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The History personal statement: what do I read for it?

Writing the personal statement is hard, and preparing for it is arguably harder – how do you choose from the huge range of interesting books about history out there? The OHR Editorial Team talked to two History students at Oxford to see what they’d recommend reading for a History application.

Historians on History, a collection of essays collated by John Tosh, was a staple of my personal statement. This ‘reader’ is full of short essays by eminent (albeit largely European and American) historians on the purpose of the discipline of History. 

As a philosophical year 12 pondering why we should study history, I loved how these essays gave me so many answers! The book is conveniently split into sections including ‘History for its own Sake’, ‘Political Histories’ (which made me realise that I can fall into the Whig History trap too easily), ‘Learning From History’, ‘History as Social Science’ and sections on gender, race, and social history. 

The essays by Vincent Harding and Howard Zinn strengthened my belief that I had picked the right degree. Those by Joan Wallach Scott and Gisela Bok made me want to smash the patriarchy and later became very helpful for my Approaches to History paper. The fact that A Adu Boahan’s 1975 call to decolonise African History has still not fully been heeded made me realise the miles that the discipline of History still has to travel. You may disagree with many essayists (Butterfield’s nationalist History wasn’t fun) and/or laugh at their past naivety (many present indications suggest something far from progress at the mo), but this book is a great way to get your intellectual ‘Why History?’ ball rolling.

Think ‘heterosexual’ relationships were the only state-normalised relationships in *the past*? Afsaneh Najmabadi’s brilliant Women with mustaches and men without beards : Gender and sexual anxieties of Iranian modernity will make you think again. 

Najmabadi dives into the sexual politics of Qajar Iran (1789-1925), arguing that the heterosocialisation of public space was a nineteenth-century phenomenon in Iran, somewhat resulting from what she deems a ‘European gaze’. Prior to this, Najmabadi asserts, love and desire were societally linked to ‘beauty’, rather than gender, and there was a culture of relationships between a powerful adult man and an amrad, an adolescent male without a fully visible beard. Indeed, a mukhannas was an adult man imitating an amrad, such was the extent of this adult male gaze towards adolescents. 

I won’t spoil the whole book, but Najmabadi also fascinatingly explores the implications for women of this sexual culture, including through the lens of art. This thought-provoking read shattered some of my assumed historical axioms, introduced me to new and interesting forms of historical evidence. It also shed light on an area of history I was unfamiliar with through the accessible lens of gender history and the history of sexuality. Again, Najmabadi’s argument may well be contested, but there’s a lot going on in this book and it will get you thinking!

Finally, why read E.P. Thompson’s pretty sexist The Making of the English Working Class when you could read Anna Clark’s wonderful The struggle for the breeches: gender and the making of the British working class? Ok fine, I hear you, you should read Thompson too, it’s a classic (so I’ve heard…). 

Clark refreshingly does what Thompson did not, however, and delves into the misogyny rife in Britain in the midst of 18th to 19th century industrialisation. She explores the gendered dynamics of manual work in this period and frequently detects women working in what men of the time would assert were all-male ‘skilled’ professions – from shoemaking in the home to printing, hatting and tailing in factories – much to the dismay of financially squeezed (and misogynistic) men in the challenging period after the Napoleonic Wars.

This is also a fascinating tale of working class radicalism, and the conflict between societal ideals and economic realities within marriage. Not only accessible and engaging, the well-signposted chapters mean you can focus your attention and, if you want, just read one or two plus the intro to grab a few fascinating insights.” – Hope

Hope is a second year History student at Pembroke. She loves gender history and hates military history. Fun fact: Hope has a soft spot for Thomas Cromwell. She thinks that this may have been caused by reading the Wolf Hall series by Hilary Mantel.

“I have to recommend the Very Short Introduction to History by John H. Arnold (hear me out on this one!). I read this in year 12 when preparing for a History and Politics application. It gives a great run through of different areas and approaches to history that you might see at university, such as a focus on the history of class, women, minorities, and whether to look at leaders or movements – if you find it interesting, then you’re applying for the right course! Although this might not be the book you want to put on your personal statement, I can definitely recommend reading it before interviews. In my history interview I was asked why I hadn’t written about the role of women in Russian social change (the subject of the written work I had sent in). I was already familiar with this argument because of the Short Introduction, so was able to grapple with the question a lot better and go into it feeling slightly more prepared. Interviews can be interested in seeing how much you’ve thought about history and studying it, so this is a nice starting point for you to explore different ways to look at history. 

I can’t recommend Orlando Figes’ The Europeans enough. It’s a fantastic insight into the technological and cultural changes that swept across 19th Century Europe, told through the biographies of three cosmopolitans. It gives a thorough insight into the literary, musical, technological, and cultural changes across Europe. For a personal statement or general preparation for history applications, The Europeans gives an easy starting point to consider what causes change across historical periods and how these changes should be approached in a book or essay. It’s applicable to any period or topic and you might get similar questions when writing essays at university!” – Liberty

Liberty Hunter is a second year History and Politics student at Hertford College. Their favourite area of history so far is naval history, and the history of international intelligence services!