Sunday, June 14, 2009

Five Books of academe

I am introducing what I expect to become a regular feature of this Commonplace Blog. Taking a hint from the Wall Street Journal’s occasional list of “Five Best” books in this or that category (the latest is Alan Furst’s roll of the Five Best Spy Novels), I am going to name, from time to time, the Five Books in a genre that most deserve to be read. Rather than ranking them, I will arrange them in chronological order. My hope is that the Five Books will provide a “short list” for those who want an introduction to the best that has been thought and said on a subject.

The first will be the academic novel. In a comment to an earlier post, Jake Seliger cordially disagrees with my choice for the best of its kind. Better five suggestions than one, then. Here they are—with short summaries.

(1.) Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1953). The first of the kind—a postwar genre. Jim Dixon takes a job teaching medieval history, because “it looked better to be interested in something specific.” He socializes with proto-PC professors, “the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd,” can’t get unstuck from his lover Margaret Peel (one of the great bitches in English literature), and worries about being reappointed to a college he doesn’t want to be at.

(2.) Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1955). Based on Mary McCarthy, who took a teaching job at Bard College in order to get a novel (The Groves of Academe, 1952) out of it. The result is Gertrude Johnson, who “always saw the worst.” (She is another of the great bitches in English literature.) As the title suggests, the book is more a series of tableaux than a story with a plot. The language, however, cuts like a Cuisinart blade.

(3.) Malcolm Bradbury, The History Man (1975). The best portrait ever written of the academic left. A radical sociologist at one of the new British universities founded in the ’sixties—an academic superstar who has been “on television a good deal” after writing “two well-known and disturbing books, urging new mores, a new deal for man”—beds a colleague and pursues a chaste English professor while his wife heads the Children’s Crusade for Abortion.

(4.) David Lodge, Nice Work (1989). If you can get it. A Marxist feminist at a red-brick university (modeled on Birmingham) falls in love with a factory manager. The third of Lodge’s academic satires, following Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984). Just as funny as the first two, but after bigger game. Some critics recommend coming to it only after reading the first two, but I think it is strikingly different and stands better on its own.

(5.) Richard Russo, Straight Man (1997). One-book novelist Hank Devereaux is interim chairman of the English department at a nondescript branch campus of Penn State, a commuter school in the rusting industrial town of Railton. He tries to keep his colleagues from killing one another, battles the administration’s efforts to slash his budget, and regularly makes a fool of himself. Little plot, but many comic scenes and witty dialogue.

Seliger also names Nabokov’s Pnin as one of the best, but I consider it to belong to a different kind—the novel about a professor or scholar. That will be the subject of my next Five Books.


Art Durkee said...

In a perverse sort of way, I would add "The Eiger Sanction" to this list. I recently re-read it with pleasure. And while it is a thriller, it's also an academic novel whose lead character is a professor, rabid art collector, as well as being a secret assassin. The novel is also perversely funny in a way that I haven't seen thriller novels dare to be for quite some time. There's satire as well as action in it, and I haven't enough seen much satire of this type in awhile.

Sorry if this is completely off-topic, or jumps the gun on your next topic. Maybe it's just a reflection of my own imp this morning.

D. G. Myers said...

Not at all. But don’t forget that Indiana Jones was a professor too.

litlove said...

I'm not fond of Lucky Jim, but that's just personal taste. The History Man, however, I do think is an excellent and often overlooked work. You don't have any women there - what about Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe? Or Zadie Smith's On Beauty? Or Moo by Jane Smiley?

susan w. said...

And don't forget Francine Prose's Blue Angel.

Jonathan said...

Sorry for the late comment.

Stoner by John Williams
A New Life by Malamud

Hope all is well.