As it turns out, you don’t need a TARDIS to travel through time. All it takes — pardon our cheesiness — is a library card. But it’s true:
More than any other medium, literature gives us the ability to experience eras and lives different far removed from our own. For a couple hundred pages, a light turns on in the darkness of history, illuminating the way things were.
Here’s all the
stuff you slept through in history class, made interesting and palatable by a novelist’s touch. Welcome to New York in the Gilded Age, colonial Australia, and WWII on the Greek islands. If you want a deeper understanding of the present, read these books about the past.
The best part? By following empathetic characters through richly textured historical details, you might learn quite a bit, too. With these books,
you'll broaden your intellectual curiosity as well as enjoying wonderful stories.
The Book: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller The Time: The Age of Heroes in Greece The Gist: In Homer's Iliad, Greeks and Trojans meet on the battlefield and are immortalized in legend forever. Miller recasts these men not as legends, but human beings struggling with the knowledge that their choices will have huge repercussions on history. The story centers on the powerful relationship between Achilles, the demigod destined to be the greatest warrior who ever lived, and Patroclus, the exiled prince who moved to Achilles' kingdom as a child. Suddenly, the sparse lines of verse in Homer's Iliad are filled in with Miller's imaginative and compelling narrative.
The Book: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr The Time: WWII in France and Germany The Gist: In this sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, two children's lives are intertwined by WWII events. When she's 12, a blind French girl and her father flee Paris for their relative's house by the sea, carrying an extremely valuable museum artifact. In Germany, a brilliant orphan believes an academy for the Hitler Youth will save him from a future of coal mining, and joins a team hunting down the French resistance. Their journeys take them both to the small coastal town of Saint-Malo, where the Allied forces launch a brutal attack at the war's end.
The Book: The Idiot by Elif Batuman The Time: The late '90s The Gist: Selin is a freshman at Harvard just as email is becoming a "thing." She carries out an epistolary romance with Ivan, a Hungarian math major in his senior year. Some things of freshman year don't change, like the furious bursts of introspection and deep conversations. But Batuman's book preserves a more "innocent" era, when people still sat by the telephone, and dropped off notes at dorms.
Courtesy of Penguin
The Book: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999) The Time: 1660s in the Netherlands The Gist: Surely you've already seen the Vermeer painting of a young girl looking wistfully over her shoulder, wearing a pearl earring. But Tracy Chevalier seeks to make that painting talk in this novel, which casts the "girl" as Vermeer's servant, with whom he begins a friendship much to the chagrin of his wife.
Courtesy of Mariner Books
The Book: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982) The Time: 1900-1940s, Georgia The Gist: For 20 years, Celie Harris writes letters to her sister, whom she hasn't seen since marrying the harsh, unrelenting man of her father's choosing. And for 20 years, Celie tracks the slow but sure blossoming of her spirit, even when subjugated by abusive men, extreme racism, and abject poverty. With the help of strong women companions, like the unforgettable Shug and Sophia, Celie awakens her individual self and finds her calling. Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel is a triumph.
Courtesy of Vintage
The Book: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (2005) The Time: Ancient (and probably mythological) Greece The Gist: While The Odyssey gives a detailed account of each stop on Odysseus' voyage back to Ithaca, in this imaginative book, Margaret Atwood places equal weight on Penelope's 20 years spent waiting for her husband. In this first-person narrative, Atwood gives voice to the sly, cunning woman in waiting, whose silence shouldn't be mistaken for cowardice.
Courtesy of Wordsworth Classics
The Book: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920) The Time: 1870s Manhattan The Gist: With this book, Wharton preserves in amber the Gilded Age Manhattan of grand balls, prim manners, and social confinement. In this richly textured love story, the young, wealthy Newland Archer is given a glimpse of a freer lifestyle when he meets Madame Olenska, a divorcée from Europe. The only issue? Newland's engaged to May, a conventional woman who, while oozing sweetness, is set on keeping their marriage, and reputations, intact.
Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
The Book: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015) The Time: WWII in Allied France The Gist: In The Nightingale, two sisters from a small village in France resist the Nazis in different ways. While Isabelle works for the resistance in Paris, her sister remains in their small village with her daughter, and gathers the courage to subvert the Nazis staying in her own house. This profoundly moving novel provides harrowing insight into the daily life of war, especially for the women and children left behind.
Courtesy of Vintage International
The Book: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1997) The Time: 1975 in an unidentified city in India The Gist: In this epic novel set during the time of India's Emergency, the storylines of four characters converge, ever so briefly, in Dina Dalal’s cramped apartment. Ishvar and Om, an uncle and nephew plagued by caste violence, leave their small village after a tragedy to find work as tailors in the city. At the urging of his parents, Maneck reluctantly abandons his idyllic mountain town to study refrigeration in the crowded city. And Dina, long since widowed, must stoop to take in tenants in order to maintain the little independence she has left. Their fates converge in a dramatic climax in this Dickensian novel, bursting with atmospheric details and supporting characters.
Courtesy of Scribner
The Book: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2009) The Time: 1950s Brooklyn The Gist: After enduring years of post-war hardship in her small Irish town, Eilis Lacey, like so many of her compatriots, emigrates to New York for economic reasons. Toibin elegantly captures a woman caught between two countries, two lives, and, of course, two men. Now is a more appropriate time than ever to read this heartening, empathetic immigrant's tale, which so deftly explores the difficulty of forging a new home while carrying the old one with you.
Courtesy of Beacon Press
The Book: Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979) The Time: 1900-1940s, Georgia The Gist: It's 1976, and Dana, a woman who spends her days at a factory job and her nights writing novels, suddenly finds herself transported back in time to a harsh plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. In this inhospitable environment, Dana meets her distant relatives: an aggressive white slave owner, and the Black freewoman he loved. Throughout the course of Kindred, Dana shuttles back and forth between life in California, where she lives with her white husband, to the plantation, which gets more and more dangerous each time Rufus calls her back. Butler's "grim fantasy," as she calls it, exposes to Dana, and to us, the horrendous history upon which this country was founded.
Courtesy of Vintage
The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1997) The Time: 1880s England and Australia The Gist: In Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, an English Anglican priest and a young Australian glassworks heiress meet on a trans-continental ship, and discover they have a gambling addiction in common. The two distinct characters emerge with a wager, a plan to transport a glass cathedral into the Outback, and of course — lots of sexual tension, and obstacles to completing that tension.
Courtesy of Picador
The Book: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant (1997) The Time: Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt during biblical times The Gist: According to ancient conventions of womanhood, women had to reside in the "red tent" during periods of menstruation, illness, and pregnancy. Narrated by Jacob's daughter Dinah, the novel catalogues stories of the wives and mothers whose intimate perspectives don't appear in the Bible. The narrative especially centers Dinah's four mothers and Jacob's wives, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah.
Courtesy of Vintage
The Book: Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres The Time: WWII in Cephalonia, Greece The Gist: Toward the end of the Second World War, a community on a small, quintessentially Greek island finally brushes with history. The novel focuses on Pelagia, a young woman who somehow manages to find time for romance during wartime, and the two men she's choosing between: Mandras, a fisherman turned guerrilla, and Captain Corelli, an Italian officer reluctantly carrying out his duties. This lush, sweeping novel has some of the best quotes on love, well, ever.
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