Readers, or anthologies, are books designed to supplement textbooks by providing students with a variety of perspectives on significant topics in American history. There are two types of readers. The first is a collection of source materials and may include official documents such as laws, treaties, and Supreme Court decisions as well as selections from diaries and journals, travel accounts, memoirs, speeches, and other contemporary records. Source readers give AP students the chance to work with documents similar to those that appear on the DBQ.
The second type of reader contains article-length essays by historians that offer either different interpretations of important issues in American history — for example, the causes of the Civil War and the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan — or studies on a particular subject. These interpretive readers help students understand why and how historians disagree.
Readers in United States History
The following readers are easily available at college bookstores or libraries. They are usually published in two-volume paperback editions that cover the period through Reconstruction and from Reconstruction to the present.
Bailey, Thomas A. and David Kennedy, eds. The American Spirit.
Boiler, Paul F. and Ronald Story, eds. A More Perfect Union: Documents in U.S. History. Commager, Henry S. and Milton Cantor, eds. Documents of American History. Hofstadter, Richard, ed. Great Issues in American History.
Problems in American Civilization. This series of pamphlets from D. C. Heath Company presents various interpretations of particular historical problems by prominent historians. The selections are taken from published articles and books.
American Problem Studies. Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, this series is very similar to the Heath pamphlets. Each has about a dozen reprinted articles presenting differing points of view. Both series approach a topic as an “either-or” question, “The Cold War: Rivalry or Morality?” for example. Topics in American Problem Studies include the American Revolution, ethnic/racial groups, the Civil War, and the Progressive Era.
Cords, Nicholas and Patrick Gerster, eds. Myth and the American Experience.
Davis, Allen F. and Harold D. Woodman, eds. Conflict and Consensus in Modern American History.
Fine, Sidney and Gerald S. Brown, eds. The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues.
Frazier, Thomas R., ed. The Underside of American History.
Nash, Gary B. and Thomas Frazier, eds. The Private Side of American History.
Nash, Gary B. and Ronald Schultz, eds. Retracing the Past: Readings in the History of the American People.
Quint, Howard H., ed. Main Problems in American History.
The Monograph and Historical Series
Historians do research to contribute new information to the body of knowledge that constitutes history. This research is based on primary sources — personal papers and records of organizations, interviews with participants in events (oral history), and, increasingly, quantitative data. The materials that historians rely on may be scattered in archives and libraries across the country, ranging from the local historical society to the National Archives in Washington. D.C. Scholars working in twentieth-century American history will probably visit one of the presidential libraries, which document the administration of every president since Herbert Hoover. The product of this specialized research on a particular topic is known as a monograph. More often than not. these books don’t wind up on the best-seller list. Historians have been accused of focusing their attention on very narrow topics, mainly of interest to other historians rather than the general public.
Monographs that are part of a historical series are written for a wider audience. While such books usually don’t represent original research, they are “state-of-the-art” works that bring together the expertise of the historian and the most recent scholarship on a subject. One of the most famous efforts is Harper and Row’s (now HarperCollins) New American Nation series. This is a basic history of the United States divided into several dozen monographs written by historians specializing in each topic. The “New” series succeeded the original “American Nation” series published in the early twentieth century. Some of these volumes still make worthwhile reading if only because they reflect how an earlier generation of historians viewed American history.
Other important historical series are:
Chicago History of American Civilization (University of Chicago Press): Approaches American history both chronologically and topically; individual volumes deal with specific periods and cover particular topics.
Library of American Biography (HarperCollins): Follows a “life and times” approach to American history from the colonial period to the present.
AP teachers often assign a history monograph or require a book review of an outside reading. A monograph not only provides you with a much more detailed picture of an aspect of American history than the textbook but also gives you an idea how historians handle evidence, organize the narrative, and present arguments. On a smaller scale, these are important elements for high scores on the DBQ and standard essays. A book review is an excellent writing assignment that helps you think critically about what you read. Look over the reviews in such journals as the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History. You’ll see immediately that a review is not a summary of what the book is about; it’s a concise analysis of the author’s thesis and how well he or she supports it.
Reading a History Monograph
There is a select list of monographs for each time period covered in the Overview of United States History. Your textbook also has bibliographies or suggestions for further reading. Reading a monograph is different from reading a textbook; the puipose is to understand the interpretation rather than to collect factual information. Here are a few hints that should help:
1. Identify the author’s thesis first. Historians usually state what they’re trying to prove in the introduction or preface and restate it along with their conclusions in the last chapter.
2. Go over the table of contents and skim through the chapters to get a sense of the organization. Does the author take a chronological or topical approach to the subject? The footnotes and bibliography will tell you whether the book is a product of original research, presumably presenting new information, or a synthesis of the work of other historians.
3. Once you understand the thesis and organization, read the entire book and take notes on the main points. Does the author review what other historians have said on the topic or explain why his or her approach is different? What are the arguments the author uses to support the thesis ? What subjects are covered in depth?
4. Just as with a textbook, your notes should be clear and, above all, concise.