The best books on the history of exploration

Stephen J. Pyne Author Of The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned about a Wider World
By Stephen J. Pyne

Who am I?

My 15 seasons at Grand Canyon inspired me to understand its story of revelation, which led to a fascination with the history of exploration overall.  This has resulted in a series of books about explorers, places explored, and a conceptual scaffolding by which to understand it all: a geologist of the American West (Grove Karl Gilbert); Antarctica (The Ice); revisiting the Rim with better conceptual gear, How the Canyon Became Grand; and using its mission as a narrative spine, Voyager: Exploration, Space, and Third Great Age of DiscoveryThe grand sweep deserved a grand summary, so I’ve ended with The Great Ages of Discovery.


I wrote...

The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned about a Wider World

By Stephen J. Pyne,

Book cover of The Great Ages of Discovery: How Western Civilization Learned about a Wider World

What is my book about?

Exploration by Western civilization - a kind of quest narrative – has proceeded in three great waves, each with its crest and a trough. Each had a geography of special interest, an alignment with larger cultural movements, a critical geopolitical rivalry, and a grand gesture that captured what the age most exemplifies.

The Great Ages narrates this larger arc, moving from the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas to the world ocean, to the crossing of all the Earth’s continents, and finally, after World War II, pivoting from Antarctica, probing into the deep oceans and interplanetary space. More than a compilation of adventure stories, Great Ages uses the tradition of exploration to discover better the character of its sustaining civilization.

The books I picked & why

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The Establishment of the European Hegemony, 1415-1715: Trade and Exploration in the Age of the Renaissance

By J.H. Parry,

Book cover of The Establishment of the European Hegemony, 1415-1715: Trade and Exploration in the Age of the Renaissance

Why this book?

When I was first attracted to exploration history, I was mostly interested in the 19th and 20th centuries, but wanting to understand its pedigree, I searched back to the great voyages of the Renaissance and kept running into books by Parry. He’s everywhere, and always insightful.

His most widely read book is The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration, and Settlement, 1450-1650. But despite its clunky title, Establishment is my favorite because it distills the whole story – its events, its technology, its intellectual foundations – into almost crystalline form. A wonderful place to begin, or to return to and consolidate whatever else you’ve learned.


The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America

By Samuel Eliot Morison,

Book cover of The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America

Why this book?

Morison is an old-school historian, and I wanted a person-centered narrative in a grand manner to complement Parry’s concentrated matrix of information. Morison delivers.

The Great Explorers recounts the early exploration of the Americas, focusing on key figures (Morison had previously written a 2-volume biography of Columbus). The book boils down his somewhat windy and digressive two volumes on the exploration of North and South America. He’s a proud sailor and works information on ships, tides, currents, shoals, and the like into the text and judges explorers – all of them on ships – by their seamanship. His older style of rhetoric and personal voice make a pleasant change from most of today’s writings.


New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery

By William H. Goetzmann,

Book cover of New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery

Why this book?

A few days out of high school, I found myself on a forest fire crew at the North Rim of Grand Canyon, and returned for 15 seasons. The more I pondered the Canyon, the more I wanted to learn about why this strange landscape was valued, which led me to William Goetzmann, who became my grad school advisor.

New Lands, New Men is the third and final volume of a trilogy Goetzmann wrote on the theme. (His second book, Exploration and Empire, won a Pulitzer.) It’s a bit looser, willing to play with the material, and full of the quirky as well as the renown. Its organizing concept that exploration rekindled in the 18th century (with a significant input from modern science) is a major innovation in a field usually devoted to stirring tales of individual adventure and discovery.


This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age

By William E. Burrows,

Book cover of This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age

Why this book?

The current era of exploration began after World War II, announced by the International Geophysical Year. With Antarctica as a pivot, exploration moved down to the world’s ocean depths and out to interplanetary space. Space got the most attention – it was visible and had a literature that ice and abyss couldn’t match.

With vigor, clarity, and a lively tempo, This New Ocean narrates the space race in both its manned and robotic expressions, its American and Soviet versions, its technology, and its politics. Burrows is an enthusiast, but not an ideologue or a blinkered astrofuturist. A good survey and introduction, This New Ocean makes a lively read.


The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration

By Robert D. Ballard, William Hively,

Book cover of The Eternal Darkness: A Personal History of Deep-Sea Exploration

Why this book?

For a while space and the deep oceans were a matched set of explorations – even Arthur C. Clarke wrote parallel novels about space and sea - then they diverged. What space promised, however, the oceans delivered – new maps of the solid Earth, a new geology, new biotas, and life forms.

No comprehensive survey of all that exploration yet exists. But Robert Ballard’s Eternal Darkness gives access to what happened and some of the critical discoveries, even if it grants attention to the sunken Titanic as well as to black smokers. Deep sea discovery doesn’t have a grand narrative akin to the space race to the Moon or Voyager’s mission to the outer planets; instead, it has biographies like that for the submersible Alvin and pioneers like Ballard. A readable introduction, with some thoughtful conclusions.


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