How can you find out more about the history that you are studying?
How can you find out more about history that you think you might like, but haven't studied yet?
One of the most important things that all universities look for in their
History applicants is genuine subject interest. So it is crucial, if you decide to
apply to read History at university, to show your interest by exploring history further in your own time. Undoubtedly the best way to do this is through reading. Moreover, reading is fundamental to all historical study, research and writing, and getting into the reading habit now will really help your development as a historian.
It's probably no surprise, then, that quite a lot of Cambridge applicants have contacted us over the years to ask for our advice on what they should be reading. Good historians are analytical and make their own sound decisions. So rather than simply telling you all to read some sort of artificial, fixed syllabus, we'd prefer you to approach the question of reading exploratively, looking to your own interests and instincts. In short, you should read what you like or what you like the look of.
But how do you decide what you like or what you might like? This can be done in a number of ways, for instance by:
- Thinking hard about your current course, or recent courses, of study;
- Reading general histories: Simon Schama's A History of Britain, for example;
- Watching television documentaries;
- Asking teachers or lecturers who know you what they think you might find interesting;
- Visiting historic sites;
- Browsing in libraries, shops or on the web, and picking books that grab your attention.
How can you find books and articles on a particular subject?
- Obvious places to explore are the history sections in libraries and shops (online or on the high street);
- Alternatively, you can access reading lists for different types and periods of history through the History Faculty website. From the Undergraduate section go to Tripos Papers to find lists of 'Part I papers' or 'Part II papers' listed by year. These links will give you lists of courses running in a particular year. If you then click on an individual paper, you will find a description of that paper and also, near the bottom, a link to its reading list;
- Another good tip for finding more books/articles on a subject is to look at the bibliographies in relevant history books. These list the sources which historians have read during the course of their research.
What should you seek to gain from your reading?
This question often elicits the response: 'It is important that you enjoy the history you are reading about.' We certainly hope you enjoy lots of the history that you read, but none of us enjoys everything, because we're not all interested in the same things and don't all respond in the same ways to a subject whose content and execution can differ very greatly.
The key thing, in fact, is that you learn from what you read and to do this you need to read analytically. This means making mental notes and asking questions all the way through your reading. You might try asking yourself the following questions when you finish a book or an article, and writing down your answers:
- Can I summarise the argument the historian has made?
- What evidence does the historian offer to substantiate his/her argument? Historians are like barristers in court: they must convince people of their case. To do so they must use evidence judiciously and convincingly;
- Is this historian's argument similar to, or different from, others that I have read?
- Do I agree or disagree with the argument being made here?
- Why? Is it properly evidenced? Is it coherent? Does it contradict itself?
- Doing this will help you understand what you have read and remember it later.