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Good History Reads

I love getting emails from history majors or future history majors! It’s good to know people still love history. The most common question I get is, “what history books do you recommend?”

This is a tricky question. Once you begin grad school the way you read and approach books changes. While I still appreciate the story of a good history book, I am now more focused on methodology — what historical sources did they author use, how did he/she interpret these sources, and what theories inform this work. Not nearly as exciting as a good story.

Nevertheless, there are some classic history works that I think most people would enjoy and all history lovers should read.

Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre:

As a historian, how do you reconstruct the lives of ordinary people? People who, unlike princes and generals, left little to no records behind? Davis was a pioneer in the field of micro-history and reconstructing peasant or popular culture. On top of that, she is an incredible story teller! This is the tale of a sixteenth-century man who disappears and then suddenly returns, although there are questions to whether or not the man who returns is the real Marin Guerre. The story is full of twists and turns as Davis uses the sixteenth-century trial records to retell the tale. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast Holy Fast

Walker’s book is a bit drier than Davis’s but no less interesting. She looks at the religious significance of food for Medieval women. She demonstrates how women, like the famous Catherine of Siena, used food to craft a religious identity. They often ate nothing but the Eucharist to demonstrate their connection to God (holy anorexics). Controlling their food intake allowed these Medieval women, who lived in a time when women had little control over their bodies and lives, to control their futures. Starvation delayed puberty (postponing marriage), prevented pregnancy (which killed 50% of women), and gave them power (people viewed them as divine).

Judith Walkawitz’s City of Dreadful Delight
I am sure you have heard of Jack the Ripper. Victorian London was fixated on this mysterious killer. Rather than solve the case, Walkawitz analyzes the myths surrounding Jack the Ripper. We still don’t know if the Ripper was real, but Walkawitz demonstrates how the myth of the Ripper and the media coverage of his murders, reveal fascinating insights into late nineteenth-century London — narratives of prostitution, sexuality, class, ethnicity, masculinity, and the language of politics concerning women and their roles in a rapidly urbanizing environment. 
Scroll through to see more of my favorite history books!