At a time when literary fashions … are changing with such bewildering rapidity, there is perhaps something to be said for collecting the works relating to a man whom no change of fashion can deprive of the credit of a superlative contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.Sir Maurice Holmes: An Introduction to the Bibliography of Captain James Cook, R.N. (1936)
It’s been said that books are the future of the past. That statement is certainly true when it comes to Captain Cook. After all, few of us have access to the "real" artifacts of his life. Even if we did, they would have little significance if we had no background knowledge to give those artifacts significance. Almost all of what we know about the man and his times comes from books.
There is no shortage of books about Cook. People have been writing about his exploits for nearly a quarter of a millennium and some new publication appears every month or so.
Publications about Cook’s voyages tend to fall into one of two categories:
- retrospective accounts written by non-participants long after the fact and through the reverse spyglass of history; and
- narratives composed by people who were on the scene when the events described unfolded.
Books of the first type tend to be more polished, analytical and complete. After all, the author knew how the story came out before the first word was written. Narratives, on the other hand, are usually more "in the moment," with both the author and reader uncertain about what the next moment might bring.
As both a Cook fan and book collector, I have always found the narratives and their contemporary accounts to be the most interesting way to learn about Cook.
But where does one look for such narratives and information about early Cook publications? Four sources come to mind - official accounts, secondary accounts, bibliographies and specialized catalogs.