Dark Academia – an aesthetic and literary subgenre that has taken the world by storm. Suppose you’ve stumbled upon this term before.
In that case, you’ll know exactly what it signifies: an idealized world of academia, rich in intellectual pursuit, full of tweed blazers, secret societies, and ancient languages, all tinged with a thrilling, dark twist.
But why has this aesthetic caught fire recently, and why does it captivate us so much? Let’s dive into the fascinating world of Dark Academia books.
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A brief history of dark academia books
The term Dark Academia isn’t a newly coined phrase. This literary aesthetic has been around for over two decades, often regarded as having been kick-started by Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History”.
Published in 1992, this enigmatic tale revolves around a murder within a group of classics students at an elite New England college.
The novel was such a hit that it spawned a fan club on Tumblr in 2015, setting the stage for the Dark Academia trend to take flight.
The rise in popularity
Although the term had been in circulation for some time, during the pandemic-induced global lockdown in 2020, Dark Academia experienced an explosive increase in popularity. With schools closed and many students unable to attend their institutions, many gravitated towards this aesthetic as a means of experiencing the academic life they were missing.
Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok witnessed a surge in Dark Academia content, making the aesthetic more mainstream.
The release of books like “Babel” during this period fueled the burning fire of Dark Academia’s popularity. The praise and hype it received, especially from platforms like BookTok, showed how deeply ingrained the aesthetic had become in popular culture.
What exactly is dark academia?
Dark Academia is more than just a genre – it’s a sub-genre, a vibe, and an aesthetic. It explores intellectual pursuit and academia (high school, college, university), often set within an academic setting.
This aesthetic celebrates themes related to academia, such as literature, philosophy, and the arts, often incorporating ancient languages like Latin and Greek.
The ‘dark’ element usually manifests through plot devices (e.g., murder, dark magic, secrets) or the characters themselves (e.g., flawed moral values, psychological turmoil).
Dark Academia is not restricted to a specific genre despite its academia-focused elements. It is bleeding into horror, fantasy, historical fiction, and more, making it a versatile and intriguing subgenre.
The appeal of dark academia
Many elements make Dark Academia appealing to readers. For many, it’s the aesthetic itself that draws them in. There is a certain allure in getting to experience a world most people don’t have access to, especially when it’s wrapped in a charmingly nostalgic and almost fantastical package.
It’s a chance to live in an era that no longer exists, immersed in gothic architecture, dusty libraries, and old-school uniforms, even if only through the pages of a book.
The characters that typically populate Dark Academia narratives are another intriguing aspect. Often highly intelligent and with the world at their feet, their actions and choices, especially when their moral compass is askew, provide a captivating and often unsettling exploration of human nature.
The pitfalls of dark academia
While Dark Academia offers much to its readers, it’s important to acknowledge its potential drawbacks.
One of the major criticisms it faces is its tendency to romanticize European elitism and Eurocentric aesthetics, often excluding the experiences and perspectives of non-white, non-western individuals.
Most Dark Academia narratives focus on higher education institutions akin to Ivy League schools, promoting a sense of elitism that can exclude many readers. The aesthetic often tends to sideline people of color, presenting a predominantly white vision of academia.
Another pitfall is the potential glorification of unhealthy lifestyles. Excessive studying, the neglect of basic needs, and even substance abuse can sometimes be glamorized in Dark Academia literature, which can send harmful messages to impressionable readers.
However, it’s important to note that these pitfalls are increasingly being addressed in newer Dark Academia narratives. Authors are becoming more mindful of incorporating diverse characters and perspectives, challenging the Eurocentric biases of the aesthetic.
The best dark academia books for young adults
Dark Academia is a subgenre that has been increasingly prevalent in young adult fiction, appealing to a demographic that is often navigating the academic world themselves.
Here are some top picks:
A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
This sapphic thriller is set in a boarding school with a dark history of witchcraft and mysterious student deaths. It perfectly encapsulates the Dark Academia aesthetic with its young adult lens.
Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
This trilogy, set at an elite boarding school in Vermont, features a century-old mystery, a brilliant detective, and plenty of twists and turns. It’s a perfect blend of classic Dark Academia elements with YA appeal.
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater
While not strictly Dark Academia, this series featuring a group of prep school boys and a psychic’s daughter on a quest for a Welsh king, certainly evokes some of the aesthetic’s vibes with its emphasis on myth, history, and intellectual pursuits.
Vicious by V.E Schwab
This novel follows Victor and Eli, two brilliant and ambitious college students who discover the key to gaining superhuman abilities. But things go horribly wrong, and their friendship turns into a deadly rivalry. Vicious is a masterful exploration of ambition, jealousy, and the blurred lines between good and evil.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
This gripping novel is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai. It follows the heirs of two rival gangs as they grapple with their families’ enmity and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River.
The best dark academia novels for adults
Dark Academia first took root in adult fiction, and many excellent novels embody this aesthetic.
Here are a few to consider:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Often considered the defining novel of the genre, it revolves around a group of classics students at an elite New England college who become entwined in a murder.
Babel by R.F. Kuang
A recent entry into the canon, “Babel” critiques the Eurocentric bias in Dark Academia while telling a gripping tale. It voices the colonized and subtly critiques academia.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Set at Yale University, this novel delves into secret societies, dark magic, and murder, all while exploring themes of privilege and power.
The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
This story of six magicians who are given the chance to join a secret society, with the catch being that only five will be accepted, offers a fascinating exploration of magic, academia, and moral dilemmas.
Dead Poets Society by N.H. Kleinbaum
Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 film, it tells the story of an English teacher at an all-boys prep school who inspires his students to “seize the day” and embrace poetry. However, the administration disapproves of his teaching methods, leading to a dramatic climax. This coming-of-age story explores themes of conformity, tradition, and the importance of individuality.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
This story revolves around seven Shakespearean actor friends at an arts college. But when their competitiveness leads to a tragic event, they’re left to grapple with their actions and their consequences. The novel is a complex exploration of friendship, loyalty, and the dark side of ambition.
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Get to grips with dark academia books
So there you have it, folks! We’ve gone down the rabbit hole of Dark Academia, a trend that’s been taking the book world by storm. It’s got the whole package: a nostalgic love for learning, moody aesthetics, and of course, some juicy drama and mysteries to unravel.
Now, it’s not all old libraries and tweed jackets. We know Dark Academia has its drawbacks. It’s been called out for focusing too much on European culture and for glamorizing not-so-great things like overworking and unhealthy behaviors. But hey, the good news is that things are changing. With books like “Babel” and “These Violent Delights,” we see more diverse voices and fresh perspectives in the spotlight.
Whether you’re already a big fan of Dark Academia or just starting to dip your toes in, the books we’ve discussed here are a great place to start. They’ve got it all – high stakes, smart characters, and atmosphere.
So, why not give one of these books a go and see what all the fuss is about? Your next favorite book might be waiting for you right here.