Sunday, January 18, 2009


My Classics

I expect to get a fair amount of perturbed and maybe even P-Oed ("put out;" this is a family friendly blog) emails about this one: “You dumb ol’ hillbilly, how can you publish a list of classic amateur astronomy books, and not include Joe Shmoe’s Astronomy with a 55mm Tasco?”

No doubt this list will not reflect everybody’s favorites; it’s not intended to. These are my faves: those books that have affected my life as an amateur and beyond in a major way, those I return to time and again. The following are mostly very good books, but not always the very best books. Just because a book is not included here does not mean I don’t think it’s good, a “classic” (whatever the hell that means), worthy of bein’ read. Just that it has not had the impact on me these have, muchachos.

Come to think of it, there is probably one book I should have included but didn’t, Walter Scott Houston’s Deep Sky Wonders. I didn’t put it here because it’s a horse of a different color, a compendium of Scotty’s numinous Sky and Telescope columns that was assembled posthumously. If you don’t have stacks of old Sky and Scopes, have at it. For me, while I own the book, I prefer to pick up a well-thumbed magazine and enjoy Scotty’s work in its proper context. Be that as it may be, these here are the astronomy books, the amateur astronomy books, that have moved me over the last half-century.

All About Telescopes

If you’ve been in the amateur astronomy bidness as long as Your Old Uncle Rod has, there is no way you can’t have some familiarity with the work of Sam Brown. This author-illustrator’s drawings graced the pages of many an Edmund Scientific catalog back in amateur astronomy’s Golden Age. Most of these drawings were culled from his All About, a book that was, yep, all about telescopes. AAT (slightly updated) is still in print to this day and for good reason: not only are Sam’s drawings wonderfully evocative of an amateur astronomy and a time we will never see again, they are wonderfully descriptive. The same goes for his text; it is unadorned prose, but possessed of an unfailing ability to make you get it. Not just then, but now. When my friend Pat Rochford embarked on a mirror making crusade late in life, he found Sam’s spare words and antique pictures as helpful—or more so—than many more modern and “detailed” references. Sam belongs on your shelf for you to refer to anytime you need to know anything about telescopes whether you want to push glass or not.

Astrophotography for the Amateur

Michael Covington’s introductory imaging book is what got me back into celestial photography in the mid-90s. Like all good beginner’s amateur astronomy books, this one effortlessly takes you from square one to a point where you feel at least halfway competent and are ready to go onto more advanced endeavors. Certainly the imaging game has changed a lot in the 15 years since my edition was printed—ain’t much need for the drive corrector plans Mr. Mike included back then—but this seminal work has been fully revised to reflect the realities of the digital astro-imaging age. I haven’t read the new version yet, though I’d probably be better at CCDing today if I would, but I have no doubt that given the author’s talent the new one is every bit and good and helpful as the original.

Build Your Own Telescope

I’d no more leave Richard Berry off this list than I would David Levy or Phil Harrington. Reading their work taught me the trade of amateur astronomy writing as it should be done (some folks will probably say I should have read all their books two or three times). This little assemblage of telescope construction projects from two decades ago gets pulled down off my shelf frequently because, like all good amateur-astro books, it is more than it appears to be. In the course of describing the construction of a brace of utilitarian scopes, Richard teaches you much of what you will ever need to know about scopes, and a little bit about the art of amateur astronomy besides.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook

I get the idea that today’s class of new amateurs is not as familiar with this true, true, true classic as they ort-ta be. Maybe because the old Astronomy Book Club, gone these many years, ain’t offering the three volumes of Burnham’s for a dollar no more. I don’t care what you have to pay for this compendium of Robert Burnham’s deep sky knowledge, though, just pay it. No, this book does not contain DSOs in the numbers found in some more recent deep sky observing guides, but it has one thing they do not, Burnham’s thoughtful, poetic, ruminations on the Universe.

You may hear this book described as “outdated,” but it really is not. The only part that seems antique is the introductory matter outlining the basic facts of our Universe—knowledge about the cosmos has increased exponentially in the near five decades since the author began assembing his magnum opus. So what? The meat of the book, the constellation-by-constellation parade of DSOs, is as useful as ever. Yes, the coordinates are for Epoch 1950.0, but with near-bout ever’body usin’ DSCs and go-to rigs, I don’t reckon that is a problem much. This is a “just buy it” book.

Celestron: The Early Years

As I point out in my first SCT book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, despite being the most popular store-bought amateur scope since forever, surprisingly little has been written about SCTs. I think I rectified that in part with Choosing and Using, but we are talking about books I’ve loved, not books I sweated over. If I had to name a favorite volume amongst the few that are primarily or partially concerned with Schmidt CAT’s it would have to be Bob Piekiel’s self-published e-book, Celestron: The Early Years.

Despite the title, this book is full of information about SCTs in general, not just the early Celestron “Blue and Whites” or just Celestrons. Particularly noteworthy are the interviews with key Celestron figures, including founder Tom Johnson. Bob was wise enough to conduct detailed interviews while that was still possible. While the prose in Early Years is not as polished as that in Mssr. Piekiel’s recent Testing and Evaluating the Optics of Schmidt Cassegrain Telescopes, it has been much improved for the current revised edition of Early Years.

How to Make and Use a Telescope

This 1956 book by Sir Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkins is probably not the best Moore book for novices—or anybody else. Never revised or reprinted as far as I know, it is dated in a way only a British amateur astronomy book from the 1950s can be. That also spells c-h-a-r-m-i-n-g, of course, but times have changed almost indescribably amateur astronomy-wise since Patrick warned us away from pillar and claw scope mounts. It is included here because I am, agin, writing about my classics, not the classics. The classic Patrick Moore is probably The Amateur Astronomer (see below).

This one is in my pantheon of astro-books because it was the first amateur astronomy book I ever encountered. One sunny spring afternoon (must have been), I was browsing the stacks in my elementary school’s library, probably hunting for something like the book I’d just finished, Heinlein's Rocketship Galileo, which I’d been coerced into readin’ by my 4th grade teacher, Miss Dixon. I’d devoured it in two afternoons and a long evening under the covers with my trusty Hopalong Cassidy flashlight. I didn’t find any more Robert Heinlein in Kate Shepherd Elementary’s library, but I did find Patrick Moore, and, like the Heinlein book, this one opened up a whole new universe for Little Rod.


Subtitled “A Practical Guide to Observing the Universe” this is just that. If there is a better introduction to amateur astronomy for beginners, I do not know what it is. Since 1983, Canadian amateur astronomer/writer/educator Terrance Dickinson has been doin’ a fine job of initiating the newbies with this generous-size trade paperback. While I wasn’t a beginner back in the early 90s when my sister-in-law, Pam, bought me a copy as a gift, I enjoyed it nevertheless, and have found myself referring to it on a regular basis over the intervening years. Is it perfect? No. I’m not sure the charts are detailed enough for use with even a beginner’s scope. On the other hand, the book is spiral bound, so it will lay flat on the observing table, meaning the maps may be more useful than some more poorly bound if more star-filled charts.

Norton’s Star Atlas

Yeah, I know I semi-panned Arthur Norton’s great work a few blogs back. And I stand by my criticisms: there are too few stars to make this a tool for productive deep sky delving, the earlier editions identify many objects with their cryptic Herschel designations instead of NGC numbers, and the charts are on the way-too-small size. Nevertheless, Norton’s has its strengths, especially for the binocular/grab ‘n go scope crowd. If small, the charts are insanely legible, all the showpieces are there, and, wonder of wonders, the book opens flat (the original, not the recent redo by Ian Ridpath).

Most of all, though, this is one of my classics because it fostered my first steps out into The Great Out There. Yeah, it wasn’t too long before I was saving nickels and dimes for Skalnate Pleso, but it was Arthur Norton who put me on the road to a lifetime’s enjoyment. Guess what else? The text/reference material that makes up the bulk of Norton’s pages is not only a fun read for its antiquarian appeal; some of it is still genuinely useful. Much of it, as a matter of fact. Add to that one of the better quick- reference Moon maps around and, while I will not insist you get ahold of an old edition, I will say you will find uses for one if one comes your way.

Observing Handbook and Catalog of Deep Sky Objects

Before there was a Night Sky Observer’s Guide, there was this single volume by Brian Skiff and Christian Luginbuhl. I don’t know much about Mr. L.—though I believe I’ve learned how to spell his name correctly—but I do know something about his co-author. Brian Skiff is a most knowledgeable “professional-amateur” (he works at Lowell Observatory). If you want to know something about a deep sky object, Brian can likely tell you, often off the top of his head. This book, where he does just that, was out of print for a while, but is, thankfully, now back (in the form of "print on demand" for almost 100 bucks). While not as fancy as the Night Sky Observer’s Guide (illustrations are few), it more than makes up for that in its accuracy and erudition. I’ve been recommending this one for years, and recently have begun building object-lists based on the book for use with the Deepsky observing planner software.


Herbert Zim’s humble little Golden Guide (originally from Golden Books) did at least as much as Patrick Moore’s books to feed the amateur astronomy fire in my belly when I was the greenest of green sprouts. Like Golden's similar Sky Observer’s Guide, Zim’s little paperback is profusely illustrated (by James Irving), and, like all successful books that are at least partially aimed at younguns, the author does not talk down to his readers, but just communicates—very successfully—the beauty and mystery of the Universe. I still like to browse through Stars nearly 50 years after I received a copy as a gift at a church Christmas party Mama coerced me into attending. Unlike many similarly beloved books of my lost youth, this one seems as good and helpful as ever. Unfortunately, it is now out of print, but is easily available from Abebooks.

A Field Guide to Stars and Planets

Jay Pasachoff’s entry in Peterson’s Field Guide series is a perennial with me. I don’t always buy the periodic new editions, but I buy ‘em often enough. Why is they-at? Stars and Planets is like Zim’s Stars, but for adult amateurs. That means “deliciously good.” Everything you need to find out in a hurry, whether you are inside or outside, is in here, from Moon maps to a Messier list and everything in between. One of the book’s major draws has always been its set of charts done by the inimitable Wil Tirion. Despite their small size (Stars and Planets is a thick paperback), they are still usable and legible and lovely to look at. Well, they are legible for you younguns, I reckon. I found I could no longer decipher them under a dim red light after I hit 40. Anyhoo, despite being a professional, Dr. Pasachoff must have the heart of an amateur—he sure knows how to put together a great amateur astronomy book.

Star Ware

If I’ve had a role model in the book writing biz, it has been Phil Harrington. Not that I aspire to copy Phil’s style (though any writer could do worse); it’s more that Phil’s books and, in particular his equipment guide/opus, Star Ware, show exactly what an amateur astronomy book should be. Like the rest of his work, SW is clearly written, all inclusive, and, thanks to the author’s persistence and dedication, continually updated (it’s now in its 4th Edition). I have all the editions of this in-depth reference to commercial scopes and accessories on my shelf right next to Sam Brown. Much as I love Sam, I probably use Star Ware more.

The Amateur Astronomer

What? Two Patrick Moore books? Hail yeah. Not only am I a long-time fan and admirer, if it weren’t for this man I probably wouldn’t have become an amateur at all. I could easily have listed ten Moore books here. Along with Nightwatch, Sir Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer is what I recommend more than anything else to novices. While it is a bit denser and more aimed at adult beginners than the Dickinson book, any teenager will love it. Heck, I know I did (it was first published in 1957). It’s still in print after 12 editions, and a quick browse shows why: The Amateur Astronomer is written in Patrick’s signature breezy but information-packed style and is both a joy to read and a real help for beginners. While the book has been revised of late, I expect the new one, like the 1990 edition on my library shelf, is still, like Patrick himself, oriented more toward the Solar System and other “traditional” amateur pursuits than it is toward hardcore deep sky. But that’s OK. And how.

The Amateur Astronomer’s Catalog of 500 Deep Sky Objects

Ron Morales’ 1986 book seems to be an obscure one, but I don’t know why. Its list of 500 “best of the best” objects for amateur observation is in my opinion better than most of the more famous works of this type. Why? Not just because of the author’s wise deep sky object choices, but because of the notes that go with the objects. Rarely have I found DSO descriptions that are, well, more descriptive (and succinct) than these. While the list is the main attraction here, there is other good stuff too, like observing logbook page templates that are so excellent I am still using the ones I patterned after Ron’s dang near twenty years ago (made ‘em on a newfangled Mac Plus computer). My copy of “500” is getting’ awful dog-eared, so it’s a Good Thing it is still in print.

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide

There will never be another Burnham’s, but George Kepple and Glen Sanner’s three-volume “NSOG” comes as close to that as we are likely to get. Yeah, the book lacks the philosophical musings, but who really needs that on the observin’ field at 3am? Burnham’s is a book you sit with by a roaring fire on a winter’s eve, bottle of whiskey at your side, as you assemble deep sky “want lists” while waiting for the sky to clear; Kepple-Sanner is a book for the observing table. It may not have the pretty prose of Burnham’s, but the NSOG makes up for that with many, many more objects. What we down here call “a slew.” It also includes finder charts and images for many of its multitudinous DSOs. I used to pine for a New Burnham’s. Since the coming of NSOG, I don’t do that anymore. Well, not much.

The Sky a User’s Guide

Sure there’s gonna be a David Levy book here. How could there not be? I admire David as an amateur, a teacher, and a man, but most of all as a writer. I could have inserted any one of his (30+ at last count) books, but I’ve always liked this one from the last decade. Ostensibly it is a beginner’s guide to the night sky and the sights therein, but I pull it down often—it’s got plenty of easily located and valuable information presented in David’s unfailingly friendly and lucid prose. Think of this as David’s The Amateur Astronomer, but with more of a slant toward the deep sky than Sir Patrick’s famous book. I’m not sure whether it is technically still in print, but it is readily available from Amazon at prices that are way too low to be reflective of its value.

Personal Note:

Last week a rumor began spreading on a couple of Internet groups that Your Old Uncle had suffered a serious and debilitating stroke. Thankfully, that is not the case. I ain’t even sick. Well, I ain’t ill, anyhow. The docs are of the opinion that I am beginning to fall apart, but not completely—at least not yet. My current health is as good as my way-too-wild youth allows it to be.

I had not heard your health was in doubt. Glad I am that it isn't, and you are your usual rascally self!
I have several of the books you listed as well, and Phil Harrington is about my favorite. Because of him I now own my sweet 6" SCT and the CG-5ASGT.
David Levy writes it like he lives it, and is all the more compelling because of it.
There may be a third on my list yet, but I haven't gotten home yet to read your new book!
Live large, friend.
Well, there goes that Amazon gift certificate I got for Christmas! Seriously, thanks for the recommendations. Keep 'em coming--if this is your list of your personal favorites, "but not always the very best", then what are the very best books right now?
I'm about halfway through Starlight Nights, and I think it will be one of my very favorite books of all time, so thanks for the recommendation. Reading it makes me grateful to have grown up on a farm, and sad that I didn't get into astronomy while I still lived there.
Starlight Nights is probably my all-time favorite book. It captures a time, a place, and a passion that connects with me each time I read it. Stars by Herbert Zim was one of my favorite books as a kid growing up in the '50s. Loved the illustrations. Pitched even younger than Stars was Fun with Astronomy by Mae and Ira Freeman. Hardly a classic, it nonetheless ignited an interest in astronomy that is now closing in on six decades.
Choosing and Using an SCT is up there on my list. When ever the SCT bashers get to me I love to re-read it, and remind myself of why I bought a cat in the first place. And I was plesantly surprised with Choosing and Using a New Cat! Very nice job,
Glad to see it's more than just a minor update and a new cover. Well done Rod, and keep em coming.

P.S. Nice to see an updated picture of you.
Just finished Starlight Nights, and loved it. Hoo boy, we are spoiled! For three and a half years Leslie Peltier's only telescope was a 2-inch spyglass mounted on a fencepost, but he was out using it every clear night, made thousands of variable star observations with it, and most importantly was grateful for the opportunity to do so. Also funny how perceptions change. After using the f/18 spyglass for years Peltier described a 6" f/8 refractor as an optically "fast" comet-catcher. After looking through my 6" f/8 XT6, some of the big dob drivers in my club commented on how good the planetary views were "through a long focal length scope like that".

I have resolved to spend less time this year drooling over scope catalogs and more time fine-tuning and using--gratefully--the hardware I've got.

Top book, and thanks again for the recommendation!
I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this post, because you provided a picture of the book that captivated my imagination about space when I was a kid in the 50s. One of my uncles had this book, and I would spend hours perusing it; long before Gully Foyle, the stars were my destination in my own mind. Thanks again.
HI Matthew...glad I was able to bring back some pleasant memories. :-)
FYI, I just found out Ronald J. Morales passed away. Here's the link: Steve Gottlieb on CN confirmed that this is actually the veteran deep-sky observer. His book was one of the publications that nurtured my interest in DSO observing in the 1980s. Sad to see another veteran observer pass.
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