Laura Sangha and #twitterstorians
Last 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:
1) 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’).
4) 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.
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
My ‘what is history’ entry – gets students thinking and reflecting on the discipline, but is not too daunting.
2) 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.
3) 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.
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.
– 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)
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.