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Best history books 2023: Must-read titles for history lovers

From prehistoric times to post-war politics, these are our pick of the best history books available now

There’s nothing better than a great history book. With the entirety of human history and beyond to discover, historians worldwide have long delivered beautifully crafted accounts of humanity, war and everything in between. Whether you’re a bona fide historian or a newbie, there’s never been a better time to pick up one of the best history books on the market. Our nine-strong list below is only the tip of the iceberg that is the volume of historical knowledge on offer today.

We’ve included fiction, autobiographies and first-hand accounts written by revered historians and Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether you’re into spy thrillers, social histories or epic war tales, choose from the titles handpicked by our editors to keep you turning the page for hours on end.

Amazon has a multitude of titles on offer, including all those listed below, for competitive prices. However, the majority of books below are also available from most major online retailers and local bookshops. And if physical copies of books aren’t your bag, we’ve also provided links to download electronic copies of each title via Amazon’s Kindle platform.

There isn’t much that you need to know before buying one of the best history books. So, pop the kettle on, hunker down with a brew and peruse our selection of the best history books to see what piques your interest.

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Best history books: At a glance

The best history books to buy

1. A History of Britain by Simon Schama: The best book on British history

Price: £17 – £20 (Three volumes, all paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

Simon Schama’s sweeping epic A History of Britain is bursting at the seams with historical detail, so much so that it comes in three separate volumes: At the Edge of the World; The British Wars and The Fate of Empire. Charting over 5,000 years of British history, from ancient times through the Roman invasion and right up to the 21st century, Schama’s trilogy stands tall as one of the best narrative histories of the British Isles ever written. The celebrated accompanying TV series, which brings the gifted storyteller’s masterwork to life, is also available from Amazon on DVD for just over £33.

Key specs – Length: 416 pages (vol. 1), 448 (vols. 2 & 3); Publisher: BBC Books (vol. 1), Bodley Head (vols. 2 & 3); First published: 25 Oct 2000 (vol. 1), 17 Oct 2001 (vol. 2), 18 Dec 2002 (vol. 3); Digital formats: Kindle vol. 1, vol. 2 & vol. 3 (£10-£11)

2. Stalingrad by Antony Beevor: The best history book on WWII

Price: £7.69 (Paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

The definitive account of the infamous campaign that proved to be the turning point on World War II’s Eastern Front, Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad is a compelling, harrowing narrative of the eponymous battle. With masterful skill, Beevor intertwines the much-documented decision-making processes of WWII’s most famous generals with chilling first-hand accounts by soldiers on the ground, from both a Russian and a German perspective. At 544 pages in length, you’ll find yourself unable to put Stalingrad down; and once you do, you certainly won’t forget it.

Key specs – Length: 544 pages; Publisher: Penguin; First published: 1 Jul 1998; Digital formats: Kindle (£6)

3. Catastrophe by Max Hastings: The best history book on WWI

Price: £11 (Paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

Published on the 100th anniversary of the eve of the Great War, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe chronicles Europe’s descent from relative prosperity to the grim reality of trench warfare, all in the space of a single year: 1914. Acclaimed historian Hastings breathes new life into the accepted historical theory that Austria and Germany were principally to blame for the outbreak of WWI, before going into illuminating detail on the battles that defined the first year of one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. Catastrophe recounts the beginnings of an extremely complex conflict with sumptuous ease, and for that reason alone it’s worth a read (or two).

Key specs – Length: 672 pages; Publisher: William Collins; First published: 12 Sep 2013; Digital formats: Kindle (£6)

4. SPQR by Mary Beard: The best book on Roman history

Price: £7.69 (Paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

You may recognise Mary Beard from one of her numerous TV appearances on the BBC – the Cambridge classicist is widely regarded as one of the leading voices currently working in the field of Roman history. SPQR, the Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller, is Beard’s most renowned written work, covering more than 1,000 years of history to shine a new light on the reasons ancient Roman culture still captivates us to this day. It’s the definitive account of the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, the Romans’ abbreviation for the name of their state from which this brilliantly written book takes its title.

Key specs – Length: 623 pages; Publisher: Profile Books; First published: 19 Oct 2015; Digital formats: Kindle (£4.27)

5. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: The best book on natural history

Price: £7.69 (Paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

Billed as the self-proclaimed “biggest popular science book of the 21st century”, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is the product of a true master at work. American author Bryson has a gift for making complicated subject matter seem remarkably simple, and in arguably his most famous book he confronts his greatest challenge: to answer the existential questions that humans have long posed about the universe and ourselves. Despite the gravity of such a topic, Bryson’s wit, charm and wry sense of humour are enough to keep any reader engaged through each of the book’s 672 pages.

Key specs – Length: 672 pages; Publisher: Black Swan; First published: 6 May 2006; Digital formats: Kindle (£7)

6. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela: The best historical autobiography

Price: £11 (Paperback) | Buy now from Amazon

An absolutely essential read, much of Long Walk to Freedom is a secretly written reflection of legendary South African leader Nelson Mandela’s innermost thoughts during his grueling 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island during the apartheid era. Throughout almost 800 pages, Mandela reveals the man behind the myth, while also showing the reader what it takes to transcend politics and become one of the great modern leaders of our time. At once tragic, uplifting and enthralling, Long Walk to Freedom is one of the most life-affirming books you’ll ever read.

Key specs – Length: 784 pages; Publisher: Abacus; First published: 1 Oct 1995; Digital formats: Kindle (£7)

7. The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan: The best book for an ambitious reimagining of modern history

Price: £12.79 | Buy now from Amazon

Contrary to our existing western-centric biases, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads reframes world history from the point of view of those living in Eastern Europe and beyond. In the age of division catalyzed by Brexit and Trump, this major reassessment of everything we thought we knew focuses instead on the strengthening of ties and co-operation being established. Following the success of The Silk Roads, Frankopan has also written a sequel, The New Silk Roads, which follows a similar theme set against the backdrop of modern day geopolitics.

Key specs – Length: 656 pages; Publisher: Bloomsbury; First published: 1 Jun 2016; Digital formats: Kindle (£5.89)

8. The Empire Project by John Darwin: The best history book on the British Empire

Price: £19.49 | Buy now from Amazon

In The Empire Project, Oxford historian John Darwin offers a detailed yet highly readable overarching history of the final 140 years of the British Empire. Whether you’re a scholar or a casual reader, there’s something for everyone in this book that analyses the three main driving forces of Britain’s global status throughout the 19th and 20th centuries: cultural, commercial and military hegemony. Widely regarded as one of the most important books ever written on the subject, the themes explored in The Empire Project are still as relevant today as they were at the time of its original 2009 release.

Key specs – Length: 816 pages; Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First published: 24 Sep 2009; Digital formats: Kindle (£13)

9. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: The best funny history book

Price: £6.30 | Buy now from Amazon

Okay, I’ll admit that this entry isn’t technically a history book, but few factual histories have ever captured the madness of war quite so eloquently as Joseph Heller’s classic 1961 satire Catch-22. Widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written, Catch-22 follows protagonist Yossarian as he goes to any length possible to avoid being killed during the closing months of World War II. Despite the seemingly grave subject matter, Catch-22 provides a laugh a minute as Yossarian attempts to evade his nemesis Colonel Cathcart’s orders to fulfil what he sees as our hero’s military duty. A true cornerstone of American literature, and not one to be missed.

Key specs – Length: 544 pages; Publisher: Vintage Classics; First published: 10 Nov 1961; Digital formats: Kindle (£6)

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