Mark Helprin

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?