History Theoretics: Deciphering Your University Reading Lists


With it almost being fresher's time, for those of you who have been lucky enough to secure a university place, thousands you new history students are receiving your preliminary reading lists.
I want this post to be a reassuring comfort blanket for those fresher's who have just received - or downloaded for those going to a university with a technologically able history department (shocker) - their preliminary reading lists, which are usually used to accompany the 'Making History' course that seems to have become compulsory for all undergraduates embarking on this particular degree  subject. In this 'Making History' module they essentially ask you to read about the in-depth philosophical theories of the study of history before you even know if you like studying it.

If you think it all sounds terribly pompous/bewildering/not-what-you-signed-up-for (delete as appropriate), my message to you is this:
You are not alone. Everyone else doesn't really get it either, and frankly only wanted to do history because they like learning about wars/kings and queens/poor people/railways/women (again, delete as appropriate). I don't think I've ever come across anyone, academic or student, who has ever said to me 'gosh, do you know what got me into history in the first place? It was the philosophy of the study of history! Gets me going...'

To navigate this daunting reading list, then, I have decided to give you a brief, but I hope informative, tour of the key texts in this topic. I won't deny it, if you choose to go for it and read them yourselves, they are a slog. And you may never need to know about them ever again.

Ready? Let's go.


The Pursuit of History
By John Tosh

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What is the point of studying history? How do we know about the past? Does an objective historical truth exist and can we ever access it? These are the fundamental questions which Tosh seeks to answer in this book as well as dealing with the problems that surround the uses of primary and secondary sources and he makes a fair old stab at it. His prose are perfectly tolerable if you're in the mood, most chapters move smoothly through the subject with fluent skill and it is clear that he is very conscious about handling historicism and theory without getting bogged down, leaving the reader feeling like they have been genuinely engrossed. This book is certainly not a revision of the A-Level basics and does not throw at you the same old repetitive drab lesson of explaining 'Primary' 'Secondary' and the 'Who', 'What' 'When' and 'To what end' conundrums of researching and writing history.
This fifth edition has been revised and updated throughout, with the addition of new sections on: Global history, Comparative history, Post-colonialism, Women’s and gender history, Oral history and memory.
In Short: Probably the most tolerable and broadly useful.



In Defence of History
By Richard J. Evans

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This book is an attempt at establishing a middle ground between high-end metro-sexual postmodernism and the most ivory-towered encased attitudes of the old-school. Praising some cultural history and relinquishing old-fashioned claims of objectivity while claiming there is a legitimate purpose to history-writing.
Some postmodernist claim that there is no real difference between history and fiction. It is true not every line in a historian's text is fact. There are only so many facts left behind by history, and for the rest, the historians have to fill in the gaps with their best judgment. However historians are limited by the facts and by the words a document contains, words which are not, contrary to what postmodernists claim, capable of an infinity of meaning. So Richard Evans book is along argument which broadly states that doing historical research is like doing a jigsaw puzzle where some pieces have been destroyed. However if the pieces you do have 'only fit together to produce a steam-engine [...] it is no good trying to put them together to make a suburban garden: it simply will not work.' So it is correct that not everything in a historian's text is absolutely true and objective, however there are objective facts and truths involved. Historians then are not always providing the absolute truth, and most of them would not claim to, but altogether, are providing the probable truth, in which they have done their best to establish by following the rigorous rules of evidence.
In Short: Very long winded but a vehement master-class in traditionalism if you have the time.


What is History?
By E.H. Carr

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E H Carr's book certainly can be thought provoking, if not just plain irritating in parts.
What one reviewer 'on the inside' let us know a little while back was that what we have to be aware of when reading this book is that it originally began life as a series of lectures (Trevelyan Lectures, Cambridge, 1961) so that's why some of the arguments and points he makes here just turn into rambling, it just wasn't adapted into a book very well.
This book is essentially a 'history of history' -by that I mean an account of historical arguments across time. Through this Carr's central argument is that the interpretation of history from certain historians is dependent upon that historians position in society, and indeed further formulated by society's view of the period. One historian writing in the 1950's may have a totally different interpretation of events that, say, a historical writer of the 1990s.
In Short: This book will equip you with the knowledge to yarn with older lecturers about the olden days, but will still leave you looking for an answer to, what is history?