The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin
An original history of man’s greatest adventure: his search to discover the world around him. In the compendious history, Boorstin not only traces man’s insatiable need to know, but also the obstacles to discovery and the illusion that knowledge can also put in our way. Covering time, the earth and the seas, nature and society, he gathers and analyzes stories of the man’s profound quest to understand his world and the cosmos.
As readers saw in a previous post focusing on the new year’s reading challenge, I’ve got a list of 21 – to match the year – and one is actually a re-read: Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself. I first read it as a teenager stuck on an international flight, having been previously drawn to the work by what might be one of the greatest covers ever, showing The Flammarion Engraving.
One of my favorite sections—if not the favorite—was that which discussed how long-ago people perceived time and the methods they used to divide it up, the work covering calendars and their evolution as well as timepieces eventually taking shape as the watches we know today. But all those stories in between, of lives within which lived obsessions, disappointment and jealously-guarded secrets—these and the people who lived all of it were such a source of fascination for me I simply couldn’t put it down and have gone back to it time and again.
Still, there is a lot I’ve forgotten, which I have learned from many others reads is often because I wasn’t quite ready for all the information at the time I first took it in. Subsequently, I hear about a particular topic, not always recalling that I’d read about it in this or that book. Then, if I am lucky enough to be able to re-read a book I loved the first time, I might happen upon that idea again, marveling at how knowledge of it had been resting in my brain, waiting for that further expansion to breathe more life into it. This doesn’t mean the long-ago read was written poorly, just that sometimes information has to be shaped like clay to take more a substantive form in my mind, to be retained and utilized.
In the case of The Discoverers, it is what my teen son might call a big boy book—the descriptor itself a big boy one, used by teenagers these days to refer to something of noticeably larger or generous size—filled to the brim with an amazing body of knowledge that I am tremendously excited to be able to read again, looking forward to the moments when I hit upon things I might call now-new—not necessarily new, but fitting into that category of information described above, buried in the recesses of my mind and that I hadn’t really exercized understanding of.
I have only vague memories of the other sections—grave-robbing medieval medical students; adventurers charting the seas and the stars; so much spanning the geography of time, beckoning us to remember and to place ourselves somewhere within these maps and how we fit in and the links to all in our past that make our places work.
For Your Information
The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself by Daniel J. Boorstin
Published: January 1, 1983 by Random House | ISBN 0-394-40229-4*
Format: Hardcover | Pages: 684*
Top: World’s oldest Sundial, from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings (c. 1500 BC), PD-Art, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Bottom: The Flammarion Engraving – A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion wood engraving. PD-Art, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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