Back at the beginning of the year I considered my New Year Resolutions, one of which was to simply read more. For a decade I managed to read about 50 books a year, which for a slow reader like myself was quite a feat. However, over the past four or so years that number dwindled significantly to less than 10 a year; I don’t think I picked up a novel for two years or so and rarely managed to get my hands on anything beyond a history read. I put this decline down to two reasons: becoming a dad and discovering geocaching. All of this meant that I wasn’t putting in the hours needed to read a significant number of books. So, 2018 was to be the year when this all changed.
Here we are at the end of December 2018, and the total for the year stands at 52. The 52 is an eclectic mixture, with book titles including the poetry of Charles Bukowski, novels ranging from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to Stephen King’s The Dead Zone; political tracts such as the manifesto from the Society of Cutting Up Men (SCUM) and Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and its Future; as well as local histories, including a quaint little hand-produced one of the village of Dittisham in Devon. But rather than recount the variety of the books read in 2018, I thought the focus of this post would be to highlight the significant reads in terms of the study and understanding of history.
So, the following is a brief summary of my lingering thoughts on the reads that I believe were truly significant in terms of altering my perception of the past; the order follows the chronological approach as to when I read them during 2018:
Peter Longerich – The Unwritten Order (2001)
Preparation for an Access to HE module on how the historian can combat Holocaust denial led me to Longerich’s The Unwritten Order. I managed to pick it up at a ridiculously cheap price from ‘The Works’ (always a good place to buy a history book) and went into the reading of it in the mind-set of a Holocaust denier (yes, move aside David Irving). My reason for this links to the nature of this history module: many people – such as Irving – believe that the lack of a written order from Hitler regarding instructions for the Holocaust means that this dictator can be excused from his crimes. Yes, of course historians must deal in evidence, all of which makes this particular debate quite enticing. In the space of a short book Longerich completely exposes the arguments of Holocaust deniers by highlighting the wealth of other evidence that firmly links Hitler to the Holocaust. All of which makes it a must read for any serious student of the Holocaust.
Paul Thompson – The Voice of the Past (1988)
The Voice of the Past is in many ways quite a dated book, but yet it changed my thinking regarding the most ancient way of “doing” history: talking to people and recording their memories and stories (ala Herodotus style). It principally deals with the uses of oral history, such as in providing greater power to certain groups in our society (such as the elderly or the working class) to create their own historical narratives. Thompson has provided me with new ways of approaching the value of oral testimony, as well as the confidence to utilise this approach in family history.
Frederick Douglass – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
The story of Frederick Douglass is an astonishing one: a slave in 19th Century United States of America who escaped and became involved in the emancipation movement. This short book covers Douglass’ early life, including his early disconnection from his mother and the growth of his understanding of the inequality between black and white. I found this book incredibly useful in my own understanding of the period, and it is one I intend to utilise the next time I teach the FdA History module ‘The Dawning of America’.
John Hanson Mitchell – Ceremonial Time (1984)
I first stumbled on Ceremonial Time whilst reading about sustainability in education during my PGCE and the premise completely hooked me: a history stretching 15,000 years centred on one square mile. The square mile in question is the same one in which the author’s house is situated, and in the space of a couple of hundred of pages he proceeds to discuss a wide range of topics beyond history itself: cultures (notably that of those who lived in the area of New England the longest – the Native Americans), modernisation, and a call back to a simpler time of nature. It is Mitchell’s phrase – ‘the undiscovered country of nearby’ – that I have used, in homage, on some of the pages of this blog. The square mile approach to history is one that has fascinated me since, and it is one that I hope to utilise in the near future.
Yuval Noah Harari – A Brief History of Humankind: Sapians (2014)
A year or so ago I came across an article in The Guardian that focussed on an upcoming book by the historian Yuval Noah Harari; it sounded intriguing, and during the article I realised I had missed the author’s earlier release. I decided on tracking down a copy of the earlier book as it sounded simple yet complex: exploring the history of humans in a few hundred pages by concentrating on the big linking ideas. For the few weeks in which I read the book I became somewhat obsessed by it and I found myself bringing in some of Harari’s examples whilst in my own lessons (such as his explanation for the need for religion and money to bind larger communities together). Needless to say, I will be tucking into the follow-up book in 2019.
Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel (1997)
This book had a massive influence on Harari’s Sapiens; I only came it across during a FdA session when a student related it to me whilst we covered the module ‘The Dawning of America’. The same student was incredibly kind enough to lend me the book (although I have not been as kind in actually returning to it to her… this will be one of my resolutions for 2019). The influence on Harari is clear to see: Diamond asks the big questions of human history. All of this stemmed from a simple question: why did Europeans invade and colonise the world and not the other way round; for example, why was it that the Native Americans did not arrive in Spain to plant their own colonial flag. Throughout thousands of years of history Diamond is a friendly guide, utilising his own deep understanding of the world and inquisitive mind to help piece together these questions from our past.
Francis Bacon – The History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1626)
Every once in a while when I’m in a book-shop I will buy a few books with no real intention of reading them but with the mild hope that one day I will. This book is one of those: I think I bought it from a Bristol book-shop five years ago, and then simply added it to the pile of other Tudor-related reads that I have yet to approach (yes, sorry Anna Whitelock, but one day your book Elizabeth’s Bedfellows shall be read!). Anyhow, on returning to the AQA specification for the teaching of A-level I decided to give this one another read and was blown away in terms of just how influential Bacon’s work was. This was written 1626 years ago, but in many ways the interpretations of key events during the reign of Henry VII remain exactly the same. Plus, it was interesting to come across new content which isn’t touched by the dozens of other books that I have read on this period (such as the Ralph Wulford plot). All in all, a short book that casts a long shadow on our understanding of Henry VII.
Art Spiegelman – Maus (1996)
Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is probably the most stand-out book in this list, mainly because it isn’t a history book at all. Created and published over several years, the story focuses on a couple of narratives: Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, and the father’s memories of the Holocaust. I found the collected volume gripping and couldn’t put down the book, and the mixture of the humdrum of modern-day New York coupled with the horrors of the Holocaust completely played with my emotions and expectations. There is great humanity in both of the time-narratives, with Spiegelman utilising this graphic novel as an attempt to better understanding his own father and one of the darkest episodes of human history. Of course, perhaps the most striking feature to anyone who hasn’t picked up a couple is how the humans are drawn as animals: Jews are mice, Nazi Germans are cats, etc. But this graphic novel is so much more than a supposed gimmick. I’m hoping to use this when next covering the Holocaust in A-level teaching.
* Apologies for referring to myself in the third-person in the title of the post. It just felt like this kind of year round-up type post required it. I will be sure to not make a habit out of it.