Washington — Columbus discovered America in 33 days, but it's been a 15-year voyage through a Saragossa Sea of knowledge for author Daniel Boorstin, the discoverers' discoverer.
Dr. Boorstin, the librarian of Congress, has written a hefty 709-page book, ''The Discoverers,'' subtitled ''A history of man's search to know his world and himself.'' It docks in November with a cargo of historical treasure, including everyone from the Viking discoverer of Greenland, Eric the Red, to Marcello Malpighi, the founder of microscopic anatomy. It also includes discoverers as diverse as Marco Polo, Galileo, Darwin, Copernicus, and Karl Marx. ''The Discoverers'' may become the hot history book of the season; it is the December Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. Dr. Boorstin calls his new book ''a celebration of man's will to know. . . .''
It is rich with biographies of the famous as well as learned discourses on astronomy, time, anatomy, exploration, biology, religion, language, physics, economics. The reader may encounter such divergent subjects as Captain Cook's discovery of the Great Barrier reef when its coral ripped a hole in his boat; an essay on memory; how Adam Smith became a pathfinder with ''The Wealth of Nations'' or history as therapy via Freud.
Did it hang like a cliff over him during the 15 years he worked on it?
''No, it isn't a burden; it's a chance; it's a dark continent, a constant temptation,'' he says, settling into his chair behind a mahogany desk piled so high with papers and objects it might be an archaeological dig for the book. ''The whole book is a celebration of the unexpected.. . . (It was) an adventure for me, because I didn't know what I was going to discover. . . . The historian is himself an explorer of terra incognita. He must be a discoverer, and not a confirmer. . . .''
With a bow to Henry Adams, the book might also be called ''The Education of Daniel J. Boorstin'' because, he admits, ''I wrote it for my own education, for my own delight, and in that sense it's a thorough success, . . . no matter what the reviewers may say.''
A few minutes earlier he had stood in front of a wall-sized map, which hangs like a tapestry in the living room of the Boorstins' handsome contemporary home in northwest Washington. ''It's the last great medieval map,'' he says of the mystically beautiful indigo, gold, and tan projection, a copy of an original done for the King of Portugal, now in the Venice library. Based on the theology of the time, it has Jerusalem at the center of the world; no oceans; only three continents; and no space for America. Dr. Boorstin is proud of the map, which is, in a sense, a symbol of the unchartered territory he has explored in a book, whose four sections deal with time, the earth and the seas, nature, and society.
He and his wife, Ruth Frankel Boorstin, a small, friendly woman who is his ''primary editor,'' have surrounded themselves with objects they've collected from around the world. In their modern living room overlooking the treetops are paintings from Nepal and Calcutta, kinetic light paintings by Fred Malina, and a classic Arne Jacobson ''egg'' chair they picked up in Copenhagen. Guarding the walled garden which fronts their orange brick home is a cast-iron likeness of George Washington, which is actually one of the first radiators designed in the US. ''It radiates heat and patriotism at the same time'' says Dr. Boorstin, who knows about that sort of thing from his days as director of the National Museum of History and Technology; that was before he became senior historian of the Smithsonian Institution. That post in turn gave way to his being appointed by President Gerald Ford as librarian of Congress, where he presides over a staff of 5,800 and a yearly budget of $225 million.
Dr. Boorstin wants to make it as clear as Baccarat crystal that all the work for his new book was done on his own time, apart from his job at the Library of Congress, and at his own expense. He hired his own secretary to type the massive manuscript, which ran nearly 2,100 pages before his wife and his Random House editor, Robert D. Loomis, pared nearly two-thirds of it away.
He is up with the starlings to write, at his typewriter before 6 a.m. to begin a first draft on yellow paper. ''Some of the members of the congressional committee, when I was confirmed, said they hoped I'd never write another book. It's in the record,'' says Boorstin. Why? ''Well, they were afraid I'd write it on the premises and not be a full-time librarian. But I think I'm certainly not a part-time librarian. I've given my all to the library. But I think, as I said then, that the national librarian - which is what I am, in a sense, of a great, literate country - ought to try to be a man of letters. And that's what I'm trying to do. This is part of the effort.''
As a man of letters, he's no slouch. Dr. Boorstin has written, in addition to his trilogy, ''The Americans,'' the following books which illustrate the range of his thought: ''The Mysterious Science of the Law,'' ''The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson,'' ''The Genius of American Politics,'' ''America and the Image of Europe,'' ''The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,'' ''The Decline of Radicalism,'' ''The Sociology of the Absurd,'' ''Democracy and Its Discontents,'' ''The Republic of Technology,'' ''The Exploring Spirit'' (with Brooks M. Kelley), and ''A History of the United States.'' He is also the author of three sons, all writers.
The man who presides over 20 million books and pamphlets in 468 languages at the Library of Congress has some pungent observations on the publish-or-perish syndrome.
''Academic reputations are often made by large books never written. . . . Literary reputations, you might say, are made by large books that are never read.'' Dr. Boorstin surveys the groves of academe with a skeptical eye, after 25 years of teaching at the University of Chicago (where he was Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of History). He has also been a visiting professor at the Sorbonne, the University of Rome, Cambridge University , the University of Geneva, Japan's Kyoto University, and the University of Puerto Rico.
Musing about writing outside the academic world, he says, ''I suppose in a way the hope of every author ought to be to write a literary classic, . . . . a big book that people will bother reading. That's why it's worth working at it. And I think, from that point of view, one must cut. Cutting'' - he whips the word like a saber through the air '' - is one of the things that Ruth has been so helpful to me with. 'If in doubt, leave it out' - that's Ruth's motto, and I think it's a good one. All books are too long. The object is to make them as short as you can.''
The spirit of adventure which permeates Dr. Boorstin's new book may spring from his upbringing in the semi-wild west of Tulsa, Okla. Born in Atlanta, he and his family soon moved to the oil mecca, where his lawyer father was one of the founders of the city. Young Boorstin took education at a gallop, with highest honors from Harvard and a doctorate from Yale; he then became a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, where he earned two degrees in law. He was also admitted as a barrister-at-law of the Inner Temple, London, a rarity for a foreigner. And yet, through all the scrollwork of his many degrees, this historian, educator, lawyer, and author describes himself as an ''amateur.''
He is a short, forceful man, with ebbing silver hair, alert blue eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses, and a face that might be described as ascetic except for the laugh lines.
Frowning down from his study wall is a picture of Gibbon, his favorite historian, on whom he wrote his doctoral thesis. ''The great historians are those who can combine poetry and history and reach people, not just write for other historians,'' he says.
Boorstin began ''The Discoverers'' after finishing the last book in his trilogy, the Pulitzer-winning ''The Americans: The National Experience.'' As a vacation from the demanding ''Americans'' series, he decided to try his hand at a world history of discovery. One of the things that kept him going all those years was ''to see what it would become. . . ,'' he says. ''That's what I find interesting about writing, the discovery itself - which should have suspense in it. If the author doesn't have suspense, . . . the reader is unlikely to feel suspense. . . . I really loved this book. In fact I was almost tempted to give a jacket blurb. But it wouldn't seem quite appropriate to say, 'This is the most interesting book I ever read.' For me it was the great adventure of my life.''