One of the most amazing set of books I own is Burnham's Celestial Handbook, in three volumes, the Handbook is part encyclopedia, history, and mythological guide; it is a real hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. Written by Robert Burnham Jr. who was a writer, painter and astronomer. Burnham was a scientist who worked for many years at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

The handbook lists its objects in alphabetical order by Constellation, in incredible detail. Each Constellation gets its own chapter with tables listing the double and multiple stars, the variable stars, clusters, galaxies, and nebulae that are found in that constellation. Included is information on the magnitude of each object listed as well as its name and location. Then the chapter gives a description of all the major objects in the constellation; the bright stars, double stars, variable stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies in the constellation are all described. As an example the description of the Orion nebula is nearly 20 pages. Also included in each chapter are star charts, field charts, diagrams, and double star charts.

All well and good, but it is hard to convey the real impact the handbook has, this is no dry listing of pure facts, though it factual content is exhaustive, Burnham provides an astronomical history for nearly every constellation, star, or other object listed. He reveals the mythology behind many objects, and the background and history of nearly every objects discovery.

The Handbook was first self published by Burnham, in installments via ads in Sky&Telescope, lucky are those with copies of this first edition. Better known is the three volume set published by Dover in 1978, three massive volumes running to 2,138 pages.

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