The Best Books On The Geographical Ideas That Informed The Age Of Discovery

By Toby Lester

The Books I Picked & Why

The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

By Valerie Irene Jane Flint

The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

Why this book?

This is a lapidary introduction to the stories and ideas that prompted Columbus to sail away from Europe into the Atlantic in search of a direct sea route to Asia—and that determined how he interpreted what he came across after making landfall in the Americas. In just 200 pages, Flint nimbly covers all sorts of material: Christian theories of cosmology and eschatology; medieval conceptions of geography; the travel stories of St. Brendan, Sinbad the Sailor, Sir John Mandeville, and Marco Polo; the books that Columbus read, and the notes he made in them to himself; and more. In doing so, she reanimates a fascinating landscape of the imagination.


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The Story of Maps

By Lloyd A. Brown

The Story of Maps

Why this book?

You can certainly find more recent surveys of the history of cartography, but this accessible work, first published in 1949, still stands out as an engaging and enlightening survey of the territory. Lloyd Brown begins his story some 2000 years ago, in Alexandria, Egypt, with the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose geographical ideas came together in the work of Claudius Ptolemy, and he then goes on, in an enjoyable narrative style, to show how scholars and monks and merchants and sailors and scientists all contributed to the art of mapmaking. The first half of the book provides an excellent summary of the kinds of maps that thinkers and travelers would have been familiar with by the time the Age of Discovery got underway.


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The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

By Nicolás Wey Gómez

The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South to the Indies

Why this book?

When the story of Christopher Columbus gets told, it’s typically as a tale of his having sailed west to get quickly to the east. But in this gorgeously produced, exhaustively researched study, Nicolás Wey-Gómez argues that to understand Columbus and his story properly, you have to understand it as a story about voyages to the south. Columbus inherited a powerful set of assumptions about the nature and peoples found in southern latitudes, and it’s those assumptions, Wey-Gómez contends, that allowed Columbus and the many Europeans that followed him to the New World to justify their various colonial enterprises.


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Ptolemy’s Geography in the Renaissance

By Zur Shalev, Charles Burnett

Ptolemy’s Geography in the Renaissance

Why this book?

In the first century A.D., the ancient Greek polymath Claudius Ptolemy produced a work known today simply as the Geography. Ptolemy described the world as the Greeks and Romans knew it at the time—and he did so using latitude and longitude. The Geography largely disappeared from view in Europe during the Middle Ages, as did latitude and longitude on maps, but in the early 1400s the humanists of Florence rediscovered and revived the work, in ways that dramatically improved their understanding of the ancient world and their ability to explore and map it in the present. Shalev and Burnett present a set of scholarly essays that trace the history and the influence of the Geography during that momentous century.


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The History of Cartography, Volume 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance

By David Woodward

The History of Cartography, Volume 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance

Why this book?

You won’t be curling up in bed with this two-volume, 2,272-page encyclopedic history of cartography in the European Renaissance—but if you’ve got a passion for maps, or if you want the most comprehensive source of information on the cartography of the period, it’s a delightful and even essential work to consult. The essays are diverse and deeply informative, and the reproductions, including 80 gorgeous color plates, are a treat to spend time with.


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