If you’re considering buying a telescope, first buy the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders: From Novice to Master Observer (O’Reilly) by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson. Whether you’re dedicated or just think you’re dedicated, this book will tell you what you need to know to do some serious stargazing.
While the book seems intimidating at first, IGAW is truly a book for amateurs. It begins by giving an overview of astronomical terms as well as info on how to choose a star chart and, most importantly, a telescope. Hint: the models the authors suggest seem to be in the “serious amateur” category. Those of us eying the lower end (such as the $50 Celestron 21041 60mm PowerSeeker Telescope probably won’t be able to observe the same level of detail as the big boys. Still, a grand and a half is at least theoretically doable, a far cry from the days when you had to know someone in a university to look through a decent ‘scope. For those long on DIY and short on cash, look into building your own.
The bulk of the book consists of a detailed overview of the fifty constellations visible from the northern latitudes. It includes descriptions of almost 400 double and multiple stars, not to mention the requisite nebulae and galaxies. The authors estimate it’d take 1-3 years of observation to exhaust all of the material in the book.
While densely packed and rather businesslike in its presentation, the Thompsons manage to slip in some cool factoids. For example, did you know that the constellation Scutum (“The Shield”) was created in 1683 to honor the Polish victors in the Battle of Vienna? Though primarily a research manual, the book’s as lively as one could hope for under the circumstances.