In schools up and down the country, budding young historians are just about to go on a quest: a quest for that perfect UCAS text. The history book you read and analyse in a couple of sentences that you hope will dazzle the admissions people at the university of your choice.
Unfortunately, most will choose terribly.
They will bore readers with the same old references to EH Carr, Richard Evans, David Starkey, and Niall Ferguson. Honestly, having read literally hundreds of these, I cry with joy whenever an applicant has read something a bit different.
Here, then, are some suggestions, for parents, teachers and students alike, to spice up those personal statements. Ten massively cool History books that are that little bit different, that little bit exciting, and that little bit radical and controversial. In interesting ways, and without the need to be a plonker on Newsnight.
The Hollow Crown by Miri Rubin (2005)
It’s now basically the law that any book on the Wars of the Roses has to be called The Hollow Crown. And now that the fifteenth century is cool, thanks to telly, thanks to Shakespeare, and thanks to that daft show about northerners and dragons, you probably want to read something on it. Something that’s, you know, good.
Fortunately, there’s an obvious choice. Gloriously written by a scholar of the highest calibre, balanced between princesses and peasants, and as at home with the Henries as it is with the husbandmen, Miri Rubin’s contribution to the Penguin History of the British Isles is – weirdly – one of my favourite history books ever.
I say weirdly because it’s an introductory textbook, and I normally only like history books of the kind that reinterpret the Reformation through the eyes of a Pyrenean goatfarmer called Geoff. I’m basically a hipster historian. Some of my favourite footnotes aren’t even properly formatted. You wouldn’t understand.
The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (1983)
In many ways, this is just an ordinary story of boy meets girl; boy goes off to fight in the wars; different boy comes back and says he’s the first boy; girl accepts him and tells everyone he’s the same as the first boy; first boy returns missing a leg; second boy gets executed. We’ve all seen it.
What makes this book such a cracker, and one of my absolute faves, is how the great NZD weaves the story into a wide-ranging discussion about social life and gender in sixteenth century France. It’s bold, challenging, and open to debate; but it’s also riveting, readable, and an absolute masterpiece of the micro-study. Seriously, read it. I Guerre you.
God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs (2014)
You have to feel sorry for those Elizabethan Catholics. Religious minority? Check. Oppressive state? Check. Forced to attend a church you don’t believe? Check. Let’s see – how can we make things worse? Ooh, I know, let’s stick a load of missionaries and Jesuits into England and force you to betray your Queen and shelter them. And let’s get the pope to excommunicate the Queen and force you to choose between him and her. And let’s have the King of Spain try to invade. Three times.
Jessie Childs’ vivid, readable romp tells the story of Catholics in Elizabethan England, specifically through the eyes of one Midland family. It’s simultaneously a rollicking narrative, a fascinating micro-study, and complex discussion of what it means to be part of a religious minority.
Oh, and one of my absolute favourite facts about God’s Traitors: in the National Archives, the librarians have put it in between the various volumes of the Alistair Campbell diaries, and a biography of Tony Blair. Excellent shelving banter.
The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton (1984)
1730s France. Nobody has the Internet, so all anyone is able to do is insult each other and get excited about cats. How things have changed. In the Rue Saint-Severin, Paris, though, the claws are about to really come out.
A printer and his wife like their cats more than they like their workers, especially his wife’s favourite, La Grise. Tired of being mogged off, the workers decide on the purrfect ruse. One of them climbs onto the roof, and spends the night screeching. Unable to sleep and getting increasingly pussed off, the printer decides the kitties have to go. He orders the workers to kill them. Kill them all.
So they do; they stage a mock execution of all the local cats; even La Grise is brutally boshed. It’s not funny to us, but it was hil-ar-ious at the time. The past, says, Darnton, really is a foreign country, and we should try and get our heads round it in all its weirdness. What does it all mean? Who knows, but Darnton’s masterpiece is certainly paws for thought.
(sorry about that)
Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 by Emily Cockayne (2007)
This book stinks. I mean, literally, it’s about early modern life in all its itchy, scabby, stinky, ugly glory. If you want to understand a society, you need to learn about what it finds disgusting. It’s why I once tried to convince an unimpressed audience in Gateshead that Frankie Boyle should be on the English Literature curriculum. Cockayne’s wonderfully vivid book, based on contemporary diaries and autobiographies, is a festival of filth, a smorgasbord of sewage, a cornucopia of crap, and a garrulous garden of gunk. And it’s wonderful.
I also have a massive soft-spot for it because the author, who was my first tutor at Oxford, was also the first person to encourage me to become a social historian. Before that I was into some nonsense called ‘political history’.
Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin (2013)
A controversial but brilliant book, Emma Griffin’s ‘people’s history’ makes the radical points that the Industrial Revolution was a) a thing, and b) a not-totally-shit thing. In the latter case, she challenges the ideas of (often leftwing) historians who argue that working class English folk were squashed under the yoke of the spinning jenny, while being forced to swivel on the middle finger of the heartless upper classes. Unless, that is, they were lucky enough to die of cholera.
But, Griffin points out, the revolution also brought employment, choice, sexual freedom, and the Labour Party, so it wasn’t, like, all terrible. Her sources are interesting: she uses diaries and autobiographies of ordinary working people. They are vivid and at times moving; but are they representative? You decide! (which incidentally you can do because you can read and aren’t dead aged 3)
The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (2010)
From 1750-1830, revolutions became so common that you couldn’t leave the house in the morning without returning home to find someone had done something totally radical. Like improved GDP by 1.5 per cent, grown a new type of sheep, or killed the French king. It all got so silly that a small Corsican with his hand stuck in his pocket seemed actually quite sensible for a bit. In this ‘Age of Revolutions’, though, I bet you’ve never heard of this one: the ‘Romantic Revolution’. Sorry, what? And yet it was, says Tim Blanning, one of the most important of the lot.
Earlier, 18th century people had been terribly sensible, rational, and measured, like boring androids in wigs. Then, after Rousseau had a crisis of conscience, and Goethe did a bit of German sightseeing: bang! Beethoven. Romanticism, Blanning argues, was a reaction: a cult of feeling, of the night, of weeping, wailing, and medieval maidens. It also, says Blanning, saw the rise of the cult of the artist. When people went mad for Bowie and Prince, they were expressing an adulation which arose during the Romantic Revolution; people went similarly bonkers for Franz Liszt. In fact, the three of them are probably sat in heaven over a tub of biscuits sharing crazy stories about their fans.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan (2015)
This book has been causing quite a stir of late. Global History, of course, is one of the big Things at the moment, but we tend to think in terms of European colonization, the sea, and the great gunpowder empires of the East. Peter Frankopan has other ideas: the real key to the world was the middle bit: the spine running down the middle of Eurasia; the old silk road, where resources swirled from east to west and brought the known world together. It’s brave, challenging, endlessly fascinating, incredibly well written and full of insight. Of course, it isn’t proper global history. It’s a regional study with an ego as vast and gushing as a Ukrainian oilfield. But it’s still silk-underpant-wettingly good. And you’ll never think about the Second World War in the same way again.
The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott (2009)
Such is the influence of James C Scott, that you could probably train a parrot to say ‘hidden transcripts’ and ‘weapons of the weak’ and you’d have yourself a passable social historian. But he isn’t a historian. He’s an anthropologist. He’s also a goalkeeper: when he was doing fieldwork in Malaysia for one of his books, one of his things was to play in goals for the village football team. He’s probably the only international scholar to do anything remotely like this, other than Joe Hart.
His most recent book, though, sees him turn to actual history. Giving his unique view of the history of south-east Asia (particularly Burma, now Myanmar), he gives us a political history with a radical twist. It’s all about people trying to escape politics. How can we do this, you ask? We should run to the hills! Admittedly, this is easier if you live in Shan State, Myanmar rather than – say – Islington. But the concept is an interesting one: tribes aren’t really tribes – they are just people who’ve opted out of ‘lowland’ government. States are only as strong as their ability to control space; the steepest places are the true centres of liberty. It’s challenging stuff: a mixture of the bleeding-obvious and the brilliantly-bonkers. And at the very least, it’ll make you think about political history in a whole new set of ways. Most of them wrong.
The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen (2005)
Can we learn lessons from the past? Of course we can’t. But if there’s anyone who can at least have a go at persuading us to, then it’s Amartya Sen. One of the great thinkers of our time, and a man so humane he makes Father Christmas look like Katie Hopkins, Sen argues that modern India is, perhaps uniquely in the world, a place where the past is a lived part of today. In order to understand the place of religion in modern India, we should look at the tolerant worlds of Ashoka and Akbar. In order to get our heads around the relationship between India and China, we should study their cultural exchanges in centuries gone by.
It’s a glorious read – as much current affairs as history; essential for understanding modern India and its diaspora, and a really great example of the way contemporary politics might just, sensibly for once, be informed by the past.