The Biblioracle on the elite's unending allure

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History Teacher

Girls in the upper fourth form of the girl's School at Christ's Hospital, Hertford, are given a history lesson by the author of their new history text book, Miss F M Page. (Topical Press Agency, Getty Images / December 31, 1969)

If Wikipedia is correct — and why wouldn't a website that anyone in the world can log onto and change its content be correct? — only .5 percent of school-age children attend boarding schools.

If that's the case, how can there be so many boarding school novels?


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I think it's possible that just about anyone who can read has read a boarding school novel: "A Separate Peace," "The Catcher in the Rye," "Prep," "Jane Eyre."

A number of currently popular novels/series for young adults make use of boarding schools; John Green's "Looking for Alaska," the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, "Vampire Academy" by Richelle Mead, "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks" by E. Lockhart, and the "House of Night" series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast feature characters enrolled in boarding school.

And let's not forget about an obscure series for young adults about a boy named Harry Potter.

These books were brought to mind recently as, purely by coincidence, I read two terrific boarding school-related novels back to back, David Gilbert's "& Sons" and "The Virgins" by Pamela Erens.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), both Gilbert and Erens use not just boarding schools, but the uber-boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Exeter's alumni include the sons of presidents Lincoln and Grant; writers such as George Plimpton, Gore Vidal and Dan Brown; and wealthy businessmen such as Pierre du Pont and Joseph Coors. Plus, hoodie-wearing billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.

Where there are boarding school novels, there is John Irving, the once and all-time king of the genre. He makes his own use of Exeter-like stand-ins in "The World According to Garp," "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and his most recent effort, "In One Person."

Gilbert's novel prominently features a blurb from Irving, while Irving delivered a rave review of "The Virgins" in The New York Times.

I grew up in film director John Hughes' suburbia and went to the schools of "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club" — fine places, but not guaranteed to be the breeding grounds for the future kings and queens of America. Perhaps this is what makes boarding school such an alluring subject for the 99.5 percent of us who are on the outside looking in.

We see boarding schools with a mix of fascination and envy, as places of privilege to which most of are not admitted. Exeter and its ilk have a mythical/magical status in our culture, and often these novels expose unflattering truths, the status anxieties, the cutthroat competition, the inequities of race and class.

Boarding school attendee Holden Caulfield of "The Catcher in the Rye" perhaps best represents our outsider view of these elite schools, declaring that everyone at Pencey Prep is a "phony."

Often, the boarding school novel will make an outsider the central character, a kind of proxy for the audience. Irving is especially adept at this by situating them simultaneously inside and outside the boarding school culture. Garp, the titular character of "The World According to Garp," may attend an Exeter-like school, but he is the son of the school nurse, conceived when his mother engages in a one-night stand with a comatose soldier. Garp has access to privilege without being privileged.

The same could be said of Harry Potter, an orphan who literally lives in a cupboard under the stairs but is a superstar at the most selective institute of magic in the world. We can't help but root for Harry's success while knowing that sons of privilege like Draco Malfoy are, in Holden Caulfield's words, "phonies."

I don't really foresee an end to our fascination with these places. As long as most of us have our noses pressed to the gates, writers will need to let us inside.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

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