What should prospective history students read over the summer?

Laura Sangha and #twitterstorians

tweetLast week I asked historians on twitter what three books they would recommend for prospective students to read over the summer – those students starting a history degree in September. I got a lot of responses (thanks very much, brilliant #twitterstorians), and you can read the full list at the end of this post. Before you do, here are a few thoughts that struck me about summer reading for history students.

Question: exactly what is the best way to prepare for studying history at university? People evidently had widely differing opinions on this. Or rather, the books that they recommended seemed to suggest differing opinions. It all did seem to add up to some key themes though, which I have summarised as:

Bloch1) Students need to get to know the discipline, since what they did at school is not representative of it. So they should read ‘what is history’ books which explain why and how academics study the past. These might mainly cover historiography, or might be focused on issues that are fundamental to the discipline, i.e. what footnotes are, or why there is fiction in the archives. (See list section ‘The Historian’s Craft’).

2) Students need to think about the skills and techniques needed by historians. Therefore they should read ‘what is history’ books, but preferably ones with practical, hands on advice about how to read, analyse, write essays and research etc.

3) Students need to learn that history is not just about kings, Henry VIII’s wives, and politicians. They should be introduced to the study of new topics, as well as to the idea that past societies were strange, rich, complicated organisms. They should therefore read cultural histories and ‘thick description’. (See list section ‘The most popular’).

girl_trouble_300_460_904) Students should be inspired by their reading. It should open their eyes and broaden their horizons. Therefore they should read good history books, which might be tightly focused, or broadly conceived. They might be classics, or cutting edge. They might be ‘popular history’ or even historical fiction. (See list section ‘The most popular’, ‘Books, essay collections, essays’ and ‘Fiction/poetry).

5) However, students don’t necessarily need to know what happened. Only two people recommended a ‘survey’ textbook which would explain the key events and themes of a particular period.

6) Before they get to university students are capable of reading long, dense and complicated texts, and will get a lot out of this without any guidance or assistance. (See lots of entries in ‘The most popular’ and ‘Books and essay collections’).

7) We should only recommend things that students will have relatively easy access to, and which are not too expensive, or can be borrowed from a library. This rules out a lot of primary source material and virtually all journal articles.

0465012744.01.LZ_Trying to pinpoint items that match these principles is of course rather challenging. There was also disagreement about many of these points. Some wondered about the suitability of asking students to read, say, Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, given that its methodology is no longer considered to be sound. Similarly, many now find Carr’s discussion of ‘what history is’ rather dated, with some even venturing that it just seems ‘silly’ given how far our thinking has moved on.

Interestingly, a few current students also offered suggestions which tended to contradict the favourites that emerged from scholars. One noted that they found Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (perhaps the most popular suggestion) rather impenetrable, and another that they rather valued Carr for challenging a lot of their existing expectations. Others thought that students should relax and make the most of their summer, perhaps accompanied by some historical fiction, but attempt nothing more taxing than that. Another said that historiography should be avoided, since it was confusing without any broader contextualisation.

All of which left me no clearer about which books we should recommend to our prospective students. Personally I think it would benefit students to have a broad sense of ‘what happened when’ before they arrive in the lecture theatre, as well as an expectation that there is an awful lot more to the discipline of history than they have ever dreamt of. However, I worry about putting students off by giving them difficult texts before they are ready for them, and before they have access to seminars and tutors who can steer them through. I’ve therefore plumped for things that are readable but hopefully eye-opening. Here’s my stab at a list – students should start at the top, and work their way down, as time permits.

1) John Arnold, History: A very short introduction (2000) £6 Arnold

My ‘what is history’ entry – gets students thinking and reflecting on the discipline, but is not too daunting.


common-people-book-cover12) Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2015) £10

Is not all about kings and queens, explicitly introduces and reflects on the process of research in a language that is accessible.


hioskins3) W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955) Used copies around £3

A bit dated, but provides a bit of ‘what happened’ as it is a broad overview of key phases in English history, yet told through the lens of landscape rather than from the top down.

92270044) Two essays: Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘How to write about Africa – both freely available online

A hat tip to my colleague Rhian Keyse for these – ‘amusing, accessible and very short’ essays on representations of non-European history.



5) Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) £18

A very popular recommendation from historians of all periods, this classic raises disciplinary questions whilst also being a great story.


Supplemented by:

– Good, readable blogs (the many-headed monster; The Social Historian; Conviction all come to mind).
– A newspaper. Twice a week if possible, but not the same one each time (hat tip to Charlotte Riley).

Notes on the full list:

I’ve organised the list into crude sections, but otherwise everything is just listed in the order that people suggested things, there is no underlying logic

The content is no doubt greatly determined by the interests of my followers of twitter – that is why early modern studies are so prominent.

I checked the books against amazon to get a sense of their availability and price, these are of course just rough guides.

This is just a quick summary, so apologies for mistakes.

Download the list as a pdf: Summer reading for prospective history students_list

Question: what would you recommend as summer reading for students starting a history degree in September?

The most popular (BY FAR – most other items mentioned just once, unless ***starred)

***Carlo Ginzburg; The Cheese and the Worms (English trans. 1980) £20; The Night Battles (1966) £20

***Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (1983); Trickster Travels (2007) £11; Fiction in the Archives (1990) £15 used

***Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre (1984) £18

*Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (English trans. 1978) £20

The historian’s craft

***Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (English trans.1953) £10

Carolyn Steedman, Dust (2001) £10

G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (1969) £4 used

GW Bernard, Studying at University (2003) £18

John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (6th ed. 2015) £18

***John Arnold, History: A very short introduction (2000) £6

Peter Claus and John Marriot, History: An introduction to theory, method and practice (2nd ed. 2017) £24

Keith Jenkins, Re-Thinking History (3rd ed. 2003) £10

*R.J. Evans, In defence of history (New ed. 2001) £10

R. J. Evans, Telling Lies About Hitler (2002) £13

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929) £3

Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath, How to Write History that People Want to Read (2011) £15

*Anthony Grafton, The Footnote (1999) £19

Deborah E. Lipstadt, History on Trial (2006) £9

John Arnold, What is medieval history? (2007) £16

Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval (2005) £22

*E.H. Carr, What is history? (1961) [controversial choice – some explicitly said NOT this]

Keith Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (1995) £24

Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (2nd ed. 2006) £18

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History (2004) £8

Keith Thomas, ‘Dairy’, London Review of Books, 32:11 (2010) [description of his research/writing method, freely available online].

Books, essay collections, essays

Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (2nd ed. 2013) £25

W.G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955) £10

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New ed. 2003) £16

Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New ed. 2011) £11

Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette (1996) £22

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (2013) £10

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Classic 2002) £17

George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994) £18

Robert Paxton, Vichy’s France: Old Guard and New Order (2015) £20

Carol Dyhouse, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women (2nd ed. 2014) £9

David Kynaston, Austerity Britain: Tales of a New Jerusalem, Books 1-3, £13-20

H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World (1935) £7

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) £8

Rodger, The Command of the Ocean (2006) £20

Timothy Garton Ash, The File (2015) £11

Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015) £8

Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ – essay freely available online

Binyavanga Wainaina, ‘How to write about Africa’ – essay freely available online

C.V. Wedgewood, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (2011) £10

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (2011) £15

Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century (1983) £11

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 (1991) £14

William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (1997) £19

Steven Bednarski, A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarita De Portu, a 14th-century Poisoner (2014) £17

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (2nd ed. 2002) £28

Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers: The True History of the Meeting of the British First Fleet and the Aboriginal Australians 1788 (2006) £15

John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919) £7

Justin Marozzi, The Man who invented History: Travels with Herodotus (2009) £11

Carl Watkins, The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (2015) £11

Jane Ziegelman, 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (2011) £12

James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (1999) £13

Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2015) £10

Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New ed. 1965) £11

Edward T Linethal and Tom Engelhardt, History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (1996) £16

Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Revolution; Age of Capital; Age of Empire

Keith Wrightson, Ralph Tailor’s Summer: A Scrivener, his City, and the Plague (2011), £20


Connie Willis, Doomsday Book; To Say Nothing of the Dog; Blackout/All Clear

Rumi, Selected Poems

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; A Place of Greater Safety

Graham Swift, Waterland

Hella Haasse, In a Dark Wood Wandering

Umberto Eco, In the Name of the Rose

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampeduas, The Leopard

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

AHA presidential addresses:

Joyce Appleby, ‘The Power of History’, The American Historical Review, 103.1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 1-17, freely available online.

See also those by Carl Becker, Lynn Hunt

Perhaps not as freely available

Eileen Power, Medieval People

Howard Zinn, A Popular History of the US

Lizabeth Cohen, Encountering Mass Culture at the Grassroots; Embellishing a Life of Labor

Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1971) Used copies from 1p

Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran (1998) Used copies from £5

Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve & Serpent (1988) used copies from 30p

Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire (eds), Research Methods for History (2011) used from £17

Sam Wineburg, Historically Thinking & Other Unnatural Acts (2001) Used from £27

*Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: New History of the Renaissance (1996) used copies starting at £5

Geoffrey Parker, The Dutch Revolt (New ed. 1990) Used from £14

Judith Bennett, History Matters (2007) Used from £20

J W Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (1989) Used from 50p

Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (2005) [memoir] Used copies available c. £15

Bits and bobs

A newspaper (cover to cover, regularly, different titles)

Historians’ obituaries

The Bible

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Podcasts: In Our Time; History Extra


Blogs (especially the many-headed monster, obvs)

Primary sources: modernised edition of Gawain, or a translation of a chronicle by someone like Matthew Paris or Froissart. Ballads. Woodcuts.

13 thoughts on “What should prospective history students read over the summer?

  1. Excellent suggestions, Laura! I think your top five would provide a great introduction to the craft without putting anyone off.

    To my mind, the most important criteria – by far – is the accessibility one. It is vital that this stuff be accessible both financially (glad to see prices on your list!) and intellectually. Moreover, the best books are accessible because they are well written, rather than ‘dumbed down’, and this is a skill that students need. The more they read well written stuff, the better they’ll write. I’m glad I read Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson early on because they not only introduced me to key historical arguments but also taught me how to present my own arguments.

    I’ve just finished reading *A Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812* (1990) by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and its one I’d recommend to incoming students too. Beautifully written, powerfully argued and thoughtfully reflective on the nature of our sources.

    • Thanks Brodie! Yes, my own personal list is informed by the accesibility issue – there is plenty of time to introduce students to some of these classic texts later, when you can actually discuss their strengths and weaknesses with them subsequently. And I will look out for Ulrich.

  2. All very thoughtful, although I’m past it now. This approach is very much inductive. In my antediluvian days before going to university we were asked to encounter the ‘tools of the trade’ (including economics). I hesitate to make any suggestions as I’ve been out of the loop for so long.

    Re- the late Achebe, you could go further and ask them to read and contrast Things Fall Apart (and there’s an opening for Yeats, too) and Heart of Darkness – but perhaps that’s too much Lit. and postcolonial.

    I’m a wee bit scared by Darnton and Davis – they are both too much influenced (at that stage) by Geertz and present a homologous culture in G’s hermeneutic anthropology tradition. Whilst it is interpretive, it does not allow for different interpretations and approaches. Montaillou – what caveats?

    Hoskins: our enlightened teachers took us on field trips across Leicestershire with TMotEL as their vade mecum. Perhaps that’s a useful time if it can be inserted into the AS/A2 cram.

    Erm, I wasn’t serious about Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust, but I would recommend it to every cultural historian (should there be such – and also Faking It). The guy’s a genius.

    I do still maintain Bulgakov for those who studied The Dictatorships to broaden their horizons into polemic and satire.

    • Thanks very much Dave, both for the extra suggestions and comments. I thought the idea of inviting students to consider the fact that disgust had a history was rather a good idea! I’m also very jealous of your enlightened teachers.

      Yes, I did prevaricate about including Davis for precisely the sorts of reasons your point to, but I went for it in the end as the thing very committed students might want to tackle. At Exeter, we encounter it in term 1, so there would be time to discuss its strengths and weaknesses with students then.

      • ‘They should therefore read cultural histories and ‘thick description’.’ That’s the Geertzian paradigm of which I am afraid. ‘Thick description’ is his hermeneutic anthropology which admits of only a unitary, homologous culture. It’s interpretive, but allowing only one interpretation. The real challenge has been located on the meaning of the cockfight, but not much elsewhere, but I think it can be inordinately misleading to follow Geertz uncritically (same esp., with Darnton, his colleague). BTW, anyone wanting to get behind Geertz might read his autobiography, Available Light – you will see how he comes from a philosophical background which reaches for coherence.

      • The antidote would be Ed Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe, for example, but probably not accessible enough on both counts.

  3. This is excellent! Having just graduated I am feeling reflective right now. I wish i’d had this knowledge as looking back I was so utterly unprepared.

    I would also suggest Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (1983) – it wasn’t until my final year that I discovered animal history and it completely blew my mind! I think it changes the way you approach history when you include non-human actors.

    • Thanks very much – there is still time to read some more of course! And thanks for the suggestion too, Keith Thomas is really readable and as you say, Natural World brings a new perspective.

  4. Great post Laura, and some very useful suggestions. I remember that as a brand new incoming undergraduate I was encouraged to read Nietzche’s essay ‘On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life’, which I think confused me more than anything else! I’m bound to give an early modern focus, but something like MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided or Christianity: A History gives a brilliant introduction to huge sweeps of history, while also being both scholarly and accessible. Bossy’s Christianity in the West 1400-1700 is maybe more of a punt, but certainly opened my eyes and continues to inspire me. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic might be step further still, but it’s a classic: brilliantly written, captivating, and evocative. And all can be purchased pretty cheaply, either new or second hand.

    • Thanks Jonathan! Yes, I suppose if nothing else, reading Nietzche helps you to realise it is time to up your game! It was very tempting to pack my own list with excellent, accessible reformation histories and I like your choices.

  5. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of June 12th | JHIBlog

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