1. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
By far the most epic novel I have had the pleasure of reading. To be sure, the story is a daunting 1500+ pages, though in my opinion, you'll not be trudging through any slow, bogged down parts to get you to the end. A captivating experience throughout.
The onset of the story transports you to 1805 Russia, and eventually leads up to the 1812 French invasion by Napoleon, and beyond. No other novel has effectively placed me in another time and place like this. Initial thoughts may encourage one to believe such an immersion would occur in any story of sufficient or comparable length. Agreeably, the roughly four weeks of free time dedicated to this endeavor certainly made it challenging to focus on present realities of everyday life.
Exquisite character development, highly detailed settings, and amazingly described sequences of action brought this novel completely to life for me. If you have the time and inclination, my recommendation is obvious, read it.
2. Shogun - James Clavell
Japan, 1600. In the midst of high seas adventure, strange new lands, samurai, feudalism, Bushido, I could continue ad infinitum giving examples of what this story embodies. Captivated, precisely how I felt each time through this book. Shogun allowed me to venture into a hostile, wondrous new land through the eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings of a foreigner thrust upon a new world. Experiencing first hand everything just as the main character is will immerse you quite effectively.
Again, sheer length of the story and time spent between the pages may lend a hand toward launching one off to feudal Japan and confining the mind there, however artful setting development and unbeatable character interactions will prove to factor in as well.
3. Iliad - Homer
Have you ever stood outside the walls of Troy? During the Trojan War, perhaps not. Pick up a copy of the Iliad and you'll be closer to the siege than you thought possible. We all know snippets of the story, possibly seen a movie or two centering around such historical events. However, the immensity and scope of these events absolutely come alive in the pages of this epic.
Perhaps the remoteness of the setting, my unfamiliarity with such times, places, and cultures allowed an all the more elaborate painting to coalesce in my mind as I made my way through the story. The Greeks were not simply a horde of marauders, specific identities were attached to all, allowing a veritably ancient historical account to come alive in one's imagination.
4. Les Misérables - Victor Hugo
At the present time, I've had the privilege to visit France only once so far. A relatively quick stay in Paris certainly did not afford me adequate opportunity to explore such a historically rich environment.
A desire to learn more about France would not dwindle as time went on, leading me to inevitably stumble upon Les Misérables. I can think of no other novel I have had the pleasure of reading presenting as extensive background development as this particular Hugo masterpiece. Granted, there were a few instances whereby my patience was tested, though on emergence, and continuing on with the action, a greater appreciation for setting development was heavily instilled upon me.
Bottom line, a superbly written story surrounding a tumultuous period set in an exquisite locale. If a more complete puzzle of nineteenth century France compels you, Les Misérables will certainly offer a few key pieces.
We all read for many reasons. Mine center around enlightenment, education, enjoyment, and lastly escape. These four titles will fulfill all those needs, without the need for travel.