7 Books that changed the way I think about history

These are not necessarily my favourite books, or ones I will read again, but at the time, they were the ones that made me switch a gear, and think about something in a new and exciting way.

geoffrey blainey, The Tyranny of Distance 1. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance (1967).  This book came out when I was an undergraduate, the year I did the only course my university offered in Australian history.  It was published in paperback, and I bought it – one of the few non textbooks I bought as a student.  Of course it is famous now for its title – even though distance is less of an issue for Australians in the days of the internet and cheap air travel than it was in 1967.  Blainey writes simply, with great clarity of expression, without the rhetorical flourishes of Manning Clark, whose volumes of A History of Australia were coming out at the same time.  I still love Blainey’s fascination with concrete things – shipping routes and the change from sail to steam, the importance of telegraphs and railway lines.  At his worst (Black Kettle and Full Moon, 2003) he occasionally sounds like an elderly uncle nattering on about the good old days, but Tyranny was Blainey at his best.

2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (1983).  Ben Anderson is a specialist on Indonesian history, but in the early 1980s he wrote a book, really an extended essay, where he investigated the idea of communities that transcend simple geography and are bound together by their shared consumption of ‘print culture’ – newspapers, books, whatever.  So an ‘imagined community’ might comprise all those reading Luther’s pamphlets in the early 16th century, or everyone who read The Times in the 19th century.  Whether they lived in London or Rockhampton, their ideas about the Crimean War were shaped by the same reading.  There’s a lot more to Anderson’s thesis than this, but the idea of the ‘imagined community’ was revelatory.  It was also remarkably prescient, such a useful concept in the age of social media-based communities, both narrower and broader than Anderson then – let alone Luther – could ever have imagined.

3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (1992).  The whole argument is more than the sum of its parts in this book, a rather diverse collection of individual chapters about things like the invention of the tartan kilt in 19th century Scotland.  I’ve no desire to re-read this book, but again, the central idea is arresting: often ideas and traditions that we assume date from the dim past are quite recent inventions.  The Victorians (and their continental equivalents) were good at this, recreating Edinburgh Castle or Carcassone in a medieval style that is completely faked. Material examples are easy to pick – old Queensland houses in ‘heritage colours’, for instance – but historians need to have a good bullshit detector for examples of the invention of traditions in the world of ideas, as well.

4. The French historian Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie once said that historians can be divided into parachutists and truffle hunters – a very French image.  Fernand Braudel was the doyen of the parachutists, founder of the Annales School (named after a French history journal that published the work of him and his followers).  His method was to see and interpret the scene spread out below him, at a moment in time, like a parachutist descending from on high.  In The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1972), he looked at the lives of ordinary people around the Mediterranean in the late 16th century, for whom historical events like the rise and fall of dynasties were less important than the rhythms of the seasons, the annual migration of flocks to the high pastures, and so on.  I admire his books, though I think some are better translated than others, but I guess my favourite would be The Identity of France (1982) – anyone who can create a map of France based on variations in roof tiles between regions is my sort of guy!

5. While Braudel was the parachutist, Le Roy Ladurie identified himself as the truffle hunter.  To be a good truffle hunter, you need to find a good source of truffles, and Le Roy Ladurie found it in Montaillou (1975, later in translation).  Montaillou was a village in the Pyrenees.  In the 13th century, many of the local residents were sympathetic to the Cathar heresy.  Then the Inquisition arrived to investigate; they interrogated everyone in the village, asking the most intrusive and personal questions about everything from contraception to cooking.  The records survive, and Le Roy Ladurie has used them to create a fascinating study of village life, by probing deep into the evidence.  Montaillou is a tiny canvas, and he teases out every thread within it, to reveal a deep knowledge of the society he is studying.

6. Alan Atkinson, Camden (1988). With far fewer records to work from, Alan Atkinson has done something similar for a small area of semi-rural New South Wales in the 19th century.  When the book first came out, one reviewer described it as like a Brueghel painting, and it is, for me, one of the most evocative books in Australian history published in the last 50 years.  (Alan is also the only historian in this list that I know personally).

7. Dava Sobel, Longitude: the true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time (1996). Dava Sobel’s book was a most unexpected bestseller when it came out, originally with a small print run of – I think – 5000 in 1995.  She took an important, but little known topic, the quest to find a way of measuring longitude at sea – and turned it into a page turner through sheer literary skill.  I don’t think there is a single passive sentence in this book.  Her verbs are energetic and active, and she has a clever chapter structure, switching between separate aspects of the story with the good old ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ technique.  Other writers have tried to emulate her success with one-topic narratives, some very well (Simon Winchester, Mark Kurlansky), but her book was the first, a breakthrough in this style of writing.  It’s a pity that she, or her editors, also decided to invent the really long and self-explanatory sub-title!


3 responses to “7 Books that changed the way I think about history

  1. Marion, as an avid reader of history and its related discipline, biography, I thank you for the list. If I could reciprocate with only one book, I would suggest “In Search of History” by Theodore White. It is a long dissertation on his adventures as a young New York journalist in revolutionary China and his meetings with the players, especially Chou en Lai and of course, Mao. He was still active when Richard Nixon made his overture to China in the early 1970s and this makes for riveting reading as he was part of the official American party and had unique access to the higher echelon Chinese, many of whom he knew from the Great March.
    He also wrote the definitive books to demystify that mystical process, the American Presidential election. They were “The Making of the President 1960” and 1964.
    Adele joins me in congratulating you on the articles in the Weekend Australian recently. Good stuff!

  2. Pingback: Thank God for Anaesthesia | Historians are Past Caring

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