When I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents took me to a planetarium. Planetariums are theaters that use large projectors to display stars and planets overhead on a darkened dome. The lights went down, I settled into my plush seat, and the show began.
I was amazed as diamond-like star projections of constellations moved across the dome, recreating the sky from sunset to sunrise in just 30 minutes. The lecturer pointed out star patterns (Ursa Major, Cygnus, Draco…) and projected over them images of the animals (a bear, a swan, a dragon…) they represented. It made them easy to remember. By the time the show ended, I was hooked.
In the gift shop outside the planetarium, I bought my first astronomy book — a Golden Nature Guide titled “Stars.” More than 40 years later, I still have it.
That book and $20 telescope from the local department store made up my entire astronomy kit until I got to college and had access to better telescopes. That was when I learned that trying to use a toy telescope on a shaky table underneath a street light had been an iffy plan. But the book was great. It still is.
“Stars: A Guide to the Constellations, Sun, Moon, Planets and Other Features of the Heavens” was originally published in 1951. Written by Herbert S. Zim and Robert H. Baker, it features 150 illustrations by James Gordon Irving. The book has exactly the information promised in its subtitle and provides plenty of text and information, more than enough to satisfy any budding astronomer who wants to curl up with a interesting book.
Think of this book as an overview to the topic of astronomy. Sure it has star maps, but there are better books for finding your way around the sky. But don’t hold that against it. The maps are small because this handy book is sized to fit into your pocket.
My copy cost me $1.50, which turned out to be a real bargain given how long I have used it. On the downside, the charts printed in it only go through 1970. But I was able to find the information and update some of the charts by hand for 1974-1976.
The highly successful Golden Guide series of books was out of business for awhile, but has come back, so this book is still available. It has been updated, but some reviewers still say it is no longer as accurate as it should be. Perhaps in a future post we’ll get a copy and see what has changed. But I know the stars haven’t changed (and we’ve only lost one planet!) so it is hard for me to imagine this not still being a handy introduction to the night skies.
You’ll add other great books to your astronomy bookshelf over time, but “Stars” is a great place to get started.