This is a list of Astronomy books that I regularly recommend. For books for very young children, see my post on books for ages 0-2 .
Smithsonian Handbooks: Stars and Planets , by Ian Ridpath
ISBN: 0789489880 or 978-0789489883
Man, this book is great. Easy to use as a reference, fun to flip through just for the heck of it, and a decent read cover-to-cover if you don’t need a narrative to take you from page to page. This is my number one recommended book whenever anyone asks me “What should I get to learn about …..?” It doesn’t have a lot of deep-space explanations – it’s more of a sky guide. I recommend it for kids AND adults.
I don’t think the Princeton Field Guide of the same name and author is the same book.
The Stars  or The Stars: A New Way to See Them , by H.A. Rey
ISBN: 0395248302 or 978-0395248300
Ever wonder what the heck people are talking about when they say that Cygnus looks like a swan, or Aquarius looks like a person carrying a jug of water? Well, H. A. Rey (of Curious George fame) will solve this problem for you. He’s reconnected the stars of all your favorite constellations so they ACTUALLY look like what they’re supposed to represent. Same stars, same constellations, different lines. It’s refreshing and not mind-bending. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Ursa Major, but other than that, I love this book.
Great Atlas of The Universe , by Leopoldo Benaccio
ISBN: 0789489880 or 978-0789489883
After much looking, I’ve found a great “basic astronomy” book about everything, and yet readable and fun to look through. I’ve been trying to find a book this fun and detailed for a long time.
Most broad astronomy books are as unreadable as textbooks, as pictureless as paperback novels, or have a double-page spread on each of the planets, and each of the constellations, and then one on the rest of the universe. I think the rest of the universe deserves more than a single double-page spread. Here it is.
This book is odd – each page folds open in one of about three or four different ways, so not a good book to try to read in bed. A perfect book to set on your coffee-table, beside your favorite seat, or even in the bathroom. The sections are short – so it’s easy to pick up and put down. Read as much as you like.
Like Ridpath’s Stars and Planets, this is also a great book to use as a reference – just look up what he has to say on Dark Matter, or read straight through to try to get yourself a basic grounding in astronomy. So far, I’ve found one mistake – and that’s due to the simple fact that our understanding of astronomy advances over time. (He calls the object we found in 1998 in Taurus a protoplanet , but I’m pretty sure the current agreed-upon idea is that it’s a background brown dwarf star).
Cosmos , by Carl Sagan
Amazon Number: B000055ZOB
Not a book but several DVDs of a 1980s TV series by the renowned and unmatchable Carl Sagan. There is also a book, and you’re welcome to read it (I’m sure it’s good), but I’m recommending the TV series here. At the moment I’m watching episode 3 for the second time, and so far I’m re-loving it.
Sagan is one of the pioneers of current informal astronomy education. Astronomers know that the universe is a breathtaking place – and Sagan set out to make sure everyone else could understand that as well. This is why I do what I do: space, astronomy, the universe, and science are amazing and wonderful. I want to show people how amazing and wonderful they are. So did Sagan, and he did it so well, this series is still applicable 30 years later, even though some of our understanding has changed.
You want a broad basic understanding of astronomy? You want to know why astronomy is cool? Watch Cosmos. It’s accessible, never talks down to you, and gives a personable and historical perspective on astronomy.