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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?