The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin

Sometimes I read nonfiction to get a general idea about something I don’t know anything about or a person who intrigues me. Other times I read nonfiction to learn something specific in depth; such books may be hard to read cover to cover, but they still merit a careful reading.

The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin was a combination of both types of nonfiction. In a general way (for such a topic can hardly be comprehensive), Boorstin discusses the discovery of ideas, concepts, places, and facts from the dawn of time until about 1900. But in a very specific way, he teaches about some of the individuals and eras that make such general concepts important. I felt I read mini-biographies of hundreds of notable people, just by reading one book!

I loved the time I spent reading The Discoverers. It contains sections about the discovery (or, more accurately, the development) of concepts of time, the discovery of different lands, the discovery of science from the cosmos to the circulatory system, and the discovery of social development, from the printing press to vernacular languages. I learned a lot, both general and specific. This is a book to reread!

Reading The Discoverers became quite a project. At 680 pages with very tiny print and small margins, it is literally packed with information. Every ten pages took me about an hour to read, so it was quite time consuming (especially considering how fast I read other books). I began the first of January (literally) and I read it, regularly, until the middle of April. But I loved it, and I didn’t want to hurry through it.

What’s it About?

Because The Discoverers is so long and comprehensive, it may not be for everyone. In fact, if there is some aspect of discovery you are interested in, you may just want to consult the individual chapters for details. (My copy has a very good index.) In some respects, though, I kept thinking about all the books I don’t have to read now because I’ve already got a basic understanding.

“I don’t need to read a biography of Columbus now,” I thought as I read a chapter about him. “I’ve learned a lot of great facts and my curiosity is satiated.” I though similar things about many of the chapters I read.

For my future reference and for your information, here are some of the subjects introduced and discussed in The Discoverers. Each subject also introduces the individuals involved, complete with a brief biography of their birth and life.

Time

  • The development of monthly calendars from antiquity to present and the development of a seven-day week as standard
  • The beginnings of astrology and the impact
  • Water clocks and the development of “the hour” as a regular unit of measurement
  • The development of clocks, including portable clocks, and the development of the minute increment of time
  • The discovery of longitude and it’s significance
  • The development of time in the East versus the West

Land Discovery

  • The developing imagination about the world (thinking beyond one’s own city)
  • The negative influence of Christianity on geographical discovery
  • The discovery of the East by the West and missionaries in the East
  • The geographical exploration by the Mongols
  • The development of trade
  • Ptolemy’s view of the world
  • Portuguese sea exploration and the people involved (including sea exploration of Africa and India)
  • Arabian and Chinese exploration by sea (or, rather, the lack of it)
  • Viking “discovery”
  • Seeking the “Indies” and finding the Americas (and the people involved)
  • Naming the land via a new geography
  • The era of sea discovery
  • The impact of secrecy on the geographic discovery
  • Negative discovery (i.e., Antarctica instead of a useful land)

Nature/Science

  • Copernicus’ astronomic system
  • A new view of astronomy and the individuals involved
  • The development of the telescope
  • The religious clash with telescopic and astronomical discovery
  • The development of the microscope
  • Similar astronomical and microscopic discoveries in China
  • The early study of human anatomy in the middle ages and the influence of Galen
  • The discovery of the circulatory system
  • The development of a modern anatomy (apart from the “humors”) thanks to human dissection
  • Microscopic anatomy
  • How science was made public (and why that mattered)
  • The development of a decimal system for measurement
  • Newton’s influence on science (editorial note: he was really quite a jerk)
  • The fight for scientific credit for various discoveries
  • The attempt to catalog creation, including developing the concept of species
  • Understanding the age of the world
  • The discovery of the process of evolution

Society/Social Development

  • The ancient art of memory and the importance of being learned during the middle ages
  • The beginnings of book duplication and the invention of the printing press
  • The development of a vernacular language
  • The influence of the printing press on learning
  • An exploration of why printing may not have developed in various other parts of the world
  • The development of history as a subject to study and the influence of Christianity on its study
  • The beginnings of archeology and learning about the past through ruins
  • The development of various social systems and how people learned from history
  • Defining culture
  • Learning about primitive man
  • The development of economics and social statistics
  • The discovery of the atom and its influence on the world

Which discovery or discoveries are you most interested in?

I spent four months reading The Discovers by Daniel Boorstin. I loved it, and week after week I was excited to share with you, my readers, what I loved about it. Then I finished the last chapter, and now I’ve spent two weeks debating what to say in this review of it. It’s hard to go back after the fact and recall all the excitement I had for each chapter. This has convinced me that I should write my reviews as I read.

When do you write your reviews: during or after?

I read The Discoverers for the 9 for 09 project (“Long”).

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed The Discoverers on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Very cool! I find books of this kind intimidated just because of the time factor involved, but I need to get over that. I miss out on so much interesting stuff!

    Lezlie

  2. A concise review, considering the size of the tome. I like your bullet list. Many of those concepts, I just take them for granted.

    Thanks for being in 9 for ’09 challenge.

  3. Lezlie, I was pretty intimidated too. I even started last year and then stopped. But I gave myself the mini-challenge as part of 9 for 09 to read this particular long book for the challenge and I made it and enjoyed it! Consider it shorter than reading a biography of Columbus, and Magellan, and Harvey, and Newton and ….. well, you get the idea. It’s as comprehensive as one book can be.

    Kim, I thought so!

    Isabel, I take them for granted too, that’s why I found this book so interesting! Thanks for hosting the challenge.

    Shannan, I’m glad my review was helpful for you!

  4. I’m about half-way through The Discoverers and am quite enjoying it — though like you, I find it slow to read (though not unreadable — I just have to put the book down every few minutes and ponder). Arrived here from a Google search — your summary is great.

  5. Although I first read The Discoverers in 1986, it has long been on my list of favorite books.
    I have now nearly fishished rereading it and regret not having annotated my copy until
    two thirds of the way through this second reading. I’m considering reading the first
    two third of this book and doing annotations.

    I found the book to be facinating; packed with information providing a broad overview of how we came to know the things we know. Partcuarly impressive were his thoughts of how pre-conceived notions inhibits exploring and learning new things. I also liked his various expositions of the way concepts are built on foundations others have laid. Boorstin’s wide ranging knowledge, scholarship and clarity of writing are astonishing.
    My next reads will be The Creators and The Explorers to which I look forward with interest
    and excitement.

  6. I just finished reading this book. Like some people who read it, I consider it a labor of love. It takes a certain kind of person (read: history geek) to go through more than 600 pages of text printed in a small font and written in a style that presupposes a higher level of comprehension from the reader. I am not ashamed to admit going through some sentences or paragraphs several times for a token appreciation of the author’s point.

    My biggest frustration with the book is how easily I have forgotten the names and discoveries of several historical figures mentioned therein. There are some people that I can easily recall (e.g. Henry the Navigator, Paracelsus, Harvey). Also, Boorstin’s depiction of someone as renowned as Newton will remain forever etched in my mind. But if someone were to randomly select a name in the book’s index and ask me who that person was, I would probably not be able to answer without refreshing myself with the book. Fortunately, I have a couple of consolations. First is the knowledge that the book itself gave me a convenient scapegoat for my predicament — The Untapped State of My Artificial Memory. And the second is the likelihood that I’ll be re-reading this book in the future.

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