Not-so-horrible histories


You could be forgiven for assuming that historians read the most history books. Certainly, when it comes to cramming the bare minimum needed to write this week’s essay, we history students are experts. But based on a quick survey of my friends, we’re actually less likely than medics or PPE-ists to pick up a history book for pleasure. The reason is simple. Faced with dauntingly long reading lists which can only possibly be tackled by a quick scanning of introductions and conclusions, together with cunning use of Wikipedia and JSTOR reviews, we’ve lost the ability to read a book from beginning to end. We become brilliant at flicking through indexes and blagging our way through tutorials, but if asked what books we have actually finished, or even enjoyed, most of us are stuck. Occasionally we might come across something that catches our interest, but there’s no time to read it – not when two thousand words are due the next morning. 

Occasionally though, one forces its way through the crowd of books demanding to be read, and these are the books I’ve stumbled across in the course of my degree that I’ve come closest to actually reading, books that might help historians remember why they chose their subject in the first place, and which can be enjoyed by anyone – whatever their subject. 

History of Modern Britain Andrew Marr

Marr’s lovelife has come under scrutiny lately but that’s no reason to think any less of him as a writer. A chatty, clear and concise chronicle of Britain since WWII, covering everything from pop to politics. If you’ve been put off reading completely, try the TV series.

We Ain’t What We Ought to Be –Stephen Tuck

This is almost as gripping as a crime novel. Really. A history of the American civil rights movement that weaves the lives of ordinary people and grassroots campaigning  into the wider political picture, from the 19th century to Obama. 

A Bitter Revolution- Rana Mitter

If you want to expand your knowledge of history beyond the Western world but don’t know where to start, try this beautifully-written account of twentieth century China’s political awakening, which traces the fates and roles of its major players from 1919. 

Queueing for Beginners – Joe Moran

If you’ve forgotten what history has to do with your everyday life, read this little book and learn why we British are famous for our queues, why we eat toast for breakfast and why we drink so much beer. It sounds boring, but trust me: it isn’t.

An Intimate History of Humanity –Theodore Zeldin

This is the sort of history book your tutor might not call a history book: all the more reason to read it. It is a collection of 25 essays, including ‘Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex’ and ‘How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations’ Intriguing. 


Of course, these books may not revive your interest in history, or even your faith in humanity. Either way, at least you’ll have proved that you haven’t lost the ability to read something without being told to by a fusty academic. 


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