THE DISCOVERERS, the text of which was first published in 1983, is a panoramic presentation by a distinguished historian and Librarian of Congress Emeritus. The work is divided into four “books”—“Time,” The Earth and the Seas,” “Nature,” and “Society”—and concludes with suggestions for further reading and an index. Boorstin presents a vast array of entertaining accounts of explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook, scientists such as Galileo, William Harvey, and Charles Darwin, and other investigators including Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. He states at the outset that “My hero is Man the Discoverer,” and he depicts these numerous individuals as if in a heroic, and triumphant, struggle of intelligence over ignorance and illusion, of science over superstition, from antiquity to the twentieth century.
Though the triumphalist approach to the history of intellectual development is quite common in broad popular surveys of the subject, it has been seriously questioned by most general historians and historians of science. In promoting historical understanding, which can illuminate current concerns, it is important not only to appreciate the ideas and opportunities that have been gained in the development of an increasingly secular rationality, but also to consider sympathetically those that have been lost.
The pictorial material and other physical qualities make the illustrated edition tremendously appealing. This massive work has now been divided into two volumes, complete with a slipcase; the binding and overall design are superb. The 550 illustrations, two hundred of which are in full color, include exquisite pictures of architecture, painting, book and manuscript material, scientific instruments, anatomical and botanical illustrations, maps, and much more. A descriptive caption accompanies each illustration, and a list of credits is included at the end of volume 2.
As with any grand survey of the growth of knowledge, THE DISCOVERERS is, of course, selective in its coverage, and while it contains a wealth of interesting information, it suffers from oversimplification in many spots. As with any good smorgasbord, however, it provides a flavorful sampling of a wide range of items, which, it is hoped, will lead many readers on to further, and perhaps alternative, courses of intellectual discovery.