This week I discovered the Reading Glasses podcast and have been gleefully burning through episodes. One of my favorite parts of the show is when Mallory and Brea share listener-submitted reading wheelhouses, or tropes that guarantee that a reader will pick up a book. They’re always personal and sometimes very specific, and I love hearing ones I would never think of or nodding along when a total stranger loves the same sort of books that I do.
I’ve been ruminating on my own wheelhouses–and thinking of emailing them in–and I realized that dark academia has to be at the top of the list.
What is dark academia? It’s an aesthetic and literary (and film) subgenre in featuring scholastic settings and elements of thrillers/supense and the Gothic. I love the list of common themes that I found on the fandom wiki, because it’s so comprehensive and honestly just perfect:
Common themes within this aesthetic are books, poetry, friendship, prep/private schools, classical music, coming of age, existentialism, death/murder, social classes, and romance. Writing poetry in notebooks, reading the classics, going to local coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, and museums also fuel this aesthetic.
So, it’s basically everything that I love, with more drama and tragedy than I would ever want to experience personally, but that is thrilling to read about in books.
There are a ton of dark academia novels out there, so where should you start? Here are some that I have enjoyed:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History is my number-one favorite book of all time as well as the quintessential dark academia novel, so read this one first. It follows narrator Richard Papen as he leaves California to enroll in a university in Vermont. There he stumbles into a place in a cult-like classics program and becomes entangled in the complicated lives of his privileged classmates, which become significantly more complicated when they commit a murder. Tartt writes with an unrivaled joy for language and narrative, and with much more humor than you might expect.
The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
Following her divorce, Jane Hudson returns to her alma mater to accept a position as a Latin teacher and start a new life with her young daughter. But pages from her long-lost diary resurface, hinting that one of her students knows more details than they should about Jane’s involvement in a series of suicides that occurred at the school during her senior year. Soon it appears that Jane’s personal history is repeating itself, and with girls’ lives and her position at stake, she races to figure out why.
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Want some dark academia that focuses on theater rather than on dead languages? Try If We Were Villains, which is very similar to The Secret History–narrator looking back at a past murder, group of brilliant students, rigorous academic environment–but takes place at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where actors devote themselves entirely to Shakespeare. Sexual tension, interpersonal drama, and danger will keep you reading until the legitimately shocking end.
Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand
This is a big, weird book that kept surprising me. Only the first half is true dark academia, with the rest of the book taking place years after the protagonist, Sweeney Cassidy, is out of college, but her museum work after graduation maintains something of an academic thread throughout. And the scenes set at the University of the Archangels and St. John the Divine, a fictional university in Washington, D. C., are everything you could want from dark academia and more. There’s a heavy fantasy element, with angels, hands of glory, and other dimensions alongside the relatively more commonplace trope of secret societies.
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
This is your book if you like the blending of fantasy with dark academia and want more. Sisters Imogen (a writer) and Marin (a ballerina) are accepted into a prestigious arts program that requires more sacrifice than they initially bargained for. This novel draws a lot from the ballad of Tam Lin… So if you like it and want a more in-depth retelling of the ballad, you should also read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. And yes, it, too, takes place at a university. It’s a slow burn and great if you enjoy books that feel like you’re tagging along with the characters through their daily lives.
I am always looking for more dark academia novels, and campus novels in general, so if you have a suggestion, feel free to share it in the comments. With any luck, I’ll have enough books to post a part 2 by this time next year.