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Time Life Books: the Seafarers (22 Volume Set) Hardcover – 1990
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My only thought is that the history covered by the volumes end around 1960. Perhaps someday Time Life will add to this set with volumes about the rise of post-war recreational boating, the modern naval vessels (such as the nuclear carriers, hydrofoils, hovercraft, amphibious assault ships, etc), the cargo container ship (world trade) revolution, and the exploration of the sea (oceanography, fishing, and oil), and a volume of the future of the sea.
The volumes are uniformly well written, and very tightly formatted: 170 pages each, with loads of illustrations, so each book is a quick and enjoyable read. Almost every book includes a detailed schematic of an example ship, and some of the schematics are fold-outs.
My first introduction to the set was The Frigates -- excellent writing about a crucial but little-know piece of American history. After that, I was hooked. My other favorites were Fighting Sail, The Armada, The Racing Yachts, and The U-Boats. The weakest books are The Luxury Yachts and The Great Liners (although Liners has the best schematic in the whole series, a gorgeous four-page fold-out of the Normandie). The early histories -- Ancient Mariners, Pacific Navigators, and Vikings, are fascinating reading, too.
Got the bug for nautical history? You've read O'Brian or Forester, and want to know more about the ships and the background? Grab this set (or those volumes of it that interest you) and set sail!