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5 Books That Changed the Way I Thought About the Past and Present

People always ask if I am nervous about my career prospects when I finally finish my PhD. I would be lying if I said I wasn't. Despite this uncertainty, however, my graduate education has changed me in more ways than I can count. If after all is said and done, I don't end up with my dream job in academia, that's ok. Because my in my opinion the education I've received was worth every moment and has completely changed the way I understand myself, the past, and the present.

I will never forget my first graduate school seminar -- Analysis of Historical Knowledge. I had no idea how naive and unprepared I was. The course ended up shattering any preconceived notion I had about the discipline of history and how the past is understood and constructed. I was fortunate to have an amazing professor that semester (who ended being my advisor) who challenged me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew. Our reading list that semester was incredible, and week after week I felt like I had huge ah-ha moments. So I thought it would be fun to share the books that have had the biggest impact on me.

Book: The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 1
Author: Fernand Braudel
Realization: The impact of the environment of the development of societies and culture.

Braudel's book is a massive (and I mean massive, you don't need to read vol. 2 unless you really want to) history of the "Mediterranean." Braudel, as a member of the Annales School, conceptualized time in three categories -- the fast and dramatic events of politics, the cyclical nature of trade and exchange, and the slow, almost imperceptible, pace of the environment. It was Braudel's understanding of the continuity of the environment and the effects it had on the development of culture and society that most impacted me. Before reading Braudel, I had never considered the effects of space and climate on the actions of people. Today, people question Braudel's environmental determinism, but his contributions have left an indelible mark on the way historians understand the relationship between people and their environments. An interesting contemporary adaptation of Braudel's theories is Elisabeth Pavan's Venice Triumphant

Book: Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977
Author: Michel Foucault
Realization: Power is everywhere!

I feel like every graduate student has a love/hate relationship with Michel Foucault. I vacillate between thinking he is completely brilliant and not understanding the point he is try to make. He is definitely not an easy read. Foucault is a French theorist whose work has been highly influential on the social sciences and humanities over the past three or so decades. He basically revolutionized the way an entire generation of scholars thought about the nature of power in society. It was through Foucault that I first began to understand the nuances of power, and that power is everywhere -- not just in institutions and politics, but in language, manners, and customs.

Book: The Cheese and the Worms
Author: Carlo Ginzburg
Realization: Truth and culture are not monolithic or universal concepts.

When I began studying history, I thought it was all about uncovering the truth. I have since realized that there isn't but one truth when it comes to the past. Sure an event occurred but not everyone would (or could) interpret and experience one event in exactly the same way. What causes individuals or groups to have differing experiences and understandings is what Ginzburg called a mentalitè, or world view. Using Inquisition records, Ginzburg's fascinating book reconstructs the world view of a sixteenth-century Italian miller name Menocchio. Ginzburg's work taught me the importance of micro history (based on archival research) and how though small scale analysis we can break down monolithic understandings of culture and recognize that cultural production can occur at all levels of society.

Book: City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London
Author: Judith R. Walkowitz
Realization: The myth can be just as, if not more, meaningful than the "truth."

I was very excited when I started reading Judith Walkowitz's book about Jack the Ripper. I wanted to know who he was and why they were never able to catch him. I was quickly disappointed, however, when I realized that Walkwitz had no intention of fingering the real Jack the Ripper. Instead, Walkowitz used the story of Jack the Ripper as a prism to understand the cultural dynamics and social struggles that created the narrative of a monster who targeted and gruesomely murdered prostitutes in Victorian London. Walkowitz demonstrated how these narratives were constructed to serve the purpose of reinforcing traditional notions of gender relations and the role of women. Walkowitz concluded that Jack the Ripper provided a moral message—the city of London is a dangerous place for women who dare to enter public spaces. Walkowitz's work taught me the importance of looking at how and why myths and meanings are constructed. The gendered language of the myth of Jack the Ripper exercised power over women and the spaces it was culturally acceptable for women to enter (Foucault would have been proud).

Book: Orientalism 
Author: Edward Said
Realization: The existence of "othering" and the cultural biases that sustain it.

The best part of graduate school is that it teaches you to look critically at everything and re-examine intellectual traditions. That's exactly the purpose of Said's book Orientalism. He challenges everything you thought you knew about the history of the "middle east" and European colonization/imperialism. Said exposed how patronizing perceptions and fictional depictions of the “east” were perpetuated by “western” societies through language, imagery, and even scholarship. Like Foucault, Said’s work inspired a new generation of scholars to re-examine their own culturally embedded biases. Like any seminal work, Said's work has attracted much criticism (especially given recent political contexts), but what I love about the book is that it challenges you to think critically, even of intellectual traditions.

What books have been the most influential in your life or education?

Ashley B
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  1. Education wise the most influential book has to be A Political History of Belgium by Els Witte and a few others whose names I can't remember. It charts the political landscape and its evolution from the creation of our country in 1830 up until 2005. Being a law student in a very complicated country it taught me so much about who we were, who we are and who we may be as a country and community. It also happens to be one of the most hated first year courses at my university, haha!
    Personally, I always think of To Kill a Mockingbird as being instrumental in my development. Lastly, Marie Antoinette by Antiona Fraser. I read this monster of a book when I was 12 and it truly sparked my intrest and love for history.

    1. Intersting, I will have to look into the Political History of Belgium!

    2. I recently finished Marie Antionette ( and it definetly was a game changer! As a medieval art historian, I would have to say Images of Plague and Pestilence opened my research world and understanding of the history of disease.

  2. I took a class on different serial killers over the years (I know, morbid) and the first one we focused on was Jack the Ripper. That book you discussed sounds like an interesting take on the society norms back then...

  3. Menocchio! YAS!
    Also, more serious. From grad school, mine are Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates, Sex and Suits by Anne Hollander, Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White and Secrets of Women by Katharine Park, although I would argue that I find something which majorly influences me in some direction every week. This week would be Bonds of Alliance by Brett Rushforth, which discusses Indian slavery in the American interior before European settlement. While I have read most of the poststructuralist philosophers and I appreciate what they have to say, I was never really influenced or blown away by them because I had already heard some version of their ideas in the introductions of history texts that I had read in the past.
    Still, some of the most influential books I have read are really from my time as an undergraduate, when I was just getting that excitement for history. Of these, the big ones for me, to which I feel like I repeatedly return, are Changes in the Land by William Cronin, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown by Glover and Smith and Trouble in Mind by Leon Litwack.
    In the past year, I have also been trying to expand my reading beyond my career as an academic to works of fiction. My thoughts have been greatly influenced in this time by Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. The latter has inspired a project with which my academic life is currently consumed. I am looking at Defoe's self-made Crusoe as a model for men of science in the New World. I like to remind incoming grad students that it is important to have hobbies (such as your blog) and a life outside of their coursework. Not only is it motivating, but it can be one of your largest influences.

    1. I took a Lit course and we read Robinson Crusoe in terms of capitalism, patriarchy, and race. It rocked my world! I had read it in high school, but reading it with Lit students gave it new significance and I really enjoyed it. And thanks for the other recommendations!

  4. All those are my favorites too! I would also add basically anything by Natalie Zemon Davis (Trickster Travels is a great one) and Egypt as a Woman (Beth Baron). Some great classics!
    I'm going to be on the market this coming year - yikes! So I'm really freaked out, but I know I'll get A job even if it's not THE job, and my education has given me so much, I can't be too upset about that!

    1. I love NZD! I was so mad to find out that she actually spoke at the RSA and I MISSED IT! Good luck with the job market!

  5. I would thoroughly recommend Ludmila Jordanova's History in Practice. She does a fantastic job of examining the discipline within the academy AND in the public realm. As historians,  it is crucial for us to consider our role outside of academia if the profession isn't to die out. I also very much appreciative that there is no focus on a particular area of historical studies- as a medieval Irish historian, I can fully engage in dialogue with a historian of gender studies or modern politics without having major disconnects.  Cheers!

    1. History in Practice, thanks I will look into this right away. I agree we can't be stuck in ivory towers!

  6. Thank you for sharing! I majored in history for my undergrad but am attending grad school for business, I really miss history and love that I have some new book recommendations to look forward to!

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  8. omg Power/Knowledge was the bane of my existence in grad school. I spent forever trying to figure out WTF Foucault was talking about. Such struggle...flash forward 7 years and I use it all the time!...And even have a Foucault/Lady Gaga meme on my office door ;)

    I loved Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers (Oops used the wrong title before!). It helped me realize that I could be an interdisciplinary scholar and still legitimate. The other book I loved was Mutants: Genetic Variety and the Human Body. I found it so engrossing, so I was surprised to discover it was written by a well respected scholar. The reason I was so surprised is because I had thought that I would be doomed to writing dry theoretical articles for the rest of my life!

    jess | Bows & Bouquets

    1. I feel your pain with Foucault, but you're right he has become an essential read. Also I am really curious about this Foucault/Lady Gaga meme and how I get my hands on one? I will have to check out Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers!

  9. We JUST finished discussing The Cheese and the Worms on Wednesday in my Historiographical Debates class, which is sadly being phased out next semester due to our department feeling that it's not an important enough class. Sad day.

  10. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London sounds very interesting, I love your description and your misconceptions about what the book was. It definitely sounds like something I'd enjoy! Thanks so much for sharing, I love how thoughtful and engaging your posts are about a plethora of topics.

  11. I've wanted to read The Cheese and the Worms for quite some time but haven't gotten around to it. I hope it comes up in some of my classes in the next couple of years.

  12. Gosh. I had struggled with those books and ideas while doing my MA in history last year. But I totally agree that the theory of history opened my eyes how complex history is. I really enjoy your blog and I wish you all the best with your Phd

  13. It has been such a long time since my education--but I so miss academics, and the type of intellectual discourse that occurs there. Although never interested in history per se until much later in life, the textbook that was most life changing for me was Existential Psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom. In the introduction he describes an anecdote about Freud that showed to be a compassionate, generous therapist, quite different from the lineage and training that subsequently were derived from his theories. A beautifully written book with many quotations from a wide variety of other disciplines, it is always a treasure to read.


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