Notable new books for the holidays (Part I)

The Riddle of the Compass

By Amir D. Aczel

The compass is so commonplace that few of us are really aware of what a revolutionary instrument it actually was in the history of maritime trade. Most of us vaguely understand variation and deviation and know the difference between magnetic and true, but how many know the fascinating history of this tool that all sailors rely on? Most important, who would’ve thought it could be so interesting?

Aczel’s premise is that the rise of maritime commercialism in Europe during the 13th century, in places like Venice, Spain and Britain, was the result of the acceptance and use of the magnetic compass.

Aczel claims that the invention of the compass "was the most important technological invention since the wheel." He goes on to say that the compass was also one of the first mechanical devices invented, as well as "the first instrument with a pointer, allowing a person to visualize a measurement — in this case, a direction."

The story takes the reader all over the world from China to Africa to the New World, and its time line extends from the ancients right through today.

Aczel is well suited to write about the compass. His father was a passenger-ship captain, and young Aczel grew up aboard ship, learning at a young age to steer by the compass. He is a lively writer, obviously fascinated by this instrument that most of us think of as quite mundane. No doubt that after reading this book, every mariner will have a greater respect and understanding of that one tool aboard that is almost guaranteed to get him/her back home safely.

Harcourt Inc., New York; 178 Pages; $23.00

Treasured Islands: Cruising the South Seas with Robert Louis Stevenson

By Lowell D. Holmes

Between 1888 and 1890, celebrated author and noted eccentric Robert Louis Stevenson chartered the schooners Casco and Equator and the sailing steamship Janet Nicoll, and he sailed for the South Pacific. Stevenson, hoping to escape the oppressive climate of the British Isles and other northern climes because of a chronic respiratory illness, set out with his family from California and never returned to the modern world. He died at the age of 44 in Samoa.

Lowell D. Holmes traces the voyages of the Stevenson family after they departed San Francisco aboard the schooner Casco through an extended cruise to the Marquesas, Cook Islands, Hawaii, the Marshalls, Australia, New Zealand and Tonga. The author finally settled on Upolu in Western Samoa. Holmes describes how Stevenson became captivated by native life and eventually became involved in several political struggles between local people and world powers, like Germany, the United States and Britain.

Treasured Isles is equal parts adventure and history. The author’s careful research has resulted in a fine addition to the enigmatic writer’s legacy.

Sheridan House, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y; $29.95;

By Ocean Navigator