Picture this: You’re in a café with a book in hand, sipping your black coffee as classical music plays in the background. Sounds nice, right? Well, the scene I just described has been haunting my TikTok “for you” page and Pinterest feed in videos and photos of what is described as the “dark academia” aesthetic. While I am incredibly sick of this content showing up in my social media feeds, I do have to admit that the aesthetic itself seems rather appealing. I mean, I like coffee, and books, and procrastinating homework in favor of reading, so this aesthetic appears to be right up my alley. Upon further research, I learned that “dark academia” is also a book genre, describing books with an academic setting that focus on literature, art, education, et cetera. Eventually, my ‘research,’ which consisted mostly of watching videos in which people read by candlelight and drink tea, won me over. So, I decided to try some dark academia books (with the aesthetic ambiance, of course) to see if the genre and aesthetic are as wonderful as the internet makes them seem.
The Secret History by Donna Tart
After putting on my most academic outfit, making myself a cup of tea and playing some classical music, I was finally ready to start the first book on my list, “The Secret History.” I eagerly opened my book and began to read. An hour later, I slammed it shut. Why? Because I was so incredibly bored by the plot, the characters, and, well, the entire book if I’m being completely honest.
The book follows a group of classics students as they push the limits of morality, which ultimately results in tragedy for the group. In reality, they spend more time speaking Greek and Latin, quoting classics and smoking than they do moving the plot forward with action. And when the book finally got to the action, I was underwhelmed. I found myself not caring about the outcome of the story or the characters and was honestly just wondering when the book was going to end. I had gotten bored of the lyrical prose that kept me going through the first couple chapters, and was sick of the predictable patterns of betrayal and secrecy that all the characters exhibited.
Though I’ve been rather harsh to “The Secret History,” I can appreciate it for its insightful commentary on how seeking beauty and pleasure without regard for morality can damage one’s life and relationships. Throughout the story, Tart’s beautiful prose emphasizes this lesson in a clever and impactful way, which was one of the (few) parts of this book that I enjoyed.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
I’m going to use the cheesy metaphor of a roller coaster to describe this book because it really is the best way to articulate the crazy, unpredictable plot twists of “Ace of Spades”. This book, in many ways, was the complete opposite of “The Secret History,” and had everything that Tart’s book failed to deliver. Namely, a story complete with a number of plot twists, none of which I even remotely saw coming. In fact, I read the entire book in one sitting because I was utterly captivated by the story and was unable to put down the book until the mystery that serves as the focus of the plot was solved.
The book is told through the perspective of two students, Devon and Chiamanka, who are students at an elite prep school. The story follows these two characters as they are targeted by an anonymous texter, who threatens to reveal all of their secrets, which would completely destroy their lives, relationships and prospects of getting into an elite college.
Not only was the plot engaging, but the book also highlighted important topics, as it commented on the damage systemic racism has on individuals and society, and emphasizes the need to actively address and work to eliminate systemic racism. Because of its gripping plot and powerful message, “Ace of Spades” is an engaging and important read.
While there were elements of the dark academia genre that I didn’t love, such as the excessive quoting of classics and boring plots in some dark academia books, there were other elements that I enjoyed, including the well-developed characters and unique settings. Despite these issues, I found the dark academia genre to be intriguing and will definitely read more books within the genre in the future.