Excelsior!

The Discoverers

by Daniel J. Boorstin
Random House, 745 pp., $25.00

Daniel Boorstin became Librarian of Congress in 1975. As professor of American history at the University of Chicago and subsequently as director of the National Museum of History and Technology at Washington, he had established a reputation as the author of The Americans, a prize-winning trilogy painted on a broad canvas and with wide popular appeal. Since becoming librarian, he has had to confine his writing to the hours before breakfast, but this has not prevented him from completing a large and even more ambitious work which is clearly destined for the same commercial success. The Discoverers is written with great verve. It is founded on a vast amount of reading and it contains much entertaining material. In microcosm (if that is the word for a work of more than seven hundred pages) it reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of the kind of history book that is intended from the outset to reach a mass market.

The book’s scope is enormous. It tells the story of “man’s search to know his world and himself.” This search is divided by the author into four parts. First, there is the discovery of Time, that is to say, the development of calendrical systems, the emergence of the seven-day week, and the invention of the mechanical clock, which is seen as the archetype of all other machines. Second comes the discovery of “the Earth and the Seas.” This involves an account of changing ideas on the shape of the earth, the invention of latitude and longitude, the migration of peoples, and the great geographical discoveries from the Vikings and Marco Polo to Columbus and Captain Cook. The crucial instrument was the mariner’s compass, which did for space what the mechanical clock and uniform hour did for time.

Third, there is the investigation of Nature. Dr. Boorstin chronicles the development of astronomy and astrology, the invention of the telescope and the microscope, the growth of anatomy, physiology, physics, botany, and geology, and the rise of evolutionary theory. The final part, labeled “Society,” begins with systems of artificial memory and moves on to the development of the printed book, the standardization of vernacular languages, the birth of historical consciousness, the rise of archaeology, chronology, and the history of ideas, and the founding of the sciences of anthropology, economics, and demography. Only on the last page, however, does Dr. Boorstin venture into the science of the twentieth century. The book ends rather abruptly with a brief sketch of the nineteenth-century origins of modern physics. There is no mention of genetics and molecular biology, of space travel, or of computers and high technology. An unkind critic might say that Dr. Boorstin stopped when the subject got too difficult for a layman to understand.

This brief paraphrase makes the book sound very abstract. In fact, it is nothing of the kind. The author’s approach is vivid, anecdotal, and, above all, biographical. He sees discoveries as “episodes of biography”; and his aim is to …

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Letters

Moveable Feasts’ July 19, 1984