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Four Takes: What you really learned in college, The Boston Sunday Globe



Some 20 million students will shortly flock to US colleges, roughly a fifth of them for the first time. For mixed reasons, uncounted nostalgic graduates will be with them in spirit. My friend Howard says that college is where you start making all the decisions that mess up your life. For him revisiting the experience constitutes an unavailing return to the scene of the crime.

For others though, college still represents an awakening. Going back can be a way of rethinking what matters.

While coming-of-age stories often include campus experiences, few make college life their primary focus. The exceptions can feel unfinished, yet the best of them still offer enlightenment, to graduates and the uninitiated alike. Herewith, a few campus books to get lost in.

F. Scott Fitzgerald made his mark early with “This Side of Paradise,” published in 1920. Probably the best-known fictional account of American college life, the semiautobiographical novel follows Amory Blaine from prep school to bucolic Princeton. (Harvard he rejects as “sort of indoors.”)

Fitzgerald’s lyrical descriptions of the campus can still leave graduates weak-kneed. Alas, the novel also reeks of privilege and its power to exclude. Taking Princeton at face value, the socially ambitious Amory becomes skilled at rising. More sentimental than intellectual, his education is shaped by young women (he falls in love with at least four) and by conversations with male friends, including his priestly mentor, Monsignor Darcy. Ultimately, Amory is stripped of his illusions. He discards religion and contemplates the need for social revolution, concluding “I know myself but that is all.”

After a year at Harvard, and a summer teaching English in Hungary, the heroine of Elif Batuman’s novel “The Idiot” claims even less. Feeling betrayed mentally and emotionally, she switches out of her linguistics major, concluding: “I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

Perhaps not, but her creator picked up plenty somewhere along the line. Batuman’s wry depiction of college life in the mid-1990s brims with fine observation. Her stand-in is Selin, a product of Turkish immigrants by way of suburban New Jersey. Selin falls hard for Ivan, an older student in her Russian class, and attempts to manage her attraction by all means at hand.

Pity the young afflicted with high verbal scores. The advent of e-mail has turbocharged the sacred undergraduate search for meaning, and, by minimizing actual contact, turned youthful relationships more complicated than ever. Batuman brilliantly captures the way campus romances become mired in the clay of self-formation and turn almost incoherent as their victims filter their feelings through academic discourse.

Some readers will be glad they missed the whole thing. Incoming freshmen, text-savvy and Instagram-schooled, may simply shake their heads: E-mail is so ’90s. Yet Batuman offers a timeless warning: Your collegiate heart may well take a hammering, no matter the path to it. And no, this kind of heartache is not restricted to the Ivy League, or even to co-ed schools.

J. Courtney Sullivan’s first novel, “Commencement,” tells the story of four young women who become fast friends at Smith as the 20th century clocks out. Not much remains of the white-gloved teas or varsity husband hunting that marked Sylvia Plath’s days in Northampton. Smith has gone earnestly green (soy sauce is used rather than road salt to melt snow on the quad). It is also aggressively feminist. Lesbians are out in full force, and discussion of transgender rights is gaining steam.

Yet Smithies still attend mixers and fall in love with their professors. The first of Sullivan’s foursome to marry tests the women’s friendship and their professed commitment to meaningful careers. Almost painfully aware of their privilege, and tenderly protective of the scholarship girl in their midst, they would be quick to acknowledge that, for too many, college remains out of reach.

Tara Westover almost didn’t get there at all. Her harrowing memoir “Educated” recounts her upbringing in Idaho, as the child of a religion-haunted survivalist. More self-taught than home-schooled, and with little support from her family, she gained admission to Brigham Young University at 16. The chapters on her experience there, and later at Cambridge University, vividly illustrate how far she had to go simply to reach the typical freshman starting line.

Because Westover’s father so mistrusted the government, she lacked the birth certificate needed to enroll. Once past that hurdle, Westover hears of the Holocaust and the civil rights movement for the first time. In a psychology class, stunned to learn about bipolar disorders, she contemplates her father’s paranoia in a new light.

Westover’s account of deprivation and abuse, and her skill with narrative, have vaulted “Educated” onto the best-seller list. Her longing to learn, and above all, to possess her own mind, will resonate with anyone for whom college represents deliverance, no matter how high the cost.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.

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