Thursday, May 27, 2010

Historical Heft: A Look at Long, Epic Novels

A coincidence, this is not: Many literature geeks also seem to be history buffs. After all, what is history but a series of connected stories that coalesce into a single narrative? You know, kind of like a novel. So it certainly makes sense that anyone who enjoys made-up stories will enjoy real ones. And, if you're like me, when real and made-up stories are mashed up (in the parlance of our times) then, well, boo-ya!

I've always loved the long, epic historical novels by writers like James Michener, Leon Uris and Herman Wouk. They do take some patience, admittedly, but they're a fun way to learn about history. And they are damn entertaining. I still count Leon Uris's Trinity — a novel about unrest in turn-of-the-20th-century Ireland — as one of my all-time favorites. I also loved Uris' Exodus, about the founding of Israel, and I've read most of his catalog, including Mila 18, Mitla Pass, Redemption, O'Hara's Choice, The Haj and Battle Cry.

Not counting Leo Tolstoy, Michener is probably the originator of this genre — publishing massive tome after massive tome that rarely drop below 700 pages. His books are infamous for almost literally starting with the dinosaurs, and then progressing through time to the present in a series of connected vignettes that hit all the major historical events of the place he's telling you about. Of his more than 25 books, I've read four: Caribbean (810 pages), The Source (1,078 pages), Chesapeake (1,083 pages), and Texas (1,322 pages). My favorite was The Source, but Texas was very good, too. 

I learned more about World War II from Herman Wouk's hulking two-book series, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, than I did in any high school or college history course (and I was a history minor!).  Most (old) people probably know this story from the 1983 Robert Mitchum mini-series, but I highly recommend the books — if you've got a few, um, months, of free reading time. I also really enjoyed Wouk's two-novel series about the founding of Israel, The Hope and The Glory. And, though it doesn't exactly fit the criteria of this post, Wouk's The Caine Mutiny is fantastic as well.

The Simpsons, which is the consummate gauge of pop culture in my opinion, has joked about these bricks of books in two different episodes. To me, this is strong evidence for the fact that I'm not alone amidst the stuffy history professors in enjoying these books. There is an element of main-stream-ness to them as well. In one episode, the local yokel Cletus wields Trinity as a weapon, stating that "Nothing cracks a turtle like Leon Uris." In another, a bookstore has a sign outside advertising a special: "Michener: $1.99/Lb." Good stuff. 

I bring this up now, because I've just immersed myself in Edward Rutherfurd's 900-page history/fiction mash-up titled New York. We started in 1664, and more than 100 pages in, we haven't gotten much further. It ends in modern times, so we have a lot of time to travel yet! This is my first time reading Rutherfurd, supposedly a disciple of Mr. Michener, so I'm hoping it turns out well. Anyone read any of his other novels? Are they any good?

What about you?  Are you a history buff as well as a literary geek? What are some of your favorite hefty historical novels?

(Others long history novels I've enjoyed, but won't detail at all since this post is approaching the length of Michener novel: Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth, the Shaara's Civil War trilogy, John Jakes North & South trilogy, etc., etc)


  1. I've read many of the ones you mentioned--I was on a Michener kick in high school and read a bunch then. I recently read Shaara's Civil War trilogy, after visiting Gettysburg this summer. I just recently read Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund, which is wonderful if you like the period of the French Revolution. Plus I can't forget the mega-thick novels of Alexandre Dumas (I think I've read about all of them!)--they're still great reads.

    I've decided that when I read good historical fiction I get so engrossed that I forget I already know the ending, i.e. will Lee surrender? Will Marie Antoinette and her family get caught on their attempted escape out of the country? etc....

  2. The Micheners are too much for me; really most things 800 or so pages I balk at. That said, I do like a good historical series. A modernist by trade, I would suggest Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford and the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos. Parade's End does that thing you mentioned of giving you a richness of experience that even the best histories really can't match.

    Another favorite (maybe I read more of these than I think) is Andersonville by Mackinlay Kantor, about the famous Confederate prison of the same name. It's a gem of late American modernism but is strangely forgotten, even though it won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Greg, I think you need to do a top 10 of these at some point. War and Peace takes the top spot no?

  3. As a former history major, I often think I should of majored in Literature because of my love for great works of fiction. But I am constantly drawn to actual history books more than historical novels. Often, I feel they stretch a little more than I would prefer.

    That said, I did devour Pillars of the Earth with gusto. Maybe that means my Medieval European History prof wasn't that thorough.

    I'm a big fan of the history books that read like novels. My favorite is Team of Rivals, which, I think, could be sold by the pound, too.

  4. I have several Michener's on my shelf and haven't read them yet. My favorite super sized historicals are Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, and Mary Queen of Scots and the Isles and The Autobiography of Henry VIII with notes by his fool Will Somers by Margaret George. Oh and Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. And I've not read Sharon Kay Penman yet but I've heard she's tops in HF and her books are awesome (particularly The Sunne in Splendour and the Welsh Trilogy). Ok I'll stop now. No, I'm not a literary/history geek at all.... :)

  5. Ok, I lied. I forgot Roots and Queen by Alex Haley as well. :)

  6. @Fourth Musketeer - Thanks for the suggestion on Abundance. The French Revolution represents a gaping hole in my knowledge of history. And I love the idea of historical fiction being so engrossing you forget how it ends - that is very well said!

    @TheApe - You're the only other person I know who has read Andersonville! I actually stumbled through it about 10 years ago when I was in my early 20s. And I didn't much care for it then - probably not literarily mature enough to get it, so it's definitely a book I need to carve out some time to revisit. A Top 10 list, eh? Maybe that'll be my first post after I actually read War and Peace (a goal for late 2010, early 2011), so I don't feel like such a phony creating a historical top 10 and leaving out the greatest novel ever written.

    @Leah - Ah, I've been meaning to pick up Team of Rivals. That good, eh? And, I agree, there is some historical fiction that stretches too much or just isn't interesting to me for other reasons. In that category, I'd put Colleen McCullough and Phillipa Gregory. But as the Ape eloquently points out, novels can provide a richness of experience that pure history books can't.

    @Holly - As I was writing this post, I kept thinking how embarrassing it is that I'm professing my love for these huge historical novels, and have never read Gone With the Wind (or War and Peace, for that matter). So, I conveniently left that out! :) But I suspect, like you, it'll show up on many favorites lists. Thanks for the other suggestions, too - I'm off to check them out!

  7. Thanks for the book suggestions. I am a history buff myself but i tend to get bored if the story goes beyond 500 pages and especially if they are simply recounting information. Your post is tempting me to try and read one of these mammoth historical novels.

  8. I'm a huge fan of historical novels, and recently read Rutherfurd's New York and reviewed it for my website at I'm actually not a big fan of Michener's novels (except for Hawaii, which I really enjoyed). Rutherfurd does these sweep-of-history novels much better, I think - I also liked his Sarum (about Salisbury, England, and the building of Salisbury Cathedral) and Russka (about - you guessed it, Russian history). Rutherfurd creates more complex and engaging characters, I think, and sticks with them long enough to give readers a good sense of story. Regardless, I think anyone who enjoys Michener would enjoy Rutherfurd.

  9. Guilty as charged: Fiction reader who loves history.

    But I'm a weird one, in that I tend to dodge historical fiction in favor of plain old nonfiction.

    Love nonfiction books about history; not too wild about historical fiction. Odd duck.

    I've tried to learn to love historical novels, but I've failed in my efforts to convert myself.

  10. I'm over from the Hop and will be a new Follower.

    I'm a total history buff but I'm always a little wearily of starting on long historical novels. Not necessarily because I'm afraid of their length, I just always worry about how spending so much time and energy focusing on one specific time and place will have one me.
    On the other hand if I find a time/place that i enjoy I'll read anything I can get my hands on about the subject. Tudor England and Prauge through the ages being prime examples for me.

  11. @Bookventures - Give it a shot! Michener always kept my attention 'cause the vignettes read like a new story every couple hundred pages or so.

    @Margaret - I'm liking Rutherfurd okay so far, but I think I prefer my boy Michener. Rutherfurd's style is so choppy and segmented, it's hard to stay engaged.

    @Unruly Reader - I can certainly see the argument for eschewing historical fiction in favor of real history. I went through a phase like that, too - but missed historical fiction, so now I read them both. :)

    @Letter - Thanks for swingin' by. Yeah, I'm always a little nervous about starting long books, too - but, hey, if you don't like it, there's no law that says you can't put it aside. ;)

  12. Dave has read most of Michener's and loves them. He finally convinced me to try Space and it was ok, but too heavy on the history and short on story for me. However, John Jakes' Kent Family saga is my entire base for my knowledge of American history. Sure hope they are accurate.

  13. Hey Greg, I gave you a bit of a shout-out today in my post for the blog hop. I look forward to your review of New York; I also picked this up recently, but I'm saving it for summer reading. I did read and enjoy Rutherford's Sarum, which is set in England, and begins with the building of Stonehenge. Based on your review, I'm looking forward to reading Let the Great World Spin this summer too.

  14. Hi Greg, I've tried to read 'London - A Novel' (also by Rutherfurd) and couldn't sleep because there was so much detail; and it had traveled very quickly too. England being England, there was a lot of ground to cover in 829 pages; so I think he had to make sure he covered a lot of ground. Also, there were maps of London in the times he was covering too - with all four of five names that London had over the times this story covered; which means the same thing in different languages.

    Otherwise a very fascinating book. I also have 'Sarum' but have yet to try it out... to many books on my Mt TBR right now.

  15. Hey Greg! Awesome post :) You're bang on the money, I loooooove novels that inform me about history and really enjoyed Rutherford's London. I have to agree with Mozette, it was a pretty intense read - intense and long haul - but a good one for me. It took me half a summer when I was about 17-18 I think? Loved it.

  16. Greg,
    I am a historian and love good historical fiction. Mitchener is great, I read him in high school (oh I am showing my age). I do not much care for Rutherford either. I wanted to, but could not get into his style. Roots is my all time favorite historical book. Ken Follet is a good historical author. Pillers of Earth has stayed with me for years now. Frank Delaney did a great job with Ireland. I highly recommend this one.

  17. Hi. I love Mitchener and Uris. A thick book and a long saga are some of life's real joys. I love books set in history, or a specific industry, a specific location or any other aspect of life I'm unfamiliar with. The knowledge gained while indulging in my favorite pastime is priceless. I enjoyed visiting your blog. I'm signing on to follow so I'll be back!

  18. (Let's try that again!)
    Hi... I found your blog through the blog hop at I love historical fiction, although I haven't read all of the ones you mention here. I did quite enjoy Follett's Pillars of the Earth though.

    And I love The Simpsons more as an adult (now that I get most of the jokes!) than I did as a kid.

    Have a good one!

  19. @Dave and/or Tami - I haven't read Space, but I've heard that's not one of Michener's better novels. John Jakes is great! I haven't gotten through the Kent Family Chronicles, but the North and South trilogy was thoroughly enjoyable.

    @bibliophiliac - Thanks for the shout out! New York is so far so good. It's a bit more choppy than I normally care for, but not too bad.

    @Mozette - Thanks for your thoughts on London. I've always been really intrigued by that novel when I see it at a bookstore, but haven't pulled the trigger yet. Maybe if I really like New York, I'll finally give London a shot.

    @Kathmeista - Hey, welcome back! ;) And another vote of confidence for London - moving up higher on my list now. Thanks!

    @SariJ - Ah, Frank Delaney - good call! Never read him either, but have always heard good things.

    @Ordinary Reader - Thanks for following! I certainly agree that the mix of history and fiction are one of life's great pleasures!

    @Becky - Thanks for swinging by! Pillars of the Earth really was fantastic. Did you read World Without End? I haven't made it to that one yet. And I'm glad to have found another Simpsons fan! ;)

  20. These days I think I'm too scatterbrained to get through anything longer than 700 pages, so I've given up on the door stops. But I loved Trinity back in the day. Rutherford's London has been sitting on my shelf for ages and I've been tempted a few times. Maybe someday.

  21. Ah, "Chesapeake." One of my favorite books ever. So I read another Michener and for the life of me can't remember which one it was. It certainly didn't have the impact and how can you forget the name of a book you read that was over 1000 pages?

  22. Late to the party, Greg - & have so enjoyed reading your blog. Noticed you stated a lack of knowledge of the French Revolution, so jumping in to recommend Hilary Mantel's 'A Place of Greater Safety': beautifully-written & compelling, by award-winning English writer (of recently 'Wolf Hall'). Edward Rutherford? Another of your lovely commenters has him nailed, really: too fast-moving, too many events & characters too cardboard-y. Ken Follett's 'Pillar': strictly for fans of the Braveheart-type 'reading' of history ... !

  23. Any of James Clavell's novels. Particularly Shōgun.