Lately, it seems that every time I log into a social media account I am faced with headlines like “Why Every CEO Who is Interesting Reads 60 Books a Year“. What are they reading? You can find out here.
If the list of mostly nonfiction seems dry to you or if you’ve been known to follow up a book recommendation with, “Is there a love story in it?” read on.
A title like that suggests that if a busy CEO can read that many books a year, then you should be able to too. I beg to differ. However, if you are looking for suggestions on how to incorporate more time for reading in your life, stay tuned for my post on how to make more time to read. It’s been my experience that books that are written from the perspective of emotionally driven characters in another place and time have provided the most enriching insights to me that stick. In that vein, I challenge you that if you can read just one of these epic historical novels this year you will be well on your way to being a more interesting person. And if not that, then at least well read.
This carefully chosen list contains novels that either connect readers with the deeply human experiences that transcend time or introduces you to a historical perspective that you may not already have.
Warning: These novels are meaty and deep, at times graphic and not for the faint of heart! That’s why only one a year to augment other reading, should be enough. Over time, I strongly encourage you to read them all.
Les Misarables by Victor Hugo
If you can make it through the first few chapters on the slow moving life of Bishop of Digne, which is a necessity that underscores the books reoccurring theme of cause and effect, you’ll be rewarded with a raw story of injustice countered with compassion. On one hand, the characters are so flawed, the main character Jean Valjean is an escaped convict and Fantine is a fallen woman who turns to prostitution, but you can’t help to empathize with them as utterly human faced with tragically impossible situations. What keeps you turning the pages of this enormously long novel, is that at every turn they are faced with what is expected and unexpected. Just when you think the characters can’t endure one more thing, they do. Victor Hugo keeps you on the edge of your seat as your deeper self implores him to make sense of it all. Set in France in the 18th 19th centuries, you get to know the gritty life of a factory worker, a small town, a questionable Inn Keeper and fall in love with the only innocent; the young child Colette.
Readers are left wondering, how can you make sense of the infinite? This is the theme that keeps this novel circulating throughout time and has led to fabulous stage adaptations and movies. In Hugo’s own words, “The eye of the drama must be everywhere at once.”
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Set in the sunny climate of Australia, the life of Meggie Cleary is led mostly under the cover of auspicious clouds hovering around the spires of the Catholic Church . As a young girl, Meggie is befriended by Father Ralph de Bricassart, a handsome Roman Catholic Priest. As she matures into a beautiful woman the two fall into a clandestine love, one that sparks jealousy and eventually leads to Bricassart’s departure to Rome. Meggie enters a loveless marriage but reunites with the priest which leads her to give birth, unknowing to him, to Ralph’s son. Meggie’s daughter from her husband grows to be a head strong and talented actress and takes a central stage in the second part of the story. Through beautifully written prose and scenery of an Australian sheep stead, the story is bittersweet as is the title named after a bird that sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other, but only at the cost of great pain.
Chesapeake: A Novel by James Michener
Out of all of James Michener’s novels, Chesapeake is hands down my favorite from a historical perspective. Beginning with the first settlers of what is now modern day Maryland, Mitchner paints the story across multiple decades of what it was like to live off the land in this lush environment. From Indian tribes to the first white men he chronicles not only human life around the Chesapeake Bay but the evolution of geese and crabs that inhabit it. There are seedy characters and piously religious characters. Pirates, fighting, slavery, and emancipation test morals and set the backdrop of politics leading to the development of our nation. Stealth women build up family wealth, choose between sons and mourn for lost husbands. Most of the book takes place before the 20th century, but it ends with Watergate because as humans and an elemental theme of the novel, we always reap what we sow.
The Century Trilogy (3 Book Series) by Ken Folett
I was first introduced to Ken Follet through his masterpiece The Pillars of the Earth: A Novel (Kingsbridge) and was ecstatic to learn that he was coming out with a new trilogy set in the 21st century, the first of which debuted in 2010.
Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy begins the historical drama introducing families in England, Germany, Russia and the US whose offspring carry the story through out to the end. There is an omniscient view through which we learn the first-hand effects of war on characters of multiple countries. Their stories often overlap such as when Maude, a member of the English aristocracy marries a German spy. Her brother commits an infidelity with a household maid who later, along with her brother become leaders in England’s Parliament under the Labor party and suffragette movements. However subtle the progress, society is still run by the bourgeoisie and in this first book, readers come to realize that it’s not so easy to remain loyal to one’s sentiments or even one’s country when there is a fall of giants all around, or in other words the devastations of WWI.
Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy, the second book of the trilogy, WWII unfolds as the reader experiences life under the Third Reich through Carla Von Ulrich, daughter of Maude. In Russia, two brothers take different routes and question their roles under communism and Stalin. Zoya a brilliant physicist is introduced and plays a crucial part in the war through her position in Soviet Intelligence. Young Americans align themselves with Woodrow Wilson, either working in his cabinet or fighting in the war. What struck me most about Winter of the World was the depiction of the complete devastation that both Russian and German citizens faced during the occupacy of one country over the other. Decent people were forced to do abdominal things just to survive.
Most of Fall of Giants: Book Three of the Century Trilogy takes place in the Eastern block of Germany as Maude and her descendants fight to keep their family together and in one instance, escape. In the US, we get intimately acquainted with JFK, Martin Luther King Jr and the active struggle for Civil Rights by a young African American lawyer, George, and his female counter-part, Maria, who becomes a favorite mistress of JFK. We live through the President’s assassination and what it’s like to come to age in the Cold War and continuing the many battles that still remain as a result of our past, either above or below the surface.
On his writing style, Ken Follet has said, “When you’re reading one of my books, I don’t want you thinking about a sentence or marveling at a vivid image. Or, exclaiming, ‘What a clever alliteration.’ I don’t want you thinking about my prose. I want you to focus on the story. To illustrate that, I’ve said, ‘My style is like a window. You look through it and see the story. You don’t pay attention to the pane of glass.’ In this trilogy, he has accomplished exactly that.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I know what you are thinking, another really long one, but I wouldn’t add it to the list if I didn’t think that the characters and themes didn’t carry through to today. Classic questions about love, greed, war and divinity flank the pages of this Russian classic. One of my favorite scenes is when a youthful carousing gang of 19 year-olds, including the main character, tie a police officer to the back of a black bear as a prank and throw him into the river. The police man survives and the reader chuckles over the fact that boys of that age, even in Russia in the early 1800’s, always find trouble. We learn about Napoleon, his genius for war and the obdurate ways in which the Russians finally defeat his army. The reader accompanies Natasha in her white dress to a coming out ball and knows that behind her dark eyes there lives a burning passion, which even after her first true love dies, is reignited with the love of eternity.
According to Tolstoy, War and Peace is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”. Some historians disagree saying that Tolstoy was instrumental in bringing a new kind of consciousness to the novel. In which he volleyed between giving an omniscient perspective with presenting experiences by the characters from their points of view. I would argue that it’s more like a ballet, gracefully sweeping the reader from one chapter to another while the undercurrent of life carries you through as if in song.
Have you read any of these? Share what you think. What would you add to the list of epic historical novels that everyone should read?