5 Books You Should Read if You Want to Be a History Major
What to Read: 5 Books for History Majors
History is a different animal in college than it is in most high schools. Even in a lot of advanced History courses in high school, the major focus will be on historical events, people, and dates rather than identifiable trends and different points-of-view about the trajectory of the past. I thought my US History AP class in high school was quite good, and it prepared me well for college courses. Still, the way that history is approached in college was noticeably different, which is why we’ve put together these 5 books for history majors.
A lot of people criticize History majors because they can’t see a clear career path for historians after graduation. That criticism, however, is misguided because history majors are prepared to do just about anything. The goal of a good History department is to prepare its students for the world by developing critical, analytical, and communication skills that endure beyond the classrooms. History is a particularly good major for law school. Although, its skill set translates to many more opportunities than just law.
These skills include the ability to uncover evidence and facts through advanced research, “analyze arguments on the basis of such evidence, to understand and evaluate the nature of that evidence, and to communicate arguments cogently, effectively–and even elegantly–through speech and writing.” As you might imagine, this skill set does not exclusively suit those who want to pursue a career in academia. In my opinion, History is the core of the liberal arts education.
As a History major, you will likely concentrate on a particular geographic region, time period, historical force or trend, or all of those things. For instance, I focused on Nationalism in the Near East, particularly in Iran and Egypt, in the 20th Century. In most History departments, you’ll also have to satisfy certain basic distributive requirements, such that you gain a basic education in other time period and geographies besides the one in which you choose to specialize or write a thesis.
The following five books for history majors will give you a good sampling of what you can expect as you study History in college:
1. Who Were the Progressives? (Historians at Work) by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
This book is a great introduction to “historiography,” which is the study of the methods of historians. The term is also used to refer to any body of historical work on a particular subject. Different historians can be influenced by their own groups and loyalties–such as to their country or to a particular approach (social, cultural, economic, diplomatic, etc.)
This book, a curated selection of eight articles, explores who participated in the social movements now considered “Progressive,” what their goals were, what tactics they used, and the degree to which their activity was indeed revolutionary. Each of the eight historians has a different explanation of who the Progressives were–ranging from agriculture, the Mugwump type, big businessmen in search of order, a public outraged by corruption, class politics, and ethnic politics–even if those explanations overlap.
2. Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson
I read this book in a great course taught by Professor Heide Whelan at Dartmouth College on “The History of Warfare.” This course was interesting because it traced the evolution of methods, tools, strategies, and tactics of warfare throughout thousands of years. It demonstrated how certain developments influenced the course of history.
Carnage and Culture is a rare type of history book with an extremely strong thesis from the author and nitty gritty historical details, while also having popular appeal. The author’s central argument looks beyond popular explanations for the rise of the West (such as geography or superior technology) and argues that Western culture and values–the tradition of dissent, the value placed on inventiveness and adaptation, the concept of citizenship, and freedom–have consistently produced superior arms and soldier. In short, he argues that free culture will always have the advantage in armed conflict. The argument certainly has flaws, such as hundreds of years of Eastern history, but it is compelling nonetheless.
3. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
History is not just about politics, diplomacy, and wars. Many historians focus on the social aspect of history, and often through a very personal lens. Surprisingly, you might even read fiction in your History courses to gain exposure to different types of social influences and descriptions of particularly historical trends or events.
This book is non-fiction, but it follows three generations of a family living in China throughout the 20th century. It is a story of the perseverance of a family, and how economic and political change impacts them. It packs quite the emotional punch, and is a great example of biographical history. A nice change of pace from the other books on this list.
4. Confessions by Saint Augustine
The core of the study of History is the examination of primary sources. With the ease of accessibility of journal articles and hundreds of points of view on every subject through the Internet and college library resources, it has become easy for students to rely on secondary sources. However great a tool these secondary sources may be, an overreliance on secondary sources at the exclusion of primary can become like a bad game of “telephone”, where the original message or text becomes distorted by different forms of bias or inaccuracy over time.
One example of an extremely famous “primary source” in a study of the history of Christianity and its influence throughout the Middle Ages, is Saint Augustine’s seminal Confessions. Many professors believe that Confessions will always rank among the great masterpieces of Western literature.
Another important note for serious students of History: unless you grew up speaking a dead language around the house or had an extraordinary Latin teacher in high school, the term primary source for this book isn’t quite accurate because the true original is in Latin, and you’d be reading a widely accepted translation.
5. A History of the Modern Middle East by William L. Cleveland
In college History courses, you won’t have a “textbook.” You’ll be doing readings from dozens of books and articles on your syllabus that have been carefully curated by your professors to represent many different viewpoints and arguments.
If you were taking a Middle Eastern history course, this might be as close to a “textbook” as you’ll get: an authoritatively reviewed, comprehensive, and multi-faceted analysis of modern Middle Eastern history through several centuries. The book works around a framework of political history, but also reflects social, cultural, and economic developments into a single account.
Often, you’d read several chapters or excerpts out of a book like this to provide a baseline for the different and more advanced arguments you will read in other scholarly articles and books.