historical v contemporary novels

For some reason a question keeps popping into my head. If I had to choose between reading only historical or only contemporary novels, which would I choose?

Today I think I settled the question by forcing myself to do the desert island thing. Only five novels, desert island, me. For say, ten years. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett
  • Possession, A.S. Byatt
  • A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
  • Bride of the Wilderness, Charles McCarry
  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

These are, of course, all historical. Possession is half historical and half contemporary, but I’m still counting it as historical as that’s the heart of the story. Things these novels have in common (beyond the fact that I love them):

  • densely written, long books; not one of them is a quick read;
  • stand up to multiple re-readings, and in fact, are better each time;
  • lots and lots of compelling plot
  • great characters
  • written as if the author expected it to be read out loud, which I think would be a good thing on that desert island.

If historical novels were forbidden by whoever is running this mind game, I could certainly come up with five contemporary novels. But I don’t think I would be as happy as I would be with the historicals.

Leaving my stuff off the list, can you name five novels you think could save your sanity on that island?

14 Replies to “historical v contemporary novels”

  1. Here’s my list:

    Watership Down by Richard Adams
    Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
    A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Brey
    Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
    Neil Simon Monologues

    This was really hard because a lot of the books I love to re-read are really short and I think on a desert island you really need to go with some density. And I threw the monologues in there because I love Neil Simon’s work and it would probably keep me entertained for a year at least memorizing and perfecting my performance of all of his monologues. :)

  2. DiDi »

    Oh now, that book of monologues is a great idea. I’ll have to have a look at those. There must be other, similar collections, too.

  3. I’m going to try not to overthink this, and I’m going to limit it to fairly recently published books (i.e., no Homer). In no particular order:
    1. Possession
    2. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell)
    3. The Time Traveler’s Wife
    4. The Name of the Rose
    5. Niccolo Rising
    Thanks for letting me play along!

  4. On my island, I would bring the books I can (and do) read over and over again.
    1. The Princess Bride (I can’t live without this book)
    2. Into the Wilderness (no “brown-nosing” here, I read ITW every year and each time it’s as if it is the first time)
    3. One Hundred Years of Solitude
    4. Anne of Green Gables
    5. The Eight

    So I guess I am in the historical novels category too. The Eight takes place in the 70’s or 80’s (I can’t remember offhand) so I am not sure if that counts as contemporary.

  5. I love historical fiction. I have to admit I seldom read anything contemporary unless I have a reason for it (ahem, Rosina). So, my five books (minus the WILDERNESS series, as you requested) would be (at the present):

    VOYAGER by Diana Gabaldon (I’d like to count the whole series as one book but, of all of them, VOYAGER is my favorite)

    These three are about Richard III (I’m a member of the R3 Society):

    SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR by Sharon Kay Penman
    A ROSE FOR THE CROWN by Anne Easter Smith
    WE SPEAK NO TREASON by Rosemary Hawley Jarman

    This one is about Eleanor de Clare, wife to Hugh le Despenser, during the reign of Edward II:

    THE TRAITOR’S WIFE by Susan Higginbotham

  6. Also
    Jack Whyte’s Camulod series
    Alison McLeay’s Passage Home series
    Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face, and Dark Angels
    Ariana Frankkin’s Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent’s Tale.
    But, if stranded, I guess I’d go for 5 of the Niccolo Rising (more words, most dense).
    I don’t like Lonesome Dove because of its ending.

    When are we gonna discuss this excellent novel I’m half-way through reading the 2nd time, called, uh, something about pajama ladies or nightgown girls or something like that?

  7. Hmmmm. This is very, very difficult.

    THE WINDFLOWER by Laura London
    FLOWERS FROM THE STORM by Laura Kinsale
    PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
    KATHERINE by Anya Seton
    ROBINSON CRUSOE by Defoe (because that would present an excellent opportunity to re-read it)

  8. 1. A Time to Kill – Wilbur Smith (Sean Courtney is and always will be an undying crush of mine)
    2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – JK Rowling (because I never tire of this book)
    3. Persuasion – Jane Austen
    4. The Bible (for the stories, not the faith – and the fact that I’d actually have time to read it)
    5. The Bronze Horseman – Paullina Simmons

    None of them are particularly ‘literary’ novels, I suppose, but each have the power (number 4 excluded) to take me into another world and immerse me in it completely. I think that’s what I’d be looking for on that island.

  9. I thought about putting Flowers from the Storm on my list. It’s certainly in my top five favorite historical romance list. But I was looking for heft as well as quality.

    Meredith — I thought I had read most of Wilbur Smith, but that title doesn’t sound familiar. I’ll have to look for it.

  10. I’d definitely choose historical!

    BTW, I have responded to your two emails but I am not sure if you are getting them or not. Can you let me know?

  11. The five books I would take with me:

    1. Outlander – Diana Gabladon (it’s my favorite)

    2. The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield (it’s a really good book)

    3. Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier

    4. The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory

    5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII – Margaret George (haven’t read this, yet but it’s on my tbr list.)

  12. It’s taken me a few days of pondering to come up with a list of only five books but here they are (like others, in no particular order):
    1. Voyager– Diana Gabaldon (I agree w/ Lynn– it is my favorite of the series)
    2. The Blue Sword– Robin McKinley (it’s considered YA and classified as such in libraries; however, like many well written books, it transcends that classification)
    3. Sunshine– Robin McKinley (a great vampire book, it’s complicated and detailed and every time I read it, I am blown away by this great alternate world that she’s created; it leaves me desperately wanting to know more but there’s no sequel….yet)
    4. Welcome to Temptation– Jennifer Crusie (no way am I going to a desert island w/out a Crusie novel)
    5. A Wrinkle in Time– Madeleine L’Engle (it makes me think hard and, on a desert island, I’d actually have time for that)

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