A Study of the Sky: an Astronomy Book from 1896


I’m almost afraid to handle this book anymore. When I first found my 1901 edition of Herbert A. Howe’s A Study of the Sky in a quiet downtown bookshop, I could not bring myself above temptation. I purchased it for ten dollars, pleased to have a richly-hued book with old-fashioned illustrations and monochromatic photos. I did not expect rapturous prose that elevated the subject to a spiritual pursuit.

My fiance has loved this book nearly to pieces. The spine is in peril, and we only crack it open on rare occasions anymore. The prose is well worth the pang of guilt. The preface begins:

Astronomy is at once the most ancient and the noblest of the physical sciences. For thousands of years successive generations of men have gazed with admiration and delight at the brilliant orbs which glitter in the diadem of night. The shining constellations, the roving planets, the ever-changing moon, the splendid Galaxy, a celestial river bedded by suns and banked by the ether, all these display their beauties before the ravished eyes.

Howe’s prose remains equally beautiful throughout. It seems I purchased a treasure in that dim little bookshop. I often go back there, hoping to find another gem but nothing quite compares.


Of course, it is an outdated text. It comes from a time of telegraphs, “electric cars”, and marbles. This does not diminish the enjoyment of reading Howe’s descriptions of the moon’s topography or his biographical sketch of Sir Isaac Newton–“Isaac Newton was not a very promising lad, until the day when a bigger boy conferred a signal blessing on the world by kicking him.”

He closes with speculations on the impermanence of stars and the inevitable impermanence of the human race. “If these stellar princes are at last to sink into eternal night, shall we not prophesy the same fate for the lesser orbs?” Before he wanders too far in these thoughts, he concludes that it is fruitless and a matter best left in the hands of the Creator.


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