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Which Astronomy Books Are Best?

Gift Giving for Holidays

By Dennis Mammana- One of the most common questions I get around the holiday gift-giving season is this: “Which is the best book to buy for someone just getting started in stargazing?”

Check out H.A. Rey’s star groupings in the book “The Stars” this week

I wish it were that easy, and the fact is, I have no answer! Unfortunately, there is no best book, any more than there’s a best car, computer or brand of root beer. So much depends on your previous knowledge and experience, age, budget and preferences about what kind of book works for you. Instead, let me suggest that you visit your local library or bookstore, sit on the floor in the astronomy section and begin flipping through all the books that capture your eye. That’s what I do.

Whether you’re an experienced astronomer or just beginning, there are a few classics that should be on the shelves of every stargazer.

The book I’d recommend perhaps more than any other isn’t even an astronomy book but rather an autobiography of one of the great amateur astronomers of the 20th century. And if you were to ask me which book I’d choose for spending the rest of my life on an isolated desert isle, I’d say this one.

“Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer” by Leslie C. Peltier captures the excitement and romance of stargazing like no other book I’ve ever read. When folks ask why anyone would take up a hobby such as astronomy, I always point them in the direction of this book.
I try to read it once a year or so, just to remind myself why I fell in love with the subject … and wind up falling in love with it all over again.

Another is a three-volume set titled “Burnham’s Celestial Handbook,” a remarkable reference work compiled by Robert Burnham Jr. If you’ve ever pondered the detailed history and cultural influences of the stars and constellations, you will easily lose yourself in this wonderful set. In fact, I originally discovered many of the historical tidbits I write in this column in Burnham’s rich tome.

For help locating outlines of the constellations, you might try “The Stars,” a classic book by H.A. Rey. In it, Rey takes the “classical” constellations and creates new — and some might say easier — outlines for beginning stargazers. Keep in mind, of course, that it’s often helpful just to make up your own stellar figures.

If you’re interested in some of the unconventional ideas that people believe about the universe around us, check out Philip C. Plait’s “Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax.'” And, believe me, there’s no shortage of these.

To keep up with current astronomical discoveries and other amateur activities around the world, you should certainly check out the two major monthly periodicals. While they cover the same material, “Sky & Telescope” is slanted slightly toward the technically oriented amateur, with more information on research projects, telescope building, computer and photographic hardware and software, etc., and “Astronomy” handles more of the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

Just as with books, I recommend you look over a few issues at your local library or bookstore before subscribing.

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