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Dead Wake

This year’s best books were full of heartfelt romances, weary travels, and through-provoking questions about our society. As 2015 comes to a close, EW will roll out gift guides for the very specific bookworms in your life. (Take a look at what to get teens, pop culture obsessives, and those who love huge epics.) Next up, here’s what to get for history buffs.

Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Why? Larson cemented his place as America’s premiere historical novelist with works like The Devil in the White City, but he swung fully over to the “history” side for this riveting new account of the Lusitania sinking that launched America’s entrance into World War I. New accounts of this iconic incident abounded in the year of its hundredth anniversary, but Larson’s characteristic attention to minute details and interesting stories elevates this one above the rest.

Where to buy it: Amazon

Jane Smiley, Last Hundred Years trilogy

Why? Using one family to tell a historic epic is one of the oldest (and greatest) tricks in the literary book. Here, the prolific Smiley proves that the form has not dulled one bit. Her year-by-year chronicle of the Langdon family over three tomes (Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age) impressionistically portrays the changes (both small and sweeping) that buffeted America over the last century.

Where to buy it: Amazon

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

Why? One of the best things about reading history is the way it upsets concepts we take for granted by showing us their complicated origins. Even our concept of nature itself has an origin story, as Wulf demonstrates through her account of extraordinary explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose name still adorns several American counties. Humboldt’s journeys showed him commonalities across the globe, and helped him realize that nature was an autonomous global force that did not just exist to serve humans. Wulf reconstructs both his outsized life and the influence he had on contemporaries like Charles Darwin.

Where to buy it: Amazon

Andrea Mays, The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

Why? In the day of torrents and PDFs and Kindles, it’s sometimes hard to remember the unique allure that rare books once held for obsessive collectors. Here, Mays recreates one of the most influential rare book pursuits in history: Gilded Age oilman Henry Folger’s ceaseless quest for copies of the so-called “First Folio,” the original collection of William Shakespeare’s plays. The tense auctions and high-money gambles detailed here had massive effects on Shakespeare scholarship that continue to this day.

Where to buy it: Amazon

Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

Why? The historic Oregon Trail is probably best-known these days for the eponymous video game and its famous proclamation that “you have died of dysentery.” In fact, the real Oregon Trail was the main pipeline of the westward migration that changed America forever. By retracing the historic Oregon Trail with his brother and their dog, Buck rescues it from 8-bit purgatory and brings it back to life in majestic, panoramic glory.

Where to buy it: Amazon