Game-changing histories – tell us yours

By Kevin O’Sullivan

I have a serious question for you. You know those texts – books, articles, chapters, whatever – that changed your history world? The ones that gave your work a little jolt, that changed your whole approach to how you read and understand the past. What are they?

Because here’s the thing. And it’s ok to admit it. You know that pile of books that sits beside the historian’s bed? The ones you just had to have; all that you couldn’t leave behind. Well look closer. Notice anything? There are way too many non-fiction books for one. But look deeper again and you’ll uncover a less talked about but no less visible trend. Most historians will read anything as long as it’s not related to what they study.

Don’t believe me? Fair enough. Surely, you say, these individuals, so lucky in the first instance to get paid to do what they love doing, are so enamored by their subjects that they love nothing better than to wile away an evening keeping up to date with the latest scholarship from their chosen field. Well here’s the thing: they don’t. Need proof? Look back at the recommendations we’ve made on Pue’s over the past two-and-a-half years. Now look at the books we’ve read, claimed we’ve read, or said we’re about to read. A pattern quickly emerges.  You get a contemporary historian reading books about bears, an eighteenth century historian reading Sebastian Barry, a nineteenth century historian … well, you get the idea. For most of us – and I say this without casting stones at any of the scholarship in my own field – the last we want to do when we finally settle down for the evening is to open another text on some obscurity that’s burned a hole in our retinas for the best part of our day’s waking hours.

Of course there will be some of you – if you’ve even read this far – who by now will be muttering a barely contemptible ‘so what? Didn’t we know this already?’ Well, perhaps. But I’m not so sure. If, to use a well-worn adage, academic historians speak down from the ivory towers, then there are those who never even look out the window, so busy are they toiling away in the dungeons of their chosen sub-discipline. Many of them, indeed, don’t even know that they’re in a castle at all. It’s an age old problem, what a colleague once described as spiraling downwards instead of outwards.

So what am I advocating? An open embrace of other methodologies, for one. A liberation from the shackles of our own chronological, geographical or thematic oppressors. If I was stuck for an image, I might argue that it’s time to let our hair down, Rapunzel-like, and let other histories climb in.

But I’m not, and I’m not sure you’d forgive me another metaphor, so I’ll stick to a bit of mini crowd-sourcing instead. Here’s what I want to know. What are the books, articles, or other media – outside your own area of interest/expertise – that inspired you to re-think your approach to history? Or, to put it in more simple terms, what should we all be reading?

4 Responses to “Game-changing histories – tell us yours”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Just to chip in with one of my own – and a popular history at that – I found the whole concept of Mark Kurlansky’s ‘Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World’ to be so interesting, and the idea of writing a history of a world that has had more tangible impact on the history of humanity than much of what we write so inspiring, that it changed the way that I looked at my own research. It helped me to frame my work in terms of a much broader narrative. It also – and this is very important – reminded me that good history needn’t be sacrificed at the altar of unreadability. Now, if only I could find a way of including recipes in my next book a la Kurlansky….


  2. Francesca Says:

    As a literary scholar with a passion for history, the one book that changed how I view my research was David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber’s “Tuscans and their families: a study of the Florentine catasto of 1427” (1985). It really opened my mind to the potential of quantitative scholarship and computing applied to the humanities. And it showed me how ordinary people in Renaissance Tuscany lived, as the catasto (a census cum property valuation) recorded both the rich and famous, and the poor and unknown, who usually don’t figure much in literature or history.

  3. David Toms Says:

    On the fishy theme, John Walton’s Fish and Chips and the British Working Class has completely reconfigured the way I’m approaching my thesis since it takes such a, in many ways forgettable, element of life and shows its power – a wonderful thing to be shown to any social historian! Non-history works that have hugely influenced me have to include especially James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    I’ve just read the interesting piece by Francesca (who’s already commented above) in response to this: how a literary scholar is inspired by history:


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