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Suggested Reading

How can you find out more about history?

One of the most important things all universities look for in History applicants is genuine interest in the subject. It is therefore crucial to show your interest by exploring history further in your own time. The best way to do this is undoubtedly through reading – reading widely, with discernment, and outside of your comfort zone. Moreover, reading is fundamental to all historical study, research and writing, and getting into the habit now will help your development as a historian.

It's probably no surprise, then, that quite a lot of Cambridge applicants have asked over the years for guidance on additional reading. Good historians are analytical and make their own sound decisions. So while we do offer a few suggestions for additional reading here, you should not treat these as some kind of prescriptive syllabus, but merely as guides to further exploration. It is only by reading more that you learn what kinds of history you like, which works you admire and find thought-provoking and stimulating, and how to assess the merits of a particular work.  

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:

  • Looking at the recommended reading sections of books you have used as part of your school history course;
  • Reading general histories. These include the works of Cambridge historians , like Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers, on the origins of the First World War, David Abulafia's The Great Sea, on the history of the Mediterranean, the late C.A. Bayly's Birth of the Modern World, on the global history of the nineteenth century, or Peter Mandler's The English National Character;
  • Consulting overviews of different approaches in history like A Concise Companion to History, edited by Ulinka Rublack;
  • 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 Undergraduate section of the History Faculty website. 
  • 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.
  • The Institute of Historical Research's website, Reviews in History, also provides an up-to-date overview of developments in the field. 

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 works whose contents and approaches can differ 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 well supported by the evidence? Is it coherent? Does it contradict itself?
  • Doing this will help you understand what you have read and remember it later.