The best Age of Discovery books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about the Age of Discovery and why they recommend each book.

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The Great Explorers

By Samuel Eliot Morison,

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

The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America is a seminal non-fiction work by a premiere historian detailing those intrepid early explorers who dared uncharted seas for greed and glory. The work really resonates with me because it showcases how difficult it was to navigate the world’s oceans in the days before electricity, reliable navigation aids, modern medicine, refrigeration, and dependable propulsion. Despite these handicaps, audacious seamen dared the unknown and challenged their resolve and endurance to meet their goals. I believe the inherent elements of drama and conflict in these voyages lend grist for the development of action and adventure-filled historical fiction. This book directly inspired me to develop my featured novel in an Age of Exploration setting.             


Who am I?

I have always been a fan of history. As a journalist by education and an investigator by trade, I love to carefully research my settings and weave original fictional plots through actual history in a seamless manner that both entertains and informs the reader. I also appreciate the need for compelling characters, page-turning plots, conflict, and tension to keep readers engaged. I have a long-term fascination with piracy, privateering, and exploration during the early age of sail. I am also attracted to Elizabethan England and the Renaissance period with its ideological struggles. I really love a good sea story, and who doesn’t? Enjoy my reading list!   


I wrote...

Voyage of Reprisal

By Kevin J. Glynn,

Book cover of Voyage of Reprisal

What is my book about?

An English sea-captain sailing to plunder a Spanish treasure fleet faces the elements, internal discord and a squadron of war galleons lurking in his path. If he prevails, rewards and retribution await in the wilds of the New World.

Voyage of Reprisal draws on the author’s extensive research and presents a careful reconstruction of life at sea aboard an Elizabethan war galleon. Charismatic characters come alive, from crude sailors to arrogant lords. The pains, joys, sorrows, and hopes of the age are explored aboard a 16th century privateer.

The Story of Maps

By Lloyd A. Brown,

Book cover of The Story of Maps

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.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

Ptolemy’s Geography in the Renaissance

By Charles Burnett, Zur Shalev,

Book cover of Ptolemy’s Geography in the Renaissance

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.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

The Spice Route

By John Keay,

Book cover of The Spice Route: A History

With a scholarly eye for detail, Keaye explores the history of the spice routes. The trade is at once mysterious and hard to trace yet also world-encompassing. It started more wars and sparked more discoveries than any other global exchange.  This book elegantly covers over 3,000 years of human history and leaves the reader with much to think about. 


Who am I?

In my writing, food is a means to explore culture and understand the world. I’ve been described as a ‘culinary detective’. I collect and create eclectic, evocative recipes from around the globe so I can travel from my kitchen when I'm back home in London. The Nutmeg Trail follows my multi-award-winning books, Fire Islands and Samarkand.


I wrote...

The Nutmeg Trail: Recipes and Stories Along the Ancient Spice Routes

By Eleanor Ford,

Book cover of The Nutmeg Trail: Recipes and Stories Along the Ancient Spice Routes

What is my book about?

Recipes and stories explore how centuries of spice trading and cultural diffusion changed the world's cuisine. A unique and enlightening guide to cooking with spice, the book looks at their flavour profiles and how they can be used, combined, and layered - how some bring sweetness, others fragrance, heat, pungency, sourness, or earthiness.

There are 80 spice-infused recipes in this collection following the trails of ancient maritime trade through Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Iran, and the Emirates. Eleanor combines historical research with a travel writer's eye and a cook's nose for a memorable recipe. Interwoven are stories that explore how spices from across the Indian Ocean - the original cradle of spice - have, over time, been adopted into cuisines around the world.

The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

By Valerie Irene Jane Flint,

Book cover of The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus

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.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

The History of Cartography, Volume 3

By David Woodward,

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

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.


Who am I?

I’m a writer and an editor with eclectic interests. I’ve published two books of popular history—Da Vinci's Ghost (2012), about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), about the map that gave America its name. I’ve also written extensively for national publications on such topics as the sociology of new religious movements, privacy protection in the Internet age, the Voynich manuscript, the revisionist study of the Qur’an, the revival of ancient Greek music, and alphabet reform in Azerbaijan. I’m presently a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. From 1988-1990, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen.


I wrote...

The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

By Toby Lester,

Book cover of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America

What is my book about?

For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Occasionally they wondered about what they called a "fourth part of the world," a land separated from the other three parts of the world by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of mystery and myth... until 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure German humanists working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real with a map.

A year earlier, Columbus had died believing that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, decided that Vespucci had reached the fabled fourth part of the world. To celebrate the achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge wall map, for the first time showing the New World distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America. Only one copy of the map survives, discovered in 1901 in the library of a German castle, and in 2003 it was bought for the unprecedented sum of $10 million by the Library of Congress, where it is now on permanent public display.
The Fourth Part of the World tells the story of this map, which turns out to be a grand saga of geographical and intellectual discovery—one that sweeps across continents and centuries and is full of engrossing ideas, adventures, and surprises.

New Lands, New Men

By William H. Goetzmann,

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

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.


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 Northmen's Fury

By Philip Parker,

Book cover of The Northmen's Fury: A History of the Viking World

Every subject needs a really sound, comprehensive introduction – and Parker's book is just that: a big, chunky history of the Vikings in all their guises, as traders, raiders, explorers, and entrepreneurs.  It's very well illustrated with photos and maps, lucidly written, and with a passion for the subject that is infectious. If you're looking for just one book to see you through the Vikings, make it this one.


Who am I?

I study and write about the Early Medieval period, and in a series of books about its most important characters, its archaeology and landscapes, I've tried to share my lifelong passion for this most obscure and tantalizing period of our history – what we still call the Dark Ages. From the two most shadowy centuries after Rome's fall (The First Kingdom) to Northumbrian King Oswald (The King in the North), who brought Christianity into pagan Anglo-Saxon England, and a walking, riding, sailing tour of Britain's Dark Age lands and seas (In the Land of Giants), I see a continuity of rich cultures, vibrant politics and regional characters that help us to understand how and why we are like we are.


I wrote...

Aelfred's Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age

By Max Adams,

Book cover of Aelfred's Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age

What is my book about?

The story of Aelfred the Great, his war against the Vikings, and the foundations of modern Britain. In AD 865, a 'great host' of battle-hardened Norse warriors landed on England's eastern coast, overwhelmed East Anglia with terrifying swiftness and laid the North to waste. Ghosting along estuaries and inshore waters, in 871 they penetrated deep into the southern kingdom of Wessex, ruled over by a new and untested king, AElfred son of AEdelwulf. It seemed as though the End of Days had come.

Max Adams tells the story of the heroic efforts of AElfred , his successors and fellow-kings of Britain, to adapt and survive in the face of an apocalyptic threat; and in so doing, to lay the foundations of the nations of modern Britain in all their regional diversity.

Undercurrents of Power

By Kevin Dawson,

Book cover of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora

This important and revealing book conveys the untold history of West Africans and their relationship with the ocean, including the underwater realm, from before New World slavery and extending around the Atlantic as enslaved African swimmers and divers carried their skills and the culture associated with them in the African diaspora. Kevin Dawson’s story is not only fascinating but also firmly discredits the false and insidious belief that Blacks are naturally poor swimmers and demonstrates instead the long and proud traditions of West African knowledge and use of the undersea.


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with the ocean starting when I was a kid growing up on the Great Lakes. While I sailed and swam in Lake Erie’s freshwater, I dreamed of and read about oceans. My career as a historian and writer has been dedicated to exploring the human relationship with the ocean, especially the underwater realm so often left out of maritime history and literature. My greatest joy is that other historians have joined my quest. The books I’ve selected include some I used as sources in writing ocean history and others by historians who are themselves plumbing the ocean’s depths. 


I wrote...

Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans

By Helen M. Rozwadowski,

Book cover of Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans

What is my book about?

Much of human experience can be distilled to saltwater: tears, sweat, and an enduring connection to the sea. Vast Expanses weaves a cultural, environmental, and geopolitical history of that relationship, a journey of tides and titanic forces reaching around the globe and across geological and evolutionary time.

Our deepening knowledge of the ocean has animated and strengthened connections between people and the world’s seas. To understand this history we must address questions of how, by whom, and why knowledge of the ocean was created and used—and how we create and use this knowledge today. Only then can we can forge a healthier relationship with our future sea.

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