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The Stars: A New Way to See Them

H. A. Rey

The Stars by H. A. Rey is a book for the casual stargazer. I received this book as a birthday present when about 12 years old, and I have loved the book ever since. H. A. Rey, the author of Curious George, wrote this book for teenagers and adults interested in learning the constellations and some basic astronomy. Despite its age—it was written in 1952—the book continues to hold up. The planetary tables have been updated, and in the most recent version that I have (40th printing), they run to the end of 2006.

The subtitle of the book refers to the lines that connect the stars in a constellation. Rey drew lines in a way that makes a constellation resemble its name. He does this to correct a problem that he sees:

Some books show, arbitrarily drawn around the stars, elaborate allegorical figures which we cannot trace in the sky. Others, most of the modern ones, show the constellations as involved geometrical shapes which don't look like anything and have no relation to the names. Both ways are of little help if we want to find the constellations in the sky—yet this is precisely what we are after.

The beginning of the book gives pictures of the major constellations draw in his new way. He describes each constellation in a paragraph that includes various bits of trivia, such as the origin of a constellation's name, the distance to the most prominent star in a constellation, or the fact that the 1934 Chicago World's Fair opened when light from Arcturus shown on a photoelectric cell. The book contains two sets of sky maps, one with lines connecting the stars, and on the opposite facing page, a map with no lines.

Drawing by H. A Rey.

A drawing from The Stars by H. A. Rey.

I have always liked the numerous drawings in this book; some are humor—such as the picture of a moon suit, complete with meteor shield—and others are illustrative. They all have a 1950s feel to their style. One drawing that particularly stands out is of the changes to the Big Dipper as the stars move, starting at 100,000 years ago and concluding 100,000 years from now.

My only complaint about the book is Rey's insistence on using English names rather than Latin names for the constellations; “Big Dog” just doen't compete with “Canis Major.” Fortunately he does give both names in the paragraphs describing each constellation, and an index at the end of the book contains all of the Latin, Greek, and Arabic names of the constellations and the brightest stars.

Jim Brainerd

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