HIST 199: Directed Reading with Prof. O’Keefe

We gave one assignment to Tim O’Keefe this spring: Give us a list of books that you wish every Santa Clara student would read before picking up their sheepskin. “In terms of European history, which is what I’ve been involved in, where do you start?” O’Keefe mused. Nevertheless, he started.

The Peloponnesian War


“To more or less paraphrase Thucydides himself: While events don’t repeat themselves in history, human nature doesn’t change, so there is value in studying the past. His is a brilliant study of the past and the human beings that were involved in that conflict. He’s so insightful about the way in which human beings treat each other and think of themselves, their own piece of property, and their systems of government.”

The Divine Comedy


“It would probably be my desert island book.”

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville

“I don’t teach American history and I have never assigned this for class. But especially for Americans, it’s an extremely valuable piece.”

The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“My favorite novel of all time—because of its introspective element, the defining of the characters and the interplay, the bond of family, the culture in which the story is set, and the details in which it’s augmented over and over again till you almost feel that you’re inside that culture drinking the champagne and dancing wildly.”

Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler

“It is about what a totalitarian state does to its victims. But even more than that, it is about the mentality of somebody who was an architect of that totalitarian institution—and then turns into a victim with the purges.”

Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi

“You can’t read this without coming to grips with real evil as it manifested itself during the lifetime of people like me.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh

“Such an important book—the fundamental piece of epic literature. It raises the questions that are brought up again in The Iliad and in Virgil’s Aeneid. It is such a seminal book in so many different ways; it’s one I wish everybody could read and, while they’re reading it, think about these very modern situations that are being addressed in terms of defense, hatred, love, change within the society, dealing with death. These are things that were pondered 2,000 years before the birth of Christ by a people in the area that we are now making a wasteland of with war.”

And then …

“It’s tempting to say they should read some Thomas Aquinas … but Thomas doesn’t have a big group following. In terms of historical understanding, religion, and ethics, that is important. Aristotle’s Politics, and many of the dialogues of Plato— The Republic, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, even The Meno and The Ion—address questions that force people to try to come to grips with what justice means: how you define it, how you achieve it.”

A couple more favorite books:
The Stripping of the Altars

Eamon Duffy

“A brilliant reinterpretation of late medieval religion and the Reformation in England.”

With the Old Breed

E.B. Sledge

“A U.S. Marine’s account of WWII in the Pacific and perhaps the best memoir of that war.”


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