Three years of study cannot be condensed into five readings. This list simply aims to set out a philosophy of studying history that can serve anyone, university undergraduate or otherwise. The core of this philosophy gets at what the joy of historical study ought to be: its breadth. To constrain the historian at any level to merely peruse academic theses is not only unfair, it actively robs the historian of understanding. History is not a series of events as much as a dialogue of emotions tumbling through the years, and it is of the utmost importance that we allow these historical conversations to spill out onto the pages of the books that sit silently before students. As such, this article attempts to set out five kinds of historical source as much as it does five great history books: plays, novels, theoretical work, historical journalism, and memoir. Ultimately, it is the cross-examination and interrogation of such sources in combination that illuminates the past. Learning to do so is one of the highest pleasures of a history undergraduate course.
- Othello, by William Shakespeare. What better way to illustrate the points above than to commence this list with a play? Many students with a disposition toward the humanities subjects choose history over literature when leaving their A-Levels behind. The opportunity to get to grips with the rich implications and undertones of a play as painstakingly crafted as Othello, however, remains one that should be open to all historians. Not only does it allow for in-depth analysis of the attitudes of a past generation towards issues that remain painfully relevant, notably here race and gender, but this form of study itself sharpens the historian’s mind to the nuances of other source types as well. Questioning the feelings and actions of these fictional characters can prove indispensable when later questioning those of real historical figures. Iago’s manipulation of racial stereotypes for political gain seems distinctly current, even if this play was written over four centuries ago.
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Now, for a novel. Written by a Nigerian author, the novel’s subtle exploration of the role of masculinity in a rural society, coupled with a gradual questioning of traditional gender roles, makes the book an ideal companion to a number of potential undergraduate history courses, whether on gender or colonial history. The writer’s skillful attention to expressing each character’s individual experience and point of view demonstrates the importance of investigating the widest range of voices when undertaking historical research.
- Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by Michel Foucault. Foucault’s works share many features, but to the naïve first-time reader, as to many others besides, one of these features may stand out: their density of thought that can make them seem as impregnable as the prisons he describes in Discipline and Punish. His work deserves our perseverance, though, because his ideas are monumental. An academic historian may query their basis in evidence, and Foucault’s tendency to universalise. An academic historian may query their basis in evidence, and Foucault’s tendency to universalise, but this does not diminish the power of his challenge to the belief in inexorable historical progress. The significance of the systems of control that he unveils, moreover, is perhaps even more startling in our age of social media surveillance than they were when he first wrote about them. By taking on the vast, open questions that academics not bound to the chain gang of academic history, like Foucault, pose from the perspective of other disciplines like philosophy or sociology, the historian’s view of the past will be enriched and enlivened.
- We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In an accessible series of essays written during the Obama presidency, this exploration of the racist past of the USA represents one of the supreme combinations of journalism, personal experience, and history. This potent mixture hammers home the importance of comprehending America’s racism from the Civil War in order to understand the present-day resurgence of racial supremacist extremism. The fact that Coates’ book leaves one wondering if the latter is really a resurgence at all, is a testament to its didactic strength and thought-provoking skill. Books like this on any subject can never be numerous enough; the past is not behind us but constantly, fundamentally shaping the present. Understanding this is paramount to future success for humanity.
- Storm of Steel, by Ernst Junger. This list concludes with a memoir. Although Junger’s recollections of the First World War contain mesmerising prose worthy of the best novels, the bias of personal experience is foregrounded by this style of writing. Rather than being frustrated by the book’s stark absences of certain elements of the war, his visits home and Germany’s ultimate defeat particularly, this should be seen as part of such works’ appeal. By leaving us with as many questions as answers, of which there are many in the course of Junger’s lengthy service in the heat of battle, memoirs allow us to see the pain that individuals felt at events that can seem distant to us now. This both draws us in to the fascinating human effects of history and allows for a detailed and fruitful study of the attitudes of those who have come before
This is part of a mini-series of “Ideal Reading Lists”, curated by Books and Literature Editor Tommaso Crestani. Get in touch if you would like to question the academic readings you have to do and share what books we should all read for your course!