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School is all booked up

September 12, 2006|David L. Ulin | Times Staff Writer

School is a unifying experience, one that almost everybody shares. Perhaps that's why so much has been written about it, including the children's books of Barbara Park and the novels of James Hilton and John Knowles. Still, of all the levels of education, higher learning is the most compelling, perhaps because it's where we learn to be adults. Here, then, are 10 books, fiction and nonfiction, that look at colleges and graduate schools across the country from the perspective of both faculty and students, and in so doing, tell us something about the role of academia in our lives.

"The Blacker the Berry"

Wallace Thurman

Thurman was a figure of the Harlem Renaissance who grew up in Salt Lake City and attended USC before moving to New York. His debut novel, published in 1929, was among the first books to look at black-on-black racism, portraying a dark-skinned girl who is derided by her fairer family and friends. Although not an academic novel per se, it features an extended sequence detailing the experience of black students at USC during the early 1920s. Such a re-creation is significant not just as literature but also as social history -- evoking, as it does, an overlooked and largely unknown moment in Los Angeles life.

"Franny and Zooey"

J. D. Salinger

Like "The Blacker the Berry," Salinger's greatest book is also only tangentially about higher learning. It begins with 19-year-old Franny Glass having a breakdown during lunch with her boyfriend on a college football Saturday. But it is all about wisdom, intelligence and education in the broadest sense. Once Franny goes home to recuperate, she, her mother and her brother Zooey spend one of the most extravagantly detailed mornings in the history of literature, arguing, cajoling, consoling each other in an endless back and forth. Here, Zooey offers one of the great put-downs of undergraduate intellectuals, like the boy his sister was visiting when she fell apart. "Phooey," he declares. "Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day."

"The Group"

Mary McCarthy

McCarthy's 1963 novel follows eight members of the Vassar class of 1933 as they make their way in the world, post-graduation, and face the challenges of mid-century modern life. Here, too, academia is important as frame or context, the tie that binds these characters and makes them who they are. For McCarthy, Vassar is a symbol not just of learning but also of class and privilege, a port of entry, as it were. It's a subtle point but an essential one, suggesting that the schools we go to are more important for the values they instill and the access they offer than for any classroom experience.

"The Human Stain"

Philip Roth

Set against the backdrop of Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment summer, this story of a professor at a small New England college looks at political correctness run amok. Although the novel purports to be about race and class and identity, Roth's real subjects are, as always, hypocrisy and double standards, the bitterness and sanctimony that inform private and public life. For Coleman Silk, the book's ill-fated protagonist, the quiet security of academia quickly becomes a minefield as a remark taken out of context leads to the unraveling of everything he has ever counted dear. In the process, Roth asks piercing questions about who we are and who we want to be, suggesting that the past is always with us, no matter how hard we try to set it aside.

"Lucky Jim"

Kingsley Amis

What would a list of academic novels be without "Lucky Jim"? First published in 1954, this comic masterpiece is the book that put Amis on the map. The story of a reluctant lecturer at a second-line British university, it exposes the hypocrisies of teaching as a profession, including disinterested students, disinterested teachers and the political intrigues on which so many careers depend. After it was published, Amis was classified as one of the "angry young men" of English literature, but that's not really accurate; for all its rage and piercing cynicism, "Lucky Jim" has an absurdist edge.

"Moving On"

Larry McMurtry

In the 1960s and early '70s, McMurtry wrote a series of novels that framed urban Houston as a contemporary version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, evoking the interlocking lives of two friends, Patsy Carpenter and Emma Horton, and the members of their families. "Moving On" is Patsy's story, but a significant subplot belongs to Emma and her graduate student husband Flap. For McMurtry, there's a lot of romance in their threadbare, book-lined existence, where the only currency worth having is the currency of ideas.

"One L"

Scott Turow

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