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Historical Fiction And Thrillers As The Gateway Drug To History And Reading In General: My 100 Novel (And Two Short Stories) Reading List for the Young Adult

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The past two summers I have spent a week teaching young people aged 16 to 20 at the Young Conservatives Leadership Summit at Colorado Christian University.   The most popular hour lecture both years was the one in which I list for them 100 novels they ought to read, and the order in which they ought to read them, in order to addict them to the stronger stuff of real history.  This isn’t a list of the 100 greatest novels –not by a log shot, and am I ever the wrong guy to ask that. (Try “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan” from his 1987 collection of essays Once More Around The Block. ) The suggested order in which my recommended novels should be read is as important as the books themselves as my method of addicting young people to reading runs from most easily accessible to most difficult, usually in backwards chronological sequence, with a twist at the end into the Napoleonic Wars, ending with the 21 Patrick O’Brien novels featuring Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  My list ends with the O’Brian series because, as David Mamet noted 15 years ago, “[f]or the past 30 years the greatest novelists writing in English have been genre writers: John le Carre, George Higgins and Patrick O’Brian.”

Mamet wrote that before Daniel Silva began writing his thrillers, or I think he might have been a fourth, and I urge my students to begin with Silva’s Gbriel Allon series to acquaint themselves with the joys of thrillers and with the recent history of the world at the same time, and to see, through Silva’s mastery of art history as well as trade-craft and Israel’s history, how leisure can be converted easily via the alchemy of fine writing, into useful indeed crucial learning:

The Kill Artist (2000)
The English Assassin (2002)
The Confessor (2003)
A Death in Vienna (2004)
Prince of Fire (2005)
The Messenger (2006)
The Secret Servant (2007)
Moscow Rules (2008)
The Defector (2009)
The Rembrandt Affair (2010)
Portrait of a Spy (2011)
The Fallen Angel (2012)
The English Girl (2013)
The Heist (2014),
The English Spy (2015)

When they are done with Silva –until he publishes again next summer– I urge them to take Ken Follett out for a long spin, beginning with the excellent Eye of the Needle, before losing themselves in Follett’s “Century Trilogy”: The End of Empire, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity.  Then, before resuming their backwards march through history via the genre novel, to step into the middle of the medieval times and consume Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, easily the most often offered answer to my dinner table question of “Favorite novel?”

While perhaps a bit repetitive after the Folllett series, I then urge young people to consume Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  This will hammer down via fiction the true sequence of events if not the characters in them, as well as some of the horror they ought to feel at what happened mid-century of the last century of the last millennium.

From there I urge on them Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, along with an admonition that they are not to watch televisions series until they are through with the book, and that they then must watch it, just as they must watch Saturday Night Lights. I note that one can get sidetracked into McMurtry for a very long time, but that they are best served to come back later for prequels and sequels to Lonesome Done and all of the Berrybender Narratives in order, but for a later time.  First they have to go backwards still.

First to The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, then to the Starbuck Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell:

Rebel (1993)
Copperhead (1994)
Battle Flag (1995)
The Bloody Ground (1996)

Bernard Cornwell will return –he is the author most often on this long list– but first the younger reader following my advice will go on a James Clavell jag, though with one omission, in this order:
Shōgun (1975): Set in feudal Japan, 1600

Tai-Pan (1966): Set in Hong Kong, 1841

King Rat (1962): Set in a Japanese POW Camp in Singapore, 1945

Noble House (1981): Set in Hong Kong, 1963

Whirlwind (1986): Set in Iran, 1979

I on it the last of the Asian Saga, Gai-Jin, because ti wasn’t really very good and it doesn’t serve the purpose of giving young people a sense of how the history flowed before they spend much of their reading days with the real stuff of real history.

The I send them for many months into the Cornwell novels of the medieval and late Dark Ages:

The “Grail Quest” stories:

Harlequin (published in the USA under the title The Archer’s Tale)

The Saxon Stories:

The Last Kingdom (2004)
The Pale Horseman (2005)
The Lords of the North (2006)
Sword Song (2007)
The Burning Land (2009)
Death of Kings (2011)
The Pagan Lord (2013)
The Empty Throne (2014)
Warriors of the Storm (forthcoming 8 Oct 2015)

Why so much fiction from eras on which we have so little to draw?  To give them a sense of how far we have come, and how far civilization fell, because then I would have them read Colleen McCullough’s “Masters of Rome” series:

The First Man in Rome (1990)
The Grass Crown (1991)
Fortune’s Favorites (1993)
Caesar’s Women (1996)
Caesar (1997)
The October Horse (2002)
Antony and Cleopatra (2007)

Then, wishing for more of that story, they ought to read in the novels of its predecessor era, brought to them by Stephen Pressfield:

Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae (1998),
Tides of War, A Novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War (2000),
The Virtues of War, about Alexander the Great (2004),
The Afghan Campaign, about Alexander the Great’s conquests in Afghanistan (2006)

(They can return to Pressfield’s wonderful Killing Rommel (2008) when they are done with the list, but the sequence matters and that is out of sequence.)

Now, having come to the end of the reverse ordering, I ask that they dive into the founding of the modern world, which is the era of Napoleonic Wars, and which requires two series, one, mostly on land, and the other mostly on sea.  Here’s the trick with these: I listened to them.  They were my incentive to drag myself out for morning runs, and the audio books –there are a couple of competing readers so be careful in your choice and be prepared to bleed some serious money here, for the audible books do not come at paperback prices but are very, very much worth the investment.

First, the Richard Sharpe series, which means more Bernard Cornwell.  The audio books (and miles) will fly by:

Sharpe’s Tiger Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam, 1799 1997
Sharpe’s Triumph Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803 1998

Sharpe’s Fortress Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803 1999
Sharpe’s Trafalgar Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, October 1805 2000
Sharpe’s Prey Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Copenhagen, 1807 2001
Sharpe’s Rifles Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January 1809 1988
Sharpe’s Havoc Richard Sharpe and the Campaign in Northern Portugal, Spring 1809 2003
Sharpe’s Eagle Richard Sharpe and the Talavera Campaign, July 1809 1981
Sharpe’s Gold Richard Sharpe and the Destruction of Almeida, August 1810 1981
Sharpe’s Escape Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Bussaco, September 1810 2004
Sharpe’s Fury Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Barrosa March 1811, Winter 1811 2007
Sharpe’s Battle Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 1995
Sharpe’s Company Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January to April 1812 1982
Sharpe’s Sword Richard Sharpe and the Salamanca Campaign, June and July 1812 1983
Sharpe’s Skirmish Richard Sharpe and the Defence of the Tormes, August 1812 (short story) 1999 revised extended edition published 2002

 Sharpe’s Enemy Richard Sharpe and the Defence of Portugal, Christmas 1812 1984
Sharpe’s Honour Richard Sharpe and the Vitoria Campaign, February to June 1813 1985
Sharpe’s Regiment Richard Sharpe and the Invasion of France, June to November 1813 1986
Sharpe’s Christmas December 1813, Franco-Spanish border (short story) 1994 revised edition published 2003
Sharpe’s Siege Richard Sharpe and the Winter Campaign, 1814 1987
Sharpe’s Revenge Richard Sharpe and the Peace of 1814 1989
Sharpe’s Waterloo Richard Sharpe and the Waterloo Campaign, 15 June to 18 June 1815 1990
Sharpe’s Ransom December 1815, Normandy (short story) 1994 revised edition published 2003
Sharpe’s Devil

And finally, the joy of listening to Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent prose which, shot through with nautical stuff about which I have little idea but which nevertheless loved hearing read aloud about, captures so much more than war and battle, or spying and diplomacy, as Mamet;s piece linked above intimates:

Master and Commander (1969)

Post Captain (1972)
HMS Surprise (1973)
The Mauritius Command (1977)
Desolation Island (1978)
The Fortune of War (1979)
The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)
The Ionian Mission (1981)
Treason’s Harbour (1983)
The Far Side of the World (1984)
The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
The Letter of Marque (1988)
The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)
The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)
Clarissa Oakes (1992) – (The Truelove in the USA)
The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
The Commodore (1995)
The Yellow Admiral (1996)
The Hundred Days (1998)
Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (2004) – (21 in the USA)

After these 100 books and two short stories I hope to have created an addict, and not just of historical fiction or even fine writing and storytelling, but of the most important genre of all: How did we get here, to this place, right here and now?  And where are we going?

I had to make some difficult cuts to get a young man or woman to this place –no le Carre, none of the joy of my friend C.J. Box’s rambles or of other great thriller writers like the late Vince Flynn, Alex Berenson or Brad Thor, but the no longer young adult reader can catch up as they go, finding and filling in.  I have never read Sherlock Holmes –saving it for a binge at retirement– or even a page of Wodehouse for the same reason.  In an age of Twitter and Facebook, it is still the books that give the most joy, and if my charges this summer or last, or via this post, give this list a run, they will be hooked, for life.


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