A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I was about 10 years old and living on the coast in the East Neuk of Fife, my brother David – who was some 12 years my senior – called me into his bedroom one evening and said “Come and look at this …”.
He had his window open and his old 3” refractor telescope was pointing at a single bright star that dominated the night sky.
I looked through the eyepiece, and I can still recall the feel of the cold air on my face and the way I literally held my breath, stunned by what I saw. For that star was no star. It was the planet Jupiter: clearly visible as a disc, with its four Galilean satellites – Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa – plainly arrayed as tiny points of light either side of its equator.
It just hung there, silent and majestic in the telescope’s field of vision, and I remember starting to tremble – and feeling something very much akin to fear. Looking back, I now realize that I was in fact simply awe-struck. It’s one thing seeing a picture of a planet in a book: it’s a whole other experience seeing it with your own two eyes, especially when you’re still in primary school and your whole universe consists of the beach, your bedroom and the sea garden across the road from your house, which you are allowed to go to alone as long as you remember to look both ways.
Not long afterwards, I acquired my own 2” refractor and – before going off to join the Army – my brother gave me a copy of Donald Menzel’s A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, which I studied assiduously, scrutinizing the fuzzy photographic plates minutely and dreaming of the day I could persuade my parents to buy me a bigger telescope so that I could see the nebulae and galaxies as more than misty patches of light.
That day never came. Our lives moved on, we left Scotland to live under the light-polluted skies of the south of England, the ratchet on my telescope eventually gave up the unequal struggle and my interest in all things astronomical was channelled into Star Trek.
Fast forward 45 years …
David – like me – had always wanted a really good telescope. Finally, at the age of 66 and living in the Lake District under beautifully dark skies, he bought himself an 8”, computer controlled, Dobsonian reflector. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to use it, dying just a few weeks after his 67th birthday. His wife offered his telescope to me, and although I briefly entertained the idea, I had to say ‘No’ because it was far too heavy for me to cope with. But the mere possibility of finally owning a decent telescope had the unexpected effect of reigniting my long-dormant interest in astronomy.
Most of my reference books, of course, were over 40 years old (and yes, I still have The Field Guide) so when, during our ‘Amateur Astronomy’ feature last year, Brother Guy Consolmagno talked about Turn Left at Orion, I checked it out on the internet and thought, “Ooh ...” It was, however, having my attention drawn to THIS blog entry a couple of weeks ago, that finally prompted me to part with the money.
That I’ve barely had my nose out of the book since it arrived is really all the review it needs … and it’s no surprise at all that it’s been selling 5,000 copies a year for the last 20 years.
For one thing, it’s eminently readable – it both senses of the word. Many of the guides for amateur star-gazers are dinky little pocket jobs, designed to be toted around in your parka. Turn Left‘s large format means that it’s very easy to read in the light of a dim torch (especially one that’s had the lens painted over with red nail varnish to avoid disturbing your dark-adapted eye). And, as the authors recommend that you and your telescope settle down outside with a chair, a hot drink, a blanket and a small table, the large format really isn’t a problem.
It also – and this is the real clincher – tells you exactly what you want and need to know to actually FIND things in the night sky. Rather than confusing the non-scientific like me with stellar co-ordinates (although they are included in the back of the book, for the tiresomely clever amongst us), the authors give sensible, non-technical directions like: ‘Off to the east (left, if you’re facing south) is a small kite shape of four stars with a fifth star of to the south looking like the tail of the kite’. It’s the star-gazing equivalent of giving road directions by reference to pubs … and it’s both reassuring and encouraging not to be made to feel like a half-wit because you don’t know your east from your west or your Altair from your Antares. The photographs give you a realistic idea of what things will actually LOOK like in your telescope too … instead of taunting you with glorious Hubble images and leaving you to be terribly disappointed with the fuzzy patch of light that’s the best your poor little telescope can do, they show you what it’s really going to look like in a small telescope and a bigger Dobsonian reflector; and if it’s one of those objects that in all truth looks better in a pair of binoculars, they’ll tell you THAT too, by means of their rather nifty rating system.
And while we’re talking about the tech-speak, there’s an incredibly useful introductory section, in plain English, about telescope types and their pros and cons which I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone who’s thinking of buying a telescope but has no idea where to start.
Another major plus is that the book takes you through the observing year, directing you to the objects most easily seen in each season, rather than leaving you to find out for yourself that although the constellation of Orion, with its spectacular nebula, dominates the winter skies it’s nowhere to be seen in the northern hemisphere during the short summer nights because by the time the sun sets, it’s dipped below the western horizon …
Turn Left is meant to be used, not put on a coffee table and admired. It’s one of those rare books that actually needs to be dog-eared and bent back in half with notes scribbled in the margins, Post-It notes sticking out a rakish angles and cocoa stains bang on the bit about the Great Andromeda Spiral. It’s written with verve and enthusiasm and more than a little humour and it makes you want to rush out and stare at the stars.
I still don’t have a decent telescope and currently have to make do with my binoculars, but I’m saving up for one and when I do finally get into the garden, with my table, chair, blanket and hot drink, the very first thing I’m going to look at is Jupiter … silent, majestic and awe-inspiring.
Cambridge University Press. 2011. Fourth edition. Spiral bound. ISBN: 978-0-521-15397-3. 254pp.