11 Books to Savor On the Other Side of Exam Week

Whether or not you’d call it the time of your life, surely there’s a lot to be said for college. The camaraderie, the neatly manicured campuses, the big ideas floating around like balloons at a birthday party — it’s almost too good to be true. Of course, all good things do come with a price, and when you’re talking higher education the cost is clear — weeks of cramming and hours of anxiety, which all add up to a ritualistic biannual rite of terror and torture.

I’m talking about exam week, of course, and I know just what you need to get through it — a little literary light at the end of the tunnel. After weeks of malnutrition and countless hours spent locked in the library; after study sessions, anxiety attacks and the rigorous denial of any and all recreation; after consecutive all-nighters and more cans of Red Bull than you’d care to count; after you emerge from exam week victorious, you’ll be free to indulge in the finer things in life.

First, there will be sleep, and then some sort of a meal that involves real food (you wouldn’t go amiss with a hot shower and a cold beer, either, but that’s more a matter of preference). Then, when your eyes have recovered there usual sparkle and your melatonin deficiency (remember those long hours in the library?) has abated, you’ll have plenty of time on your hands to settle in with a good book. So, while you huddle over your textbooks, exhausted and overwhelmed, just know that on the other side of exam week you’ll have these 11 works of fiction to savor.

For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin

Sometimes the best way to savor the fruits of your labor is too look back on those still succumbing to the trials and tribulations you’ve recently tested out of. So, if you’re in the mood for a little schadenfreude to celebrate making it out alive, try Ethan Canin’s For Kings and Planets. Set at Columbia University in the 1970s, this is tale of a lonely young outsider and the wealthy and privileged academic phenom he befriends. Canin’s protagonist is a confused and yearning figure, desperate and aspirational yet aloof and introspective — the perfect foil for post-exam elation.

A Certain Justice by P.D. James

The recently and dearly departed P.D. James was a master of mystery and a keen chronicler of human consciousness — her works are so detailed, so delightful, so perfectly plotted that it’s impossible not to lose yourself in her carefully constructed universes. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned a little break, so why not indulge with a story that will suck you in and tear you away from the real world you’ve been so attentive to these past few weeks.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

As a survivor of one sort or another, perhaps you alone are best suited to appreciate and empathize with this remarkable story of a world class opera singer, a wealthy aficionado, and the hostage situation that brings together unlikely minds and unfamiliar stories. The characters are rich and beautifully drawn through Patchett's simple yet sumptuous prose — it’s enough to make you appreciate your freedom anew for as long as the story will last.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Unlike end-of-year exams that deposit you on summer’s doorstep, free to indulge in the recreation and relaxation of the sun, sea, and sand, December’s weeks of torture take you right into the heart of winter. If you’re stuck in an unfriendly season but free of the call of the library, why not make the most of it with Annie Proulx’s engrossing tale of life in a small Newfoundland town all too accustomed to icy winds and epic snowscapes.You’ll wind down and let it all go with this slow, quiet peek into an altogether different world.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s novels are more than simply unusual, they’re downright strange — and, to my mind, none is stranger than Look at Me, the story of a supermodel, a car accident, and a face no one can recognize. Unless you’re studying literature and your course calendar is a lot more diverse than mine ever was, I can personally guarantee that Look at Me is nothing like the reading you were doing just days ago. You’ll appreciate it all the more for the contrast.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

I was gifted this engaging, endearing, and uproariously funny book of personal essays several years ago, and I kid you not: I actually peed a little bit in a chair by the fire from laughing so hard. You have misbehaving elves, belligerent customers, and one snarky narrator — the perfect recipe for forgetting your troubles and heading into the holiday season relaxed and rejuvenated.

Chéri by Colette

When I want to go to my happy place, I pull on a beret, grab a pan au chocolat and collect a volume by Colette. Whether in front of a roaring fire or curled up in bed, this luxurious story of French romance, complete with corsets, courtesans, and hot chocolate served for breakfast in bed is simply to delightful to allow the cares of weeks gone by to penetrate the psyche.

To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s entrancing stream of consciousness narration brings an exuberant vitality to this quiet tale of home. Working with the simplest of subject matter, Woolf slowly draws you in to the world of Mrs. XXX and wraps you up in the warmth and familiarity of a well-examined life. With this book and a cup of chamomile tea, all your cares will melt away.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

If all you’re looking for now is a quick trip to an entirely alternate universe, take up Patti Smith’s Just Kids and let the cares of college slip away. With plain prose, Smith recounts her engrossing artistic development in a Greenwich Village milieu that included Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, and most of all Robbert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is both a striking look back at a remarkable life lived, and a portal into another time and place. Trust me, once you make it past chapter one, you’ll never want to leave.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

If your preferred form of indulgence is a perfectly crafted romance, look no further than The Time Traveller’s Wife. However you felt about the movie, I promise you it did not do justice to this sprawling tale of love in and out of time. Take along a box of tissues and let the anxiety and stress of so much studying wash away as you lose yourself in love.

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Before Josh Brolin and Joaquin Phoenix render you incapable of imagining the characters independently when Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic adaptation is released in February, indulge with Pynchon’s epic send-up of the overly complicated detective story. Bringing life to farce as only Pynchon can, this grand narrative is as engrossing as the crime stories it parodies — and 10 times smarter.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

It’s been a rough few weeks, so why not treat yourself to a little laughter? The holidays are for indulgence, and you’ve earned the right to spend some time with a smart, sassy memoir that has more than enough killer insights, well-sculpted satire, and worldly witticisms to make you laugh out loud.