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

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Vikings

Don Hollway Why did I love 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.

By Ian Heath, Angus McBride (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Vikings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this worthy addition to the Elite series, Ian Heath transports us to the time of the Vikings examining their epic journeys and the ships they made them in, their methods of warfare - the organisation of their armies and tactics employed, their appearance and equipment and the general history of these fascinating warrior-explorers. His authoritative text is backed by many fine illustrations and photographs including 12 stunning full colour plates by Angus McBride, one of the world's most respected military artists.


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

Don Hollway Why did I love 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.

By Charles Blitzer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Age of Kings (Great Ages of Man) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sketches the traits of the 17th century and its strengths and weaknesses


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

Don Hollway Why did I love 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. 

By Larry Davis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked P-51 Mustang in Action - Aircraft No. 211 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The P-51 Mustang was one of the most outstanding aircraft developed by the Allies during World War II. Indeed it combined the finest powerplant developed in Great Britain with the best airframe developed by American engineers. The Mustang could climb much faster than the Japanese Zero and out dive any Axis planes. It had no equal in terms of range. P-51s accounted for the destruction of more than 9,000 Luftwaffe aircraft with a loss of slightly more than 2,500 Mustangs, a ratio of almost 4 to 1. And that was just against the Germans! Dozens of period photographs from around…


Book cover of 1066: The Year of the Conquest

Don Hollway Why did I love 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?”

By David Howarth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1066 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The year 1066 is one of the most important dates in the history of the Western world: the year William the Conqueror defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings and changed England and the English forever.

The events leading to-and following-this turning point in history are shrouded in mystery. Distorted by the biased accounts written by a subjugated people, many believe it was the English who ultimately won the battle, since the Normans became assimilated into the English way of life.

Drawing on a wealth of contemporary sources, David Howarth gives us memorable portraits of the kings: Edward the…


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

Don Hollway Why did I love 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.

By Jacques Barzun,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked From Dawn to Decadence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A stunning five-century study of civilization's cultural retreat."  — William Safire, New York Times

Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500.

Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaissance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have…


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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Interested in the Norsemen, Vikings, and Norse mythology?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Norsemen, Vikings, and Norse mythology.

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