Finding Good History Books: A Rough and Incomplete Guide for the Perplexed

a view of a bookstore sales area through a glass window

A friend recently asked me to recommend good history books for listening (on Audible). She’s outside of academia—a curious reader and homeschooling mother who has enough experience to be suspicious of what passes for history on the U.S. popular market. (“Perhaps what I also need,” she added, “is a list of which ‘historians’ not to read.”)

I thought it might be good—especially as the holiday season approaches—to expand on the advice I gave my friend, in hopes of helping other cautious readers, at least in the United States. Instead of naming specific titles or authors, I’ll recommend a method for doing research on one’s own.

Now, my recommendations are flawed at the outset. They’re flawed, first, because they are very conservative—if not in a political sense, then in the sense of playing things safe. You probably won’t find the most penetrating or controversial new interpretations of historical topics this way; my goal is to make it easy to identify books with mainstream recognition and wide respect among historians. These recommendations are also flawed because, quite frankly, there are countless magnificent works of history you’ll never find this way. And they’re flawed because they’re my recommendations, and other historians will give you different advice based on their experiences … and they’ll be right.

But I still think it’s worth offering this advice, if only because it’s advice I would have loved to have when I was a teenager sitting in a small-town public library, trying to figure out how to start studying history as an adult.

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‘Silence’ and Historical Presence: Teaching a Novel in the Survey

Photo of the book Silence by Shusaku Endo

Speaking of Jesuits, here’s an assignment I used this spring for the first time. In my modern world history course at the University of Scranton, I assigned a short essay about Endō Shūsaku’s 1966 historical novel Silence, a story based on true events (involving Jesuits) in seventeenth-century Japan. It took a long time to work up the nerve.

If the assignment worked, my students would use the novel as a matrix upon which to practice visualizing a real time and place, building empathy with its people. They would also analyze how Silence, as a piece of fiction crafted to resonate with a modern audience, makes it easier to see that all kinds of historical discourse must communicate effectively between different times and places. This assignment would have the additional benefit of connecting the university’s Ignatian heritage with a specific topic already covered in class, in a way that students might find personally relevant and poignant. (I do not assume my students at the University of Scranton are—or should be—Catholics, but most of them do come from a Catholic cultural environment.)

As a history instructor, however, I had three main qualms about my own assignment. As the deadline approached, my apprehension grew.

First, my students needed to use the novel to clarify, not obscure, the relationships between fact and fiction. I didn’t want any confusion about Silence‘s genre, of course, but I also needed my students to grasp the historical-pedagogical purpose of reading fiction at all. This wasn’t supposed to be an arbitrary excursion into make-believe.

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Yawp Yawp Yawp

americanyawpIf you’re teaching a U.S. history survey course–or if you would like to use a general textbook for background information in a related course–you may want to examine The American Yawp, a free online textbook. (I am one of the contributors, and I edited the ninth chapter, “Democracy in America.”) It’s been available for a few years, so why am I mentioning it now? Because it’s just been updated under the aegis of Stanford University Press, complete with peer review and professional copy-editing. In the spring, this improved version of The American Yawp will be available in an inexpensive SUP print edition as well as in the existing digital version. I’m proud of my small contribution to this resource, and I’m proud of this update to the story of its development.

Academia, Teaching, and Thinking

Alan Jacobs’s little book How to Think, published last year, draws an interesting contrast between “academic life” and “teaching”:

Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sort of things that your professors like to hear.

So again, no, academic life doesn’t do much to help one think, at least not in the sense in which I am commending thinking. It helps one to amass a body of knowledge and to learn and deploy certain approved rhetorical strategies, which requires a good memory, intellectual agility, and the like. But little about the academic life demands that you question your impulsive reactions ….

Being a teacher, though: that’s a different thing. I have been teaching undergraduates for more than thirty years now, and generally speaking undergraduate education is a wonderful laboratory for thinking. Most of my students know what they believe, and want to argue for it, but they also realize that they still have a lot to learn.[*]

This provocation deserves some pondering.

Continue reading “Academia, Teaching, and Thinking”