7 books about university life you should read

Sean Campbell
Sean Campbell

30 July 2020 • 6 min read

We’ll let you in on a poorly kept secret: University is a time for learning, but it’s about much more than academia. 

It’s a time for exploring friendship, love, relationships, philosophy, social issues, politics, the arts, and the social scene. It’s a time for finding out more about yourself and the world than you’ve ever known -- a time for growth, change, challenges, and building character. More than anything, it’s a time for following your curiosity wherever it may lead you, and that makes it incredibly exciting. 

Naturally, those glory days of studenthood are so evocative that some of our greatest literary works have been set in university. While it’s just about impossible to mention every single great book on the topic, we’ve whittled our list down to eight -- some modern releases, some classics, and some good old useful non-fiction to point you in the right direction during your university life. 

Educated by Tara Westover 

The American author’s best-selling memoir tells the story of her coming-of-age, from a secluded Mormon upbringing in the mountains of Idaho, to her life across the Atlantic ocean at Cambridge University in the UK. 

Raised in a “survivalist” family which shuns society, forbids schooling, and even refuses modern medicine, Westover takes her learning into her own hands as a teen. Her educational journey takes her as far as Harvard and Cambridge, further away from everything she’s ever known.

An incredible tale, Educated tackles self discovery, abusive relationships, loyalty, and the wonder of learning.  

The Secret History by Donna Tartt 

Into the world of fiction we go, and what better a way to enter than Donna Tartt’s iconic murder mystery, The Secret History. It was published in 1992, when the internet was in its infancy and the closest thing to a Kindle was the Nintendo Gameboy, but as a novel it’s timeless. 

It follows a group of US college students who, fascinated by the ancient Greek culture, forge their own alternative way of living.  Slowly but surely however, divisions form and conflict arises within the group, and just like a classic Greek tragedy, this conflict comes at a deadly cost.  

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Also set at a US university which seems suspiciously similar to Harvard, On Beauty tackles issues of race, identity, politics, rivalry, class, culture and beauty in the USA and the UK. 

It tells the story of a mixed race British-American family. The mother African-American, the father a white English professor, the children -- searching for a more solid sense of cultural belonging. Each child follows a different path, into religion, academia and black counterculture respectively. 

With the dividing lines between the family members drawn, Zadie Smith uses great doses of humour, emotion and a small side of cynicism to highlight a whole range of the hot button topics of our time. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Her second novel before the age of 30, Irish novelist Sally Rooney is quickly becoming a real powerhouse in the literary world. Normal People is a heartbreaking story about the complications of love, rather than a simple love story. 

Main characters Marianne and Connell grow up in the same area of rural Ireland, go to the same school, and then to the same university in Dublin. Both are academically gifted, but this is where the similarities end. Marianne is from a rich family, and is generally disliked in school, whereas working-class Connell is handsome and popular, but much deeper and emotionally vulnerable than he seems. 

As is the way with complicated stories about love, the two fall head over heels for each other. But life is not a fairytale, and Normal People powerfully explores the ecstatic highs and the crushing lows points of young love, all the while exploring themes of mental health, domestic abuse, and class structure.  

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Life isn’t complete without reading at least one novel by the Japanese tour de force that is Murakami. In fact we’d recommend reading them all. One of his favourites though, is Norwegian Wood, named after the famous Beatles song. 

The book is a nostalgic throwback to the writer’s own university days in Tokyo in the late 1960s. It was a time of civil upheaval and revolution, with student protests a regular and sometimes violent occurrence. Amidst this turmoil, the plot follows a series of tragic love triangles, and encounters themes of mental wellbeing, friendship, morality and loss. It’s a poignant story, a heartbreaker in fact, but it’s an incredibly beautifully told one. 

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey

Okay, that’s quite enough heartache for now. 

Somewhere in the middle of all this self discovery, you’re going to have to get some work done at university right? Well, Chris Bailey’s super witty, engaging book will go a long way to helping you. Bailey spent years experimenting with ways to become more productive -- not just working harder and for longer, but working smarter in order to achieve more.

In The Productivity Project, he takes a deep dive into the many experiments he tried on his journey: Getting up at 5am (eugh), cutting out sugar (eww), and spending 10 days in total isolation (eugh, eww, no). Even if going to such extremes doesn’t appeal to you, the book is a treasure trove of knowledge, filled with great little life-hacks to teach you how to get more done, faster, and with better quality. 

 Nosh 4 Students: A Fun Student Cookbook by Joy May

“Nosh”, in case you didn’t know, means food. So now you know!

Here’s another badly kept secret: All students live off instant noodles, breakfast cereal (for dinner), and takeout food (for breakfast). At least what’s what the old folks say… But it doesn’t have to be true! Cooking great food can actually be pretty easy and cheap, and this is showcased perfectly in Joy May’s handy student cookbook. She wrote it when her son went off to university not knowing the difference between a frying pan and a dustpan. By all accounts, he survived university, stayed well fed and in good health! 

Every recipe inside is easy to make, the ingredients are all pretty affordable, and there’s even a separate vegetarian and vegan edition!

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Sean Campbell
Written By
Sean Campbell

Sean is a writer, copywriter & editor from Ireland.


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