Summer Reading for History Teachers


My last blog post was about the importance of reading. In this post, I’ll suggest some books that you might profitably read this summer. But first I have a few rules for reading.

Prioritize books over other reading material.

Periodicals, websites, blogs, and the other internet things all have their place, but books are best. Generally speaking, a book is more likely than another written medium to be a high-quality information source, and time spent with a book is more likely to be time well-spent.

Know when to bail out.

Life is too short for mediocre books. If a book doesn’t seem good after the first chapter or so, skip ahead and see if it gets better. If it doesn’t, move on.

Ebooks and audiobooks do count.

I prefer old-fashioned paper books. When I read an ebook I miss the ease of flipping back and forth from page to page and chapter to chapter. Ebooks are undoubtedly convenient, however, and often cheaper. I’ve found them especially helpful for plowing through books from beginning to end, since they’re so easily carried everywhere I go and the format encourages steady progress from one page to the next. While they are even less conducive to reflective reading than ebooks, audiobooks vastly expand the time that many people have for consuming books. For people with dyslexia or other reading difficulties audiobooks can even be superior to conventional books.

Chew before you swallow, and spit things out when necessary.

Just because somebody wrote it doesn’t mean you have to believe it. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

Now for my reading suggestions. The list below reflects the type of books I commonly read as a history teacher and history enthusiast, and is not intended to limit the scope of anyone else’s reading. If you think other books will be more helpful to you, by all means read them instead. These are books that have notably expanded my understanding of the world that I teach about. I do not necessarily endorse everything they say, but have found them highly enlightening overall.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

Tuchman describes fourteenth-century Europe in absorbing detail. The knights, damsels, and castles lose most of their romance, but their living reality as vividly portrayed by Tuchman is more interesting than any fairy tale. The strangeness of so much of this world indirectly underscores the immense changes brought by the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment in the following centuries.

A People’s History of the United States by Page Smith

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this eight-volume work, but the parts I’ve read have been extraordinary. While thoroughly discussing all aspects of American society, Smith dwells on the experiences of ordinary Americans, enlivening much that is rendered flat by the textbooks. I am grateful to Smith for telling me of Charles Pancoast, a Quaker who sought fortune and adventure first in Missouri and then in California during the gold rush. (There was plenty of adventure, but the fortune didn’t come until he went back to Philadelphia and invested in real estate.) I’ve taken to retelling Pancoast’s story to each of my US History classes, and it’s always a highlight.

Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley

A gifted storyteller, Shelley gives a basic but comprehensive account of church history in easily digestible form, covering all major events, movements, and people. If you don’t have time for this very thick book, try Church History: An Essential Guide by Justo L. González. It’s less engaging and more limited than Shelley’s book, but ably recounts the broad sweep of church history in less than 100 pages.

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

Together, these two books do much to explain the state of the Middle East and the Muslim world. Friedman tells how both politics and everyday life in the Middle East are inextricably entangled with tribal loyalties and rivalries. As Wright reveals the logic behind Islamist terrorism, showing terrorists as relatable human beings rather than cardboard villains, the evil of their actions becomes both more comprehensible and more disturbing.

What reading suggestions do you have, about history or anything else? Let us know in the comments.


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