History: An Introductory Reading List

History Reading list illustration From: Sun's wife and Miss Liu jointly manifest the great victory in Taiwan. Wu Wenyi, illustrator SOAS, University of London (Resource: CWP 11 - soas chinese woodblocks ) http://digital.soas.ac.uk/LOAA003941/00001

Your mission:  to compile an introductory reading list for History.

Time allowed?  30 minutes


Quick, get a definition. History is… ‘the study of past events, particularly in human affairs’ (Oxford Dictionaries.com) and world history… ‘history embracing the events of the whole world; global history’.

Not sure how helpful that is… history is history? But there’s no time to quibble.

A web search:

Young Jiang Qing and Mao in Yan'an in 1930s.
Young Jiang Qing and Mao in Yan’an (1930s)

Your hands hover over the keyboard – what to search for?  Crusades… modern Middle East… 14th century indigenous warfare… 20th century Islam in South East Asia… Mughal Empire… Gandhi … Atlantic slavery… Muslim societies in West Africa… China and Japan.

Stick to ‘history’, which turns up:

  • John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2000)and
  • Tracey Loughran (ed.) A Practical Guide to Studying History: Skills and Approaches (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

 ‘the perfect guide for students embarking on degree-level study’ 

 How about this one on the ‘philosophy of history’?

  • Richard J Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, 2001)

‘He takes us into the historians’ workshop to show us just how good history gets written, and explains the deadly political dangers of losing a historical perspective on the way we live our lives.’

Perhaps the website History Today is more immediate?

The Shelf Test

You are standing in front of shelves in SOAS University of London library.  Where to begin?  A-C is not imaginative but here goes:

  • E H Carr (with a new introduction by Richard J Evans), What is History? (Palgrave, 2001)
  • Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? (University of Michigan Press, 2015)

The entry for the History Department on SOAS website is ringing in your ears:

History at SOAS: re-centring your world…history from the perspective of Asia and Africa, rather than through a western-centric framework… explore the dynamic histories of these regions… a new way of looking at the world as a whole… develop the valuable critical thinking, research, and writing skills that will enable you to make a difference in the world in whatever career you choose. 

You catch sight of:

  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2007)

‘One of the first book-length treatments on how postcolonial thinking impacts on the social sciences’.

You are drifting away from the brief, it’s meant to be an introductory reading list.  A fat tome catches your eye:

  • Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader (Routledge, 2015, 3rd edition)

It opens with an essay by Alex Haley, entitled ‘Black History, Oral History and Genealogy’.  You are over halfway through the alphabet, now, and another fat tome catches your eye:

  • Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History (Penguin Books India, 2004)

The book, over 1129 pages long, is subtitled, ‘Being further letters to his daughter, written in prison, and containing a rambling account of history for young people’.  Rambling is what you’re doing but the reference to prison makes you read on.  The letters were written:  ‘From Central Prison, Naini, From on Board S.S. Cracovia in the Arabian Sea, From District Gaol, Bareilly, and From District Gaol, Dehra Dun.’

You open to an account of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – Mahatma Gandhi – embarking on non-violent non-cooperation against British rule in India.  Nehru writes:

But this voice was somehow different from the others.  It was quiet and low, and yet it could be heard above the shouting of the multitude; it was soft and gentle, and yet there seemed to be steel hidden away somewhere in it; it was courteous and full of appeal, and yet there was something grim and frightening in it; every word used was full of meaning and seemed to carry a deadly earnestness.  Behind the language of peace and friendship there was power and the quivering shadow of action and a determination not to submit to a wrong…

… it was new to us in February and March 1919.

 You are running out of time.  How about this:

  • Marnie Hughes-Warrington (ed.) Advances in World Histories, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)


  • Antoinette Burton and Tony Ballantyne, World Histories from Below: Disruption and Dissent, 1750 to the Present (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

30 minutes are up.  Time to put your introductory reading list to the final test.

An Academic’s response:  Dr Andrea Janku 

You will easily find introductions to the histories of particular countries or rather nations, regions, and even the entire world, as well as books covering particular historical periods.  Examples that are both reliable and concise include:

  • John Parker, African History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, A Concise History of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
  • Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Environmental Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century (3rd edition, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

The same is true for introductions to History as an academic discipline, such as:

  • Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity, 1991; 2nd edition 2001)

as well as for more hands-on guides to history, such as:

  • Jules R. Benjamin, A Student’s Guide to History (Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 12th ed., 2013).

The drawback of many survey histories, intros and guidebooks is that they tend to make for rather dry reading (not the ones I’ve mentioned above, though), and I fear that you’d be put off rather than drawn into History before you even started serious study.  Instead I’d recommend books that are more specialised without losing sight of the big picture, or readings that offer an entirely different approach to a discipline that you are likely to have studied in its more conventional forms at school – ideally books that are of a high scholarly quality without coming across as overly academic, texts that you enjoy reading and that make you curious to explore things further and in greater depth. Examples of the former are:

  • Marc Van de Mieroop, Cuneiform Texts and the Writing of History (London: Routledge, 1999)

exploring some of the basic tenets of the discipline and the boon and bane of historical sources based on the study of ancient Mesopotamia; or:

  • Henrietta Harrison, The Man Awakened from Dreams: one Man’s Life in a North China Village, 1857-1942 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)

recreating the transition from imperial to republican China through the study of a diary that one man who spent most of his life in his native village in China’s Shanxi province kept over decades.  There are many other gems of this kind of historical writing, such as:

  • Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang (Penguin, 1979)

that provides a peculiar perspective on what has become known as the seventeenth century global crisis, or, straying into European history:

  • Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Of course, readable books that cover much more ground also exist. Examples of those are:

  • David Christian, Maps of Time: an Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)
  • Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: a History of the World through Islamic Eyes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009)

or – more academic:

  • John F. Richards. The Unending Frontier: an Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Closer to the present:

  • Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (London: Penguin, 2018)

and, moving to environmental issues again:

  • John McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: an Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World (London: Penguin, 2001)

are well worth your time.  An entirely different kind of history, which reads like a novel and offers fascinating insights into a whole range of historical ‘issues’ at the same time is:

  • Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity (London: Penguin, 1995).

I would like to add:

  • Susan Mann, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)
  • Wang Zheng, Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) and
  • Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011);

but while these titles open up new ground in the field of gender history, far more would be needed to balance out the bias resulting from my own area of specialisation here …

Further information

BA History

Ranges from economics, religion, and culture to frontiers, cities, and gender from a global perspective rather than a euro-centric one. You will be able to develop your understanding of the fascinating, interlinked histories of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and their significance in our world today.

BA History and …

BA Ancient Near Eastern Studies

History Taught Masters and Research degrees

Dr Andrea Janku is Senior Lecturer in the History of China; Learning & Teaching Coordinator; and Convenor for the BA History and BA History and… degree programmes.


Main image
Sun’s wife and Miss Liu jointly manifest the great victory in Taiwan.
Wu Wenyi, illustrator
SOAS, University of London
Digital Library (Resource:  CWP 11 – soas chinese woodblocks )

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