason Fitger, the protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s witty campus novel Dear Committee Members, teaches creative writing and literature at Payne University, where he contends with funding cuts and diminishing department resources. He also frequently writes letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and it’s through these letters that the novel unfolds. Schumacher uses this unique spin on the epistolary novel to create a revealing portrait of a curmudgeonly academic struggling to navigate the complexities of campus life. Reading groups will savor this shrewdly trenchant take on the higher-ed experience, and if you find yourself wanting to sign up for another course with Professor Fitger, Schumacher’s two sequels (The Shakespeare Requirement and The English Experience) are also on the syllabus.
For a surrealist send-up of the liberal arts world, turn to Mona Awad’s clever, disturbing Bunny. Samantha Mackey made it into the MFA creative writing program of Warren University thanks to a scholarship. The other writers—a tightknit circle of wealthy young women known as the Bunnies—convene regularly for a horrifying ritual. When Samantha is invited to take part, she learns difficult lessons about female friendship and her own identity. This haunting, often funny novel probes the dark side of academia and the challenges of the artistic process.
In her uncompromising, upfront memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, Eternity Martis writes about being a Black student at Western University, a mostly white college in Ontario. Martis was initially thrilled to attend the university, but the racism she experienced in the classroom and in social settings made her question her life choices. Her smart observations, unfailing sense of humor and invaluable reporting on contemporary education make this a must-read campus memoir.