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

The Books I Picked & Why

The Vikings

By Ian Heath, Angus McBride

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.


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Age of Kings (Great Ages of Man)

By Charles Blitzer

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.


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P-51 Mustang in Action - Aircraft No. 211

By Larry Davis

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. 


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1066: The Year of the Conquest

By David Howarth

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?”


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

By Jacques Barzun

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.


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