Open Questions

Books With Class: Autumn Reads That Bring Back The School Daze

School (in this country, anyway) is like taxes; there is absolutely no getting out of it without breaking the law. So it makes sense that so many authors have set novels in a classroom — they were all there at some point.

School is a near universal experience, and yet each child reacts differently to the rigor of academic life and the pressure of being jammed together with one's peers for eight hours a day. Books about school are as varied as authors themselves; some depict those years as a warm, halcyon time of friendship and camaraderie; others equate high school to a torture chamber. Either way, it's always worth traveling back in time via a book when classes begin anew; it will help you empathize and prepare the students in your life. Here are five of our favorite stories set in schools — tell us yours in the comments.

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Paperback, 204 pages, Scribner, $12, published October 7 2003 | purchase

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A Separate Peace
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John Knowles

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Perhaps the most famous book about school that is read in school, Knowles' classic 1959 novel is worth a second read later in life. The book tells the story of best friends Phineas and Gene, who board together at a prestigious prep school in the summer before World War II. The boys' friendship is both close and complicated; what starts out as a promising connection leads to confusion, resentment and even violence. This is a good book to shove under the arm of any teen set to move into a dorm; nothing tries one's resilience and moral compass like living with a roommate for the first time.

The Secret History

by Donna Tartt

Paperback, 657 pages, Gardners Books, $14.05, published January 26 2006 | purchase

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The Secret History
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Rumor has it that Donna Tartt, one of the most celebrated novelists of the 1990s, is set to publish a comeback book next year, and we cannot wait. Still, we doubt that she can ever top her debut classic, 1996's The Secret History. The thriller, set at the fictional Hampden College in rural Vermont, follows a posse of friends studying Greek philosophy who conspire to murder a member of the group (they succeed, as we learn on page one). Told from the perspective of narrator Richard Papen, who is sucked into the tight-knit study group only to find a sinister crust underneath the congeniality, The Secret History presents the ultimate nightmare scenario for those going away to an isolated college campus. Word to the wise: Research your school's clubs carefully before signing onto a Bacchanalian killing squad.

Old School

by Tobias Wolff

Paperback, 195 pages, Random House Inc, $14, published September 1 2004 | purchase

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Old School
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Tobias Wolff

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One of Tobias Wolff's true talents is capturing boyhood, in all of its hormonal confusion, a skill he puts on full display in Old School. Set in a boys' prep school in the 1960s, the novel tells of students who are enraptured with their English teachers. The boys compete for the chance to meet with visiting authors (Robert Frost, Hemingway) in their final year, and so become intensely literary and erudite as they approach graduation. The book is written in Wolff's typically spare, affecting style, and transports you right back into how it must have felt to be studying in the years before the late '60s exploded.

Prep

by Curtis Sittenfeld

Paperback, 420 pages, Random House Inc, $14, published November 22 2005 | purchase

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Prep
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Curtis Sittenfeld

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Just when it seemed that the prep school genre had been completely exhausted, debut author Sittenfeld arrived on the scene with Prep in 2005 — it became an immediate smash hit. Narrated by Lee Fiora, a scholarship student at the tony Ault school, Prep is a perfect slice of teenage angst, wrestling with issues of class, race, religion and morality in the school setting. Director Noah Baumbach scooped up the rights soon after publication and penned a screenplay, but the story has yet to make it to the big screen. When it does, it may become Dead Poets Society for a new generation.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

by Stephen Chbosky

Paperback, 213 pages, MTV Books, $14, published February 1 1999 | purchase

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The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
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Stephen Chbosky

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The film version of the cult-hit 1999 novel is in production right now, starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson, and we are looking forward to the new class of teens that will be encouraged to pick up the book as a result. Wallflower is written as a series of letters from Charlie, a high school freshman who deals with all of the stresses that affect pubescent youth — isolation, unrequited crushes, questioning of sexuality, finding mentors and encountering alcohol and drugs. The fact that Charlie is also reeling from a friend's suicide adds a level of depth and gravity to the story, bumping it from another story about hallway drama into the canon of high school classics.

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