Considered to be the original work of Western history, Herodotus’s The Histories (or History, depending on translation) is sure to appear on any syllabus of the Western world. Much like a contemporary social historian, Herodotus traveled around what was then the Persian Empire interviewing folks and putting together a comprehensive history of the regions he visited and the rise of the Persian Empire. This was around 440 B.C., and Herodotus’s reasoning for writing seems to be that of our modern sensibilities too: he wrote so that events wouldn’t be forgotten.
A History of the World in 100 Objects
What started as a radio series, Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects is one of the most accessible yet fascinating pieces of comprehensive historical writing. From ancient chopping tools to the credit card, from stone tablets to a solar powered lamp, MacGregor takes objects as the jumping off point from which to explore two million years of human history. The objects all come from The British Museum and include, for the most part, everyday things that humans used, though works of art are also included. Short vignettes about the objects accompany pictures of them and give a sweeping sensation of the continuity of humanity since its early days.
A Midwife's Tale
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Midwifery has a long and fascinating history. In this beautiful history book—part historical documents and part interpretation of them—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explores the way midwives had power and freedom that most women didn’t during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Martha Ballard, who kept a diary of sorts, though her entries are short and brusque, demonstrates this power in the fact that she had mobility because of her duties; she traveled alone often, and even had help with her housework, all thing which most women in her time did not have. Through 27 years of entries and over 800 births that she attended, Ballard’s words and Ulrich’s historical interpretations show the power of “women’s work” and the way midwifery used modern medical understanding (such as the basic need for cleanliness) long before male physicians practiced such precautions.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
Similar to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in that this book is told not from the perspective of the dead white guys of American history, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz goes a step further in focusing down on specifically the people who were inhabitants of the land we call the US before it became a nation of immigrants. Dunbar-Ortiz looks at policies and actions from the very beginning of colonization, examining their genocidal and colonial facts often discounted from historical tracts. Through popular culture, Dunbar-Ortiz also shows how artists we revere supported the actions the US government took against indigenous peoples. A revisionist history, as the book’s subtitle calls it, this book is shocking to many and incredibly important.
1491 (Second Edition)
Charles C. Mann
Looking at the peoples that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz covers in her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Charles C. Mann challenges our popular understanding of the Americas long before any sort of European settlers came to occupy the continent. While our ideas about the indigenous folks includes sparse, spread-out, tribal living, Mann looks at the Indian nations’ taming and cultivation of the land they lived on, at Aztec cities that included running water, and Mexican peoples’ techniques of plant-breeding. In other words, he explores the technologies that were developed by peoples that popular culture thinks of today as “primitive” and challenges those notions with archaeological findings and the narratives that arise from them.
Edward W. Said
While this is a book of criticism and not exactly straight history, Said’s book looks at the cultural history of the West has placed certain ideas on the East, creating the notion of Orientalism, which revolves around the Eurocentric world-view that colonizing forces had. British and American Orientalists created romanticized ideas about the countries and cultures which they occupied throughout history, and Said sees a continuation of this in scholarship, in the way “Arab culture,” for instance, is lumped into one place and romanticized, or “Indian culture,” etc. A formative work of postcolonial criticism, Said’s book is a jumping off point for many others.
History is one of those scary subjects that can really get people down if they’re not into the whole names-and-dates thing. But history is essentially the stories about where we come from, how our culture and society came to be, what went before. Or, as J-Lo would put it, “No matter where I go, I know where I came from.” History is also an incredibly broad topic, so we’ve chosen some books here that may be familiar to you history majors out there, some that the non-history majors may get excited over, and some that seem like they definitely should be on every history major’s syllabus.