Naka Nathaniel: My Top 5 Books To Read About Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Spoiler alert: None has the state’s name as the singular word in the title.

School is out and summer reading season is here.

I’m fortunate that my teenager is a ravenous reader. I know for other children, reading is a burden, but my reader will likely complete his summer list before June begins.

One of my favorite reading incentive stories was when my friend Will Okun told his male high school students in Chicago that telling a girl about a book you read was the most amazing aphrodisiac. All you had to do, he told them, is read one book and reap the rewards. It worked — at least the boys reading part. The aphrodisiac effect is susceptible to exaggeration. 

To reward our reader for completing middle school, my family stopped at Da Shop in Kaimuki on Sunday afternoon for a long browse. I love bookstores and still own part of A Capella bookstore in Atlanta.

We were also scouting for titles. Since summer is here and visitors are on the way, our family has been getting requests for books about Hawaii. I appreciate that people want to read and learn before they land.

I overheard a phone call where a very well-meaning person said that James Michener’s “Hawaii” was on their list. I cringed.

I am a fan of Michener. My most treasured book is a copy of “Texas” that he signed when I interviewed him in Austin 30 years ago. However, I would never put “Hawaii” on my recommendation list.

Da Shop bookstore in Kaimuki.
Da Shop bookstore in Kaimuki is a popular place to browse. (Courtesy: Da Shop/Elyse Butler)

The space that Michener’s “Hawaii” occupies on our bookshelves should have instead been a Hawaiian version of V.S. Naipaul writing about post-colonial themes from the lens of those who were colonized. 

(Speaking of Naipaul, I recently and halfheartedly recommended “Hotel Honolulu” by Naipaul’s former sworn enemy, Paul Theroux. I’m weary of Theroux’s misanthropic world view and when island kids threw rocks at him in “The Happy Isles of Oceania,” I was rooting for the kids.)

My wife received a recommendation to send future visitors the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s “Ma’ema’e” toolkit for those who want to do some homework but may not be able to find the time to read an entire book before they arrive. While it’s a helpful and well-intended document, I hate the first paragraph of the presentation:

The Hawaiian Islands have captured imaginations around the world and drawn the attention of writers dating back to Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

I look forward to when we don’t have to use 19th century, non-Hawaiian writers to set a consequential tone. It’s the 21st century and the audience has changed. 

So, which writers should set a consequential tone?

Da Shop reminds me of my favorite bookstore, Daunt Books in London, where the books on the main floor are wonderfully arranged on tables according to country. They aren’t separated into fiction/non-fiction — everything sits arranged according to geographical setting.

The table for Spain would not only have “Don Quixote” but also “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and a cookbook from Ferran Adrià. The China table might have the “Art of War” and the “Three-Body Problem” sci-fi trilogy. While the France table would have “Recherche en Temps Perdu” alongside Thomas Piketty and Simone Beauvoir. 

I would love to be called in to curate Daunt’s Hawaii table. I want to reset the lens readers use to see Hawaii.

After the stop at the bookstore, we went to see “The Little Mermaid.” Most of the coverage about the film has centered on the importance of Halle Bailey being cast as Ariel. The same situation is true with books. The protagonists simply aren’t there. Growing up, Queequeg was the only cool Polynesian literary figure I could cite. Therefore, my top books would tell the story of modern Hawaii and the authors would look like the kids here.

Sadly, there’s no all encompassing perfect book out there that can take away the title “Hawaii” from Michener, but the book that comes closest is “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” by Kawai Strong Washburn. I love the mix of magical realism, fatalism and perseverance. It’s a book about young Native Hawaiians struggling to be who they’re supposed to be in this modern version of Hawaii. 

As I mentioned, getting boys to read is a particular challenge, but of the stories of Hawaii’s modern legends, Duke Kahanamoku (“Waterman” by Dale Davis), Eddie Aikau (“Eddie Would Go” by Stuart Coleman) and Nainoa Thompson (“Hawaiki Rising” by Sam Low), Low’s book is my top nonfiction recommendation because it also served as an inspiration to move my ravenous reader closer to the ocean.

The five books I’d put atop my little Hawaii table at the Daunt Bookstore would be “Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” the short story collection “This Is Paradise” by Kristiana Kahakauwila, “The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, “Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawaii” and “Hawaiki Rising.”

I hope there’s a Hawaiian writer out there who’s going through the final edits of the authentic version of “Hawaii” that’ll become next year’s can’t miss summer read. Of course, getting a book to break through is almost as impossible as a kid from Hawaii winning “American Idol.

Read this next:

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

You are correct about Michener's Hawaii, as a no fly zone. I haven't read any of his other books probably because I was so turned off with his "white man's" account of Hawaiian history, but the book is trash. It's unfortunate that he was able to take the name Hawaii, because there are far better and much more accurate stories out there.

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

Recently re-read Kamehameha the Third by Christiaan Klieger and again thought it well-written and very interesting. I am wondering what others (more knowledgeable than I am) think of it, or if they have similar books to recommend?

Oregonbudgettourist · 3 months ago

Aloha Naka, Thank you for interesting article. I suggest another book, The Last Aloha, by Galken Quinn. Mollie Sperry

MollieSperry · 4 months ago

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