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Back to School: Dark Academia Aesthetic and Books

The spires of an old university building.

There is something about the beginning of September, even as an adult. It's a return to routine, a time to set new goals, and Starbucks brings back its Pumpkin Spice Latte. Seems like the perfect time to explain dark academia! It is an aesthetic that has been gaining popularity over the last several years and has become a growing literary movement.

Dark because there is a dark side to the higher learning, be it bad habits (obsession, alcoholism), mysteries, murder, or the occult.

Academia because settings usually focus on old colleges or boarding schools.

Dark academia began as an aesthetic movement that favours tweed blazers, houndstooth pattern, collared shirts, and dark leather loafers with knee high socks. It is sort of boarding school preppy meets goth.

Dark academia began as an aesthetic movement, featuring blazers and tweed.

It is generally characterized by a focus on moody Western canon (think poetry by the Romantics or the tragedy of Virginia Woolf), Gothic architecture with shadowy libraries, art for art’s sake with an emphasis on classical music and sculpture, and an often-unhealthy thirst for knowledge (and alcohol and caffeine). In literature it features old institutions (think Oxford) that have sweeping spires and the potential for a dark underbelly—usually taking the form of secret societies. Victor Frankenstein is a great example of a literary character who would fit right in in dark academia!

But dark academia can be problematic: it glamourizes institutions that have predominantly focused on cultivating a white and (for a long time) male student body. And the clothes mimic the uniforms of elite boarding schools that cater to ‘old money’. In addition, the settings that make up the dark academic aesthetic generally feature slices of Europe or areas in the Northeast United States. All of these have, in one way or another, excluded people of colour, people with disabilities, and low-income students. However, there has been a growing movement of authors subverting these expectations. Mona Awad’s Bunny and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades come to mind.

Other notable novels that are on the dark academia syllabus include The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt (considered the OG inspiration for the movement), If We Were Villains (2017) by M. L. Rio, and Ninth House (2019) by Leigh Bardugo, They Never Learn (2020) by Layne Fargo, and Catherine House (2020) by Elisabeth Thomas. The latest additions to the growing genre include the wildly Babel (2022) by R. F. Kuang and A Study In Drowning by Ava Reid. I've read all, except for Reid (although it's only TBR list as I type), and there isn't one I wouldn't recommend! If We Were Villains is in my top 10 books of all time and They Never Learn was one of my top reads of last year.

It is no wonder that dark academia grabs hold of us every year as the weather cools. It invites us to pull on an oversized cable knit sweater, pour a glass of red wine, light a candle… And explore the depths of knowledge (in our TBR pile!).

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