Today kicks off Wicked Wednesdays, which is much more tame than it might sound at first. Wednesdays will now be the day when I blab about guilty pleasures and oh-so-pleasant vices, broadly conceived.
Today’s topic: books about scholars!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books about intrepid academics who leave behind the dusty archives of the day-job, only to find themselves embroiled in the midst of heart-pounding adventure. It is, perhaps, wishful thinking on some level. As a PhD student in sociology with a (un?)healthy obsession with historical archives, I harbor the hope that one day, my pursuit of knowledge might take me on a voyage or two of my own.
When it comes to literature, I find that academics make wonderful protagonists. By nature, they’re curious, intelligent, and good at digging for clues. Better yet, they don’t quite know how to stay away from potentially dangerous objects, because, y’know, the drive for knowledge is all-consuming. They also have the potential for fish-out-of-water hilarity — just think of what happens when a staid and stodgy scholar is yanked out of her comfort zone (classroom, library, well-furnished office) and thrust into life-threatening danger.
Here are my top 5 favorite books starring academics:
5. A Wizard in Rhyme, Christopher Stasheff
Christopher Stasheff’s A Wizard in Rhyme series was one of my first books I read featuring a scholarly protagonist. The books fell into my hands during my freshman year of high school, passed along by my friend Ella once she learned that I was a fellow fantasy lover. The main character, Matt, is a English PhD student working his way through a thorny dissertation when a series of strange runes leads him into an alternate universe, where speaking in rhyme is the key to wielding magic. With a brain filled with poetry and verse, he finds himself an unlikely hero, inadvertently battling the forces of evil in order to free an imprisoned queen.
Stasheff’s novels are filled with humor and adventure, along with a dash of romance, which I love. My only regret is that Stasheff seems to have abandoned the series; the last book published was The Feline Wizard, in 2000.
4. Spell of the Highlander, Karen Marie Moning
Right, I admit it: I have a huge weak spot for romance novels involving harried, overworked academic gals (this has nothing, I repeat, nothing, of my own personal fantasies bound up in this, I swear). Moning, who writes some of the best bodice-rippers starring brawny, kilt-wearing, Scottish alpha men, earned my undying love and devotion when she wrote Spell of the Highlander, featuring anthropology PhD student Jessi St. James.
Jessi’s world changes when she accepts a package sent to her dissertation advisor: a strange mirror that just happens to house a ninth-century Scottish Druid who is, of course, sex on legs. This book is not about scholarly hunts for knowledge (unless, er, you count carnal knowledge?), but my list would be sadly incomplete without it. 😉
3. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe
I stumbled upon this book in the bargain section of my local Borders during its going-out-of-business sale. I’d never heard of it before, but the blurb hooked me immediately with the magical words “Harvard graduate student,” “Salem witch trials,” and “unearth[ing] a rare artifact of singular power.”
Connie Goodwin, Harvard graduate student and main character, discovers a strange old key hidden in the bookshelf of her grandmother’s abandoned home. The key contains a slip of paper with the name “Deliverance Dane” written upon it, and Connie finds herself obsessed with uncovering this mysterious woman’s identity. Her search is ultimately bound up with her own family’s history and her identity, and involves plenty of digging about in archives, along with more than a few brushes with danger.
As an aspiring scholar-novelist, I was quite happy to learn that Howe, who has a PhD in American and New England Studies herself, began writing the book while studying for her doctoral qualifying exams. She also drew on her own family history for inspiration (her bio notes that she “is a descendant of Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not”).
2. A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
I’ve mentioned Harkness’s book in the past, but it deserves fuller mention here. This might be my new favorite book about an academic; in this case, a historian of science who happens to also be a witch. In Harkness’s world, daemons, witches and vampires live cheek-by-jowl with ordinary humans, and try quite hard to remain inconspicuous. The main character, Diana, is a reluctant witch. After her parents, both powerful witches, are murdered when Diana is 7, she made the choice to turn her back on witchcraft and live life as a “normal” person. When she encounters a magicked alchemical text at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, however, her life turns upside-down. The book contains secrets sought after by all three of the non-human races, and she’s the only one who can access them.
A Discovery of Witches is the first book in a series, and I am DYING (dying, I tell you) to read the rest. One of my colleagues has informed me that Harkness is a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College; she currently teaches history at the University of Southern California, which makes her (like Howe) my ultimate hero, the scholar-turned-novelist.
1. Possession, A.S. Byatt
A list like this could never be complete without A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I’ve written about Possession before, and I will most likely keep on writing about it, because this is probably my favorite book ever, hands down.
The novel tells the story about Roland Michell, an English literature postdoctoral researcher who stumbles upon an unpublished letter by Randolph Ash, the poet whom he studies, to an unidentified woman. His need to know the intended recipient of the letter leads him (of course) on an unexpected journey. Allied with Maud Bailey, an icy but intelligent fellow scholar, Roland races to learn the hidden story behind the letters before [ins] can discover it.
I love Posession for many reasons, in part because it is such a magnificent tapestry of genres. Byatt herself has described it as “a parody, not of Sherlock Holmes, but of the Margery Allingham detective stories I grew up on. It should learn from my childhood obsession, Georgette Heyer, to be a romance, and it could learn simultaneously from Hawthorne, Henry James’s predecessor, that a historical romance is not realist, and desires to ‘connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.’” It includes a dash of adventure and quest, letters and poetry. It is perhaps the most cerebral of the novels on the list, with frequent allusion to semiotics, textual analysis, and literary critique, which I thoroughly enjoy.
Anyone else have a soft spot for the “adventuring academic”? Are there other types of protagonists you enjoy reading about?