Books are a great resource for beginning astronomers. Below are some of the books I recommend to those just starting out.
Although you can download free apps like “Planets” to your phone to guide you around the sky, eventually you’ll need a star atlas of some kind. The simplest is a device called a planisphere. Dial in the time and date, and it will show you what is up in the night sky at any given point in time. There are many models on the market; all the ones I’ve seen are good.
For those on the tightest of budgets, go to How to Make A Star Wheel and Observe the Night Sky | Sky & Telescope – Sky & Telescope (skyandtelescope.org), print out the two planisphere parts on heavy paper, and make your own for free.
One of the most popular general purpose star atlases is The Cambridge Star Atlas by Dutch cartographer Wil Tirion. The latest edition goes down to magnitude 6.5, or a little dimmer than the human eye can see. Tirion has made a career out of creating beautiful, easy-to-read star atlases, and this one is no exception. Another useful atlas is the recently released Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Star Atlas, available in two sizes. Both are recommended, but I’m partial to the larger, “Jumbo” edition, which is an excellent complement to Tirion’s Cambridge Star Atlas.
If you want a one-stop guide to amateur astronomy, look no further than Terence Dickinson & Alan Dyer’s The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. There have been three editions. While all are recommended, the latest 3rd edition is the most complete and up to date. The authors cover everything from how to read the night sky to selecting and using telescopes. The book is lavishly illustrated in color, and the latest edition is encyclopedia-like in size.
Intimidated by astronomy? Try Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis. The authors show the reader how to find objects in the night sky in a friendly, non-threatening tone that invites the reader to keep learning.
If you have a child interested in astronomy, check out H.A. Rey’s The Stars. That’s right; the creator of the “Curious George” series was an avid amateur astronomer, and his fans will immediately recognize both the writing and graphic style in the book. Although it’s aimed at kids, children of all ages have gotten their start in astronomy with this book.
A staple of amateur astronomy is Burnham’s Celestial Handbook by Robert Burnham, Jr. Published in 1978 and organized in three volumes, Burnham discusses each constellation, first giving out objective data and then pointing out interesting objects. Burnham is excellent at conveying the romance and mystery of the night sky, quoting sources as diverse as Greek and Norse mythology, Asian philosophy, Scandinavian astronomy, Native American folklore, and more – anything to get you to feel what he feels while looking through a telescope. This three volume set is essential reading for anyone who cares about science writing.
Want to learn more? I discuss these, and many more astronomy books in my video Top Beginner’s Astronomy Books! – YouTube
Burnham, Robert. Burnham’s Celestial Handbook: An Observer’s Guide to the Universe beyond the Solar System. Dover Publications Constable, 1978.
Consolmagno, Guy, and Dan M. Davis. Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope– and How to Find Them. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Dickinson, Terence, and Alan Dyer. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. Firefly Books, 2010.
Rey, H. A. The Stars: a New Way to See Them. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
Sinnott, Roger W. Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. Sky Pub Corporation, 2019.
Tirion, Wil. The Cambridge Star Atlas. Cambridge University Press, 2011.