Have you ever found yourself scrolling through social media, searching for inspiration to tackle your studies? If so, you may have stumbled upon the world of dark academia. Picture dimly lit libraries, tweed blazers, stacks of weathered books, gothic architecture, and classical sculptures. Dark academia is more than just an internet aesthetic; it is deeply intertwined with its own canon of literature. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a novel about intellectual obsession set against the backdrop of an elite institution, can be recognised as a cornerstone of the genre. Dark academia defies clear categorisation within literary genres, as its only core characteristics are that it must (unsurprisingly) revolve around academia, as well as a focus on ‘darker’ themes such as moral ambiguity or the macabre. It can therefore be found in forms as varied as poetry and fantasy, a great example being Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House. 

Although the tag ‘Dark Academia’ originated on Tumblr in 2015, it is not an entirely new phenomenon, drawing inspiration from gothic and classical aesthetics. Still, dark academia has enjoyed a popularity surge in recent years, peaking in 2020. The introduction of dark academia into the mainstream can possibly be attributed to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, where lockdowns and social restrictions caused individuals to seek inspiration online. Dark academia’s focus on nostalgia and intellectualism struck a chord during a time when life seemed to be ‘on hold’, making it challenging to maintain academic motivation. Additionally, the rapid growth of TikTok in 2020 facilitated widespread exposure to internet aesthetics, including the concept of ‘romanticising your life’. Unlike some internet aesthetics, dark academia offers accessibility in its romanticisation, through simple acts like lighting a candle or wearing a pair of plaid trousers.
Despite its undeniable appeal, dark academia is not without its criticisms. The most popular literary works in the subgenre have been criticised for their Eurocentric focus (with characters exclusively studying Ancient Greek works or Shakespeare plays), and underrepresentation for people of colour. Amidst the discourse surrounding its shortcomings, there is a rise in new voices and perspectives such as Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé who, in 2021, came out with the YA novel Ace of Spades, or R.F. Kwang whose novel Babel  has become one of the most popular recent dark academia books. While evolving and adapting, dark academia continues to work as a motivating force for students and academics alike, fostering a passion for education and scholarly pursuits.

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