The best books to make a history buff into a history expert

Don Hollway Author Of The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada
By Don Hollway

Who am I?

As a history buff—one can never be expert enough—by looking to the past I hope to glimpse the future, but mostly to make sense of the present. Power, greed and sex have driven people since before history was written, but there have always been those willing to die for something more. What causes are worth such dedication? Who were these people who were willing to give all? I was never in the military (my contact lenses are thick as bottle caps) but I try never to write battle porn, only to tell their stories as accurately and entertainingly as I can.

I wrote...

The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada

By Don Hollway,

Book cover of The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada

What is my book about?

King Harald III (called Hardrada, the “Hard Ruler”) of Norway was a real-life fantasy hero who burst into history as a teenaged youth in a Viking battle, from which he escaped with little more than his life and a thirst for vengeance. Journey with him across the medieval world, from the frozen barrens of the North to the glittering towers of Byzantium and the passions of the Holy Land. He’ll fight for and against Christian, Muslim, and pagan rulers. He’ll bed handmaids, a princess and an empress alike, writing poetry and amassing a fortune along the way, before returning home to claim his love, his crown, and his destiny, and ultimately die like a Viking: in battle, laughing, sword in hand.

The books I picked & why

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The Vikings

By Ian Heath, Angus McBride (illustrator),

Book cover of The Vikings

Why this book?

I’m actually recommending the entire run of history books from Osprey Publishing. You’re not a history buff until you have a shelf full of Ospreys. With over 2,300 titles (and counting!) in dozens of series, there’s almost no period they don’t cover, from ancient times until recent events. Each book is profusely illustrated and incredibly detailed, yet a slim read—a quick but worthwhile introduction into their respective topic. They focus on military history, but include plenty of background info, enough to make you an instant authority on your chosen era. For The Last Viking I got an overview with The Vikings, The Varangian Guard 988–1453, and Saxon, Viking and Norman, before my deep dive into the primary Greek, Byzantine, and Scandinavian sources.

Age of Kings (Great Ages of Man)

By Charles Blitzer,

Book cover of Age of Kings (Great Ages of Man)

Why this book?

Another series. When I was a kid, Time-Life Magazines ran a kind of book club. My family had several complete sets—The Seafarers, The Old West, the Science Library. We used to joke that Time-Life Books were the source of all knowledge. 21 titles in the Great Ages of Man series cover the entire span of civilization from ancient Mesopotamia to the 20th Century, each an overview of its period. For The Last Viking I used Barbarian Europe and Byzantium, but Age of Kings is my favorite; I’ve always been fascinated by the violent, glorious 17th Century. Though long out of print, you can still buy them by the set on Amazon. Easier, though, to pick your era and purchase by the title.

P-51 Mustang in Action - Aircraft No. 211

By Larry Davis,

Book cover of P-51 Mustang in Action - Aircraft No. 211

Why this book?

I know, I know, another series. Think of it as getting thousands of recommendations for your money instead of just five.

Squadron/Signal books are aimed primarily at modelers, and ancient warfare isn’t their thing, but when it comes to 20th Century military hardware they can’t be beat. Short, easy reads, almost all photos, and captions, rightly famous for their profiles of various types. Need to know when the F-4 jet fighter finally got a built-in 20mm cannon? F-4 Phantom II in Action, pages 34–35. What’s the difference between an M1E1 and M1A1 main battle tank? M1 Abrams in Action, page 23. What’s the difference between a prototype Fokker Triplane and the production model? Fokker Dr.1 in Action, pages 7–8. 

1066: The Year of the Conquest

By David Howarth,

Book cover of 1066: The Year of the Conquest

Why this book?

This is the book that inspired my writing career. Howarth, a British officer, and spymaster during World War II, afterward wrote some of the most accessible and engaging books on British history that I’ve ever read. 1066 offers a human view of events leading up to the Norman Conquest, particularly its effect on the common people, and with a sympathetic view toward King Harold II Godwinson, whom Norman chroniclers reviled. Reading it, I just had to write my first published article, about the Battle of Hastings. Howarth wrote two more of my favorites, Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch and Waterloo: Day of Battle. When I’m writing and realize I’m getting a little dry with people, places and dates, I back off and ask myself, “How would David Howarth have written this?”

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

By Jacques Barzun,

Book cover of From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life

Why this book?

This is the big one. 912 pages, from the Protestant Reformation to the end of the 20th Century. Barzun, a French-American historian who died in 2012 just short of his 105th birthday, actually lived for about 20% of the era covered. He finished this magnum opus when he was 93, better positioned than most to lend some perspective (and as the title indicates, not optimistic). Still, with so much ground to cover, it’s amazing how much time he gives to obscure yet pivotal personalities and events—hence all those pages, cross-referenced, linking forward and back, following threads within the weave. This is not something you’re going to read in one sitting. On the other hand, open it to any random page and instantly dive back in time.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Norsemen, England, and World War 2?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Norsemen, England, and World War 2.

The Norsemen Explore 17 books about the Norsemen
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World War 2 Explore 866 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Blood Eye: A Novel (Raven: Book 1), The Viking Achievement, and Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas if you like this list.