Academic Humor

Satire and farce lead to wicked fun in books that poke fun at pompous professors, campus politics, and the many foibles of students. Whether you want to laugh away educational stress, reminisce about campus days, or just have a chuckle, these novels strive to tickle your fancy. To find other funny books or further explore the experiences of educators and students, check with the librarians at the Adult Services desk.

Kingsley Amis  -- Lucky Jim                             
A comedy classic. Amis’s best known work, first published in 1954, was a response to the class structure of English society. Half a century later, it is still a funny and engaging book. Follow junior lecturer (graduate student) Jim Dixon as he stumbles from one threat to his job to another. Will he survive Professor Welch, his cutthroat History Department colleagues, and his own missteps? This wicked little book is the foundation upon which other academic satires are still building.

Kate Atkinson -- Emotionally Weird
Atkinson’s novels can be challenging, with many characters and stories, and this is no exception. However, part of the joy of reading an Atkinson novel is seeing how she will tie it all together. Effie and her mother Nora (or is she her mother?) take refuge in their ancestral home in the Hebrides Islands off of Scotland. There,  Effie tells stories of her university experience, her Star Trek-obsessed boyfriend, and the novels she and her friends are writing, all the while extracting bits of information about her past from Nora.

Michael Chabon -- Wonder Boys
Professor Grady Tripp is mired in failed marriages, bad habits, and his novel, which stretches over 2000 pages with no end in sight. James Leer is a gifted but troubled young writer with suicidal tendencies and kleptomania. This is the story of one hectic, hilarious weekend in the life of these “wonder boys.” Read this book for its wonderful characters and its comic exploration of failures and how to overcome them.

Robertson Davies -- The Rebel Angels
This is the first novel in Davies’ Cornish Trilogy. A collector of manuscripts and art objects dies, naming three competing academics executors of his estate. A Rabelais manuscript goes missing. The professors compete for the attentions of the beautiful and gifted graduate student Maria Theotoky. Who would think medieval literature, gnostic religion, and details of gypsy violin making could be this much fun? Sharp tongues and eccentric behavior abound in another excellent novel from one of Canada’s great authors.

Don DeLillo -- White Noise
Jack Gladney is professor of Hitler Studies at University-on-the-Hill. When a cloud of toxic gas threatens the town, Gladney must try to save his family. However, this book is not really about a conventional plot. It’s a dark satire of pop culture, consumerism, and our fear of death. White Noise won the National Book Award in 1985 and was recently re-issued in the Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century series. At just over 300 pages, this is a reasonably-sized introduction to DeLillo’s intriguing work.

Jon Hassler -- Rookery Blues
Hassler’s Rookery State College, located in Minnesota, is an isolated place. It’s so far north that, in the late sixties setting of this novel, most of the students are only there to get draft deferments, while the instructors are misfits who can’t get jobs anywhere else. This book centers on five of those instructors who join together to play jazz in the Icejam Quintet. Hassler cares about each of his eccentric characters, and it shows. He followed this book with a sequel, The Dean’s List.

David Lodge -- Changing Places
It’s 1969, and Morris Zapp is the self-important star professor of the English Department of Euphoria State in California, a campus awash in political and sexual revolutions. Phillip Swallow is a very undistinguished professor at Rummidge University in the midlands of England, where the only change is gradual deterioration. When the two exchange places for a year, they quickly discover that more than the geography will be different. This book was the first campus satire from author Lodge, perhaps the master of the genre.

David Lodge -- Small World
This sequel to Changing Places brings back Zapp, Swallow, and a new crew of academics. Set at a series of international academic conferences, the book follows a broad cast of characters through academic infights, successful and unsuccessful couplings, and funny takes on English literature from Arthurian legend to T.S. Eliot.

David Lodge -- Thinks
Ralph Messenger directs a center for artificial intelligence research. He’s a leader in his field, but also an adulterous womanizer undergoing a mid-life crisis. When Helen Reed, a recently-widowed novelist begins a stint at the university as visiting writer-in-residence, she finds herself both attracted to and appalled by Messenger’s advances. The relationship plays out in front of a background of academic and literary satire.

Michael Malone -- Foolscap, or, The Stages of Love
Set at fictional Cavendish University in the mountain town of Rome, North Carolina, this satire skewers many targets. When mild-mannered drama professor Theo Ryan shows his play Foolscap to Ford Rexford—America’s best-known playwright—a comic caper through the worlds of academia and the theater begins. Soon Theo finds himself on a stage much larger than he ever could have expected.

Tom Perrotta -- Joe College
Whether you are a student or want to laugh at students, you will probably enjoy this book. Narrator Danny, a junior at Yale, is trying to balance the academic life with the real world. As he bumbles through relationships, hangs out in the dorms, or drives his father’s lunch truck, Danny is an appealing, all-too-human guide with whom many readers will identify. Perrotta also wrote Election, the source novel for the excellent Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon film.

Francine Prose -- Blue Angel
Professor Swenson is a disappointed novelist. His writing students drain him of all his creativity. He’s morose and unable to write himself. So when Angela Argo, a student with talent comes along, Swenson is smitten. He risks family and career to “help” her. This book is an intriguing mixture of dark humor and sexual politics.  

Lev Raphael -- Death of a Constant Lover
Raphael explores the world of untenured gay professor and amateur detective Nick Hoffman. If you like wise-cracking detectives or pop-culture references, you may enjoy Raphael.

Richard Russo -- Straight Man
This hilarious novel concerns Hank Deveraux, Jr., creative writing professor, unread novelist, and beleaguered English Department head. Whether Hank struggles with the shadow of his father’s academic reputation, mysterious prostate problems, layoff threats, crazy colleagues, his troubled marriage, or birds in the campus pond, his misadventures are consistently uproarious. In addition to humor, this book has the characters and poignancy that readers expect from Russo.

Carol Shields -- Swann
Mary Swann, a poet, is murdered on the day she shows her work to a publisher. Fifteen years later, four people meet to discuss her poetry. Narration alternates between the four—a feminist scholar, a potential biographer, a librarian, and Swann’s publisher. As they share stories of the poet, her memorabilia starts to disappear. Equal parts mystery, academic satire, and character study, this is a great introduction to a wonderful writer.

Jane Smiley -- Moo
Moo University, a Midwestern agricultural college, is a satirical microcosm of American society. Dr. Lionel Gift calls students “customers” and will do anything for more research dollars. The provost’s secretary, Mrs. Walker,  secretly diverts funds around the university. A lonesome freshman is fascinated with Earl Butz, the prize campus pig. These are just a few characters in a sprawling book with something funny for everyone. Smiley, perhaps best known for the tragic A Thousand Acres, shows her diversity here.

Kurt Vonnegut -- Hocus-Pocus
As this novel opens, Eugene Debs Hartke, a college instructor, is on trial for an unnamed crime. Like most Vonnegut novels, the book shifts through times and places such as the Vietnam War, television talk-shows, and a prison riot that turns into a takeover of Tarkington College. Vonnegut once again communicates his satirical vision of modern society and its institutions.