MBS ‘Desert Island’ Books

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

My last blog post discussed the difficulties I have when reading academic texts. These anxieties seem to have resonated with others and I’m grateful to those who have offered advice or tips on how they deal with it, alongside others who have simply said they feel the same.  Regardless of discipline, I guess we all have to grapple with literature.

Working on modern British history poses its own challenges though. The fragmentation of the field, much lamented in Working Paper 1, has ensured that we read very specific bodies of work, related only to our own field. Clearly this is necessary, but by encouraging us to work within sub-disciplines, it can be difficult to place our work in wider contexts. Collaborative working practices remain an exception rather than the norm. And whilst these standards exist we not only miss out on imaginative and creative ways of thinking through our own work, but we will fail to encapsulate the complexity and vibrancy of modern British history.

Participating in a postgraduate-led reading group is not only an important step in challenging the anxieties I have about reading, but I also hope it will become a space in which we can read wider and think bigger.  A space where we can read works outside of our own areas of research, where discussion will not be limited to what we already understand, but stimulated by what we do not know. A space where we can begin to enjoy books.

Practicalities first, we need books to read. Inspired by these History Workshop posts, we asked MBS staff to participate in a desert island type task to get our list of books started. Being an unruly lot though, we asked them to suggest titles within categories and to explain their choices if they felt it necessary.

The titles suggested are not only a great list of books to read for our reading group, but are suggestive in their own right. Many of the titles are not British history books, indicating that just as Britain did not develop in isolation; neither does the writing of its history. The influences on our work may not be tangible; the connections between texts are not always obvious.

When we write the history of modern Britain, we choose the chronological and temporal limits of our project. We must always question the reasons why we set our boundaries and recognize that the books we read play just as important a role as the sources we painstakingly research.

We must also understand the role books play in our working practices. What we read not only influences the way we conceive of our discipline, but affects the way we imagine ourselves in relation to that discipline. There are very prescriptive bodies of literature that you must engage with before you are considered, or even consider yourself, a historian with a certain methodological approach (e.g. gender, cultural, social, etc.).

This task was designed to work outside of those boundaries, to allow staff to consider the broader influences on their work. We expected titles that related very closely to their work, and the ‘most referred to’ category invited such responses, but have been pleasantly surprised by their willingness to think beyond their immediate research and engage with the wider influences on their careers and lives.

Given these answers, our reading group will be starting with Carolyn Steedman’s A Landscape for a Good Woman.

I’ve agonized over how to present these responses but have decided to simply present the answers as they were given to me, albeit edited slightly (we all know how much historians can write…)

  1. Book you have referred to most
  2. Most thought provoking book
  3. Most Controversial Book
  4. Book you wish you had written
  5. Favourite Article

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