Reading for factual information and interpretation is essential for success on the Advanced Placement United States History Examination. In your AP class, you'll be assigned a textbook and probably a “reader” that contains a collection of documents on U.S. history or essays by historians on particular topics. Your teacher may also require you to read a monograph, write a review of two books on the same subject, or do a short research paper that will involve additional reading.
Most AP teachers use a college-level textbook in their classes. There are important differences between this text and the one assigned in a regular high school course. First, the vocabulary and style of writing is more sophisticated. College texts go into much more detail and don’t have “section reviews” or sample questions and essays at the end of each chapter. Review information is generally provided in separately published workbooks or study guides. At one time, the college text was distinguished from its high school counterpart by a lack of illustrative materials. This is no longer the case. The U.S. history textbooks in print today are filled with photographs, paintings, maps, charts, graphs, tables, and short excerpts from original sources. These are just the type of documents that come up on the AP exam. You should study the illustrations in the text as you read each assignment and go back over them after you finish a chapter.
A college-level textbook may challenge your vocabulary and understanding of metaphors. It’s a good idea to keep a dictionary handy to look up words you don’t know. The use of metaphors and idiomatic expressions make reading a textbook more interesting — as long as you understand what they mean. Take, for example, the sentence “Roosevelt’s New Deal tested the waters of innovative programs during the depression.” It doesn’t mean that FDR developed his programs by the White House swimming pool; the author’s point is that the New Deal was innovative. Don’t be afraid to bring up troublesome metaphors in class or in your study group. Chances are you won't be the only one finding the reading tough going, particularly in the beginning.
Unlike other disciplines, history has no specialized vocabulary that you must master. However, there are terms and concepts that you may not be familiar with that are important to understanding a particular period in American history — headright, nullification, carpetbagger, scalawag, steerage, flapper, Hooverville, Beat Generation. Important terms and concepts are sometimes highlighted in textbooks in italics or bold print. These terms and concepts are often included in the multiple-choice section, and you’ll be expected to know the definition and the chronological context.
Dozens of college history textbooks are on the market today. Visit a university bookstore, and browse through the texts different professors have ordered for their classes. You'll find one- volume hardbound, two-volume paperbacks, three-volume paperbacks suited for colleges on the quarter calendar, books that have gone through ten editions, texts with the same number of pages but a different number of chapters; one book covers the Depression and New Deal in a single chapter while another treats them separately. The experience may make you wonder just how many ways the history of the United States can be told!
While the essential facts of American history certainly don’t change, textbooks do become outdated rather quickly. Time marches on, and a book published in the 1970s can take the story only through the Ford administration. More important, the interpretation of the facts changes as new evidence is uncovered, different ways of analyzing evidence are developed — with computers, for example — or themes that were neglected by an earlier generation of historians are recognized as important. Every generation writes its own history. A textbook that came out in 1954 would probably be useless in helping students today understand the country’s multicultural heritage, the status of women, or environmental concerns. Such issues are not just tossed into the last chapter of the text. A fundamental rethinking may occur among historians about their impact not only on the present but also on how those issues were treated in history. Newer textbooks explore the status of minorities in the colonial period, the place of women throughout American history, and how Native Americans and pioneers interacted with the environment.
You can buy used, relatively inexpensive copies of textbooks that are just a few years old. Be aware that the previous owner probably marked up the book with marginal notes, underlining or highlighting. What one student thought was important is not necessarily what you may find important, and you don’t want to be distracted by too much scribbling. Having the books available gives you the chance to see how historians other than the author of the text your teacher assigned look at people and events. Comparing the way different historians approach the same topic or period is a good way to reinforce your understanding of American history and recall factual information. But don’t overdo it by reading three textbooks all the way through.
United States History Survey Textbooks
Here is a list of U.S. history textbooks that have proven popular with college professors and are commonly used in AP classes. Only the name of the principal author or authors and the title of the book are given. Many texts are written by three or more historians and are revised quite often. If you want to go to the expense of getting your own textbook, buy the most recent edition.
Bailey, Thomas and Kennedy, David. The American Pageant.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Great Republic: A History of the American People.
Blum, John M. The National Experience: A History of the United States.
Boyer, Paul S. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.
Current, Richard N. American History: A Survey.
Garraty, John. The American Nation: A History of the United States.
Kelley, Robert. The Shaping of the American Past.
Nash, Gary. The American People: Creating a Nation and Society.
Norton, Mary Beth. A People and a Nation.
Tindall, George B. and Shi, David E. America: A Narrative History.
Wilson, R. Jackson. The Pursuit of Liberty: A History of the American People.
How to Read a History Textbook
There’s no “right” way to read a history textbook. Here are suggestions that have proved helpful to both college and AP students.
1. Instead of jumping in and tackling your initial assignment, try to get a feel for the book first. Look over the table of contents and glance through the chapters to see how the authors organize the material. You'll notice that each chapter is divided into smaller topical sections, which makes outlining easier. Some textbooks begin a chapter with a summary of what is covered, noting important events, or include a timeline. Both are useful study aids. Next, read a chapter or two from different periods. This will give you an idea of the writing style and how the information is presented.
2. Read each assignment twice. The first time through, your goal is to get an overall view of the time period covered. The second reading is for taking notes. With the section titles as a guide, write down key points and significant concepts. You want to pay close attention when the authors discuss the causes or consequences of events, summarize the character of a period, point out different interpretations, or make comparisons between one era and another. Study any maps, statistical tables, or other illustrations during the second reading.
3. The purpose of note taking is to make it easier to review what you’ve read and to help you retain factual information. You gain nothing if you have twenty pages of notes on a twenty-page chapter. Also, make sure your notes are well organized and clear. Notes are useless if you can’t read them. It’s a good idea to type up your notes on each chapter.
4. Reread the assignments before a test to reinforce your understanding of the subject matter.
5. Many college textbooks have accompanying workbooks or student manuals. These contain suggested activities for study purposes, such as true-false questions, fill-ins, identifications, chronological arrangement, and sample essays. If your teacher isn’t making assignments out of a workbook, it may be helpful to use one on your own. Look in the textbook section of your local college bookstore; remember that the workbook you find may not be written for the book you’re reading for your AP class.