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Dana’s Maclargehuge Geology Book Holiday-Time Extravaganza

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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So. You’ve got people interested in geology to buy for. You’ve got limited time. You need books, stat! I am here to help, my darlings. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are the books I recommend to those who need the short (compared to a university degree) and sweet course in geology. In no particular order:

Annals of the Former World book cover. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Annals of the Former World. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

This is the one that always comes up in any conversation where geologists are discussing good geology books. It’s four books in one, and takes you from coast to coast through America with John and geologists, exploring geological history and wonders. This was a time when the plate tectonics revolution was brand-new, so you get a sense of the excitement (“We can finally make sense of this stuff!”) and the caution (“Slow down, hoss, you ain’t gathered all your evidence yet.”). So you get to watch a theory being born.

Being a book by John McPhee, this is beautifully written, and will stay with you for a lifetime. This is an excellent place for anyone to start.

Reading the Rocks book cover. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Reading the Rocks. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth by Marcia Bjornerud

Do this: read the introduction to this book. Just that. By the end, you will have learned something of geology, gotten broadsided by a puckish sense of humor, and likely been hooked enough to buy the thing. This is the intro-to-geology book for those who want – oh, how did I put it when I first read her book? -  “a fun, easy and accurate primer on geology…” I also said, “She’s not only an informative writer whose prose flows like water over Franklin Falls, she’s snarky. I am a sucker for snark.” I still am. I still love this book. And I still foist it upon people who are looking for a short, sharp intro to geology.

So, get this and Annals, for a start. Then, if you are hooked and cannot stop….

Earth: An Intimate History book cover. Image courtesy About.com Geology.

Earth: An Intimate History. Image courtesy About.com Geology.

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

This is one of the first books I read when I was renewing my interest in earth science, lo these many years ago. I strongly believe it needs to be read by more people. I’ll see your John McPhee and raise you Richard Fortey – his prose is astoundingly beautiful. Also, he is British, and you know I’m an anglophile. Oh, language! Oh, earth! This is one of those books that immerses you, and by the time you emerge from it, you’ll understand so much more of this planet. You’ll absorb much more geology than you might believe you have done. This doesn’t seem like a science book as much as a love letter about the Earth – but it’s science, through and through. Hard science, strong science.

Read those three books, and you’re well on your way to being able to understand this geology thing. But wait! There’s more!

Mount St. Helens, A Sleeping Volcano Awakes. Image courtesy me.

Mount St. Helens, A Sleeping Volcano Awakes. Image courtesy me.

Mount St. Helens: A Sleeping Volcano Awakes by Marian T. Place

Yep, it’s a kid’s book. I’m recommending an out-of-print kid’s book by an author I miss dearly (nevermind all her books about Bigfoot). But I know you guys love Mount St. Helens, and I know you’ll love this book. This is the book that got me started understanding geology, folks. It’s the book that introduced me to people like David Johnston, who gave their lives to that mountain. Marian was a children’s book writer, but that doesn’t mean this book is overly-simple – it’s not. It uses the big words, and it explains what happened geologically clearly, concisely, and grippingly. I read it over again when I began the Prelude series, and it amazed me just how not-children’s-book it seemed. She wrote for kids like British authors do: she knew they had brains, knew they were smarter than adults give them credit for, and didn’t talk down. She expected them to be able to handle the big words and concepts just fine. So this is a book you can read to a child in your life, sitting there together looking at the fabulous pictures, and both come away wiser for the experience. Get it. You won’t regret it.

And then, when you’re ready for something a bit scarier…

Mount St. Helens: Surviving the Stone Wind. Image courtesy Amazon.

Mount St. Helens: Surviving the Stone Wind. Image courtesy Amazon.

Mount St. Helens: Surviving the Stone Wind by Catherine Hickson

Catherine Hickson is an incredible human being. She was a geology student in British Columbia when Mount St. Helens blew up. She wasn’t going to be a volcanologist, but she figured a geology student oughtta go see the big booming volcano, right, so she packed her husband and dogs in the car and zipped over the border for a weekend. On May 17th. Yeah. This book follows her through that frantic morning as she and her husband scrambled to survive. It contains a letter she wrote to a friend shortly after describing the experience, and scenes from her new life – as a volcanologist. Ya’ll have met her if you’ve been following our Mount St. Helens series – now read the book that will leave your jaw dropped and your admiration for her soaring. Oh, and there’s delicious geology in there!

Speaking of delicious geology…

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet. Image courtesy Goodreads.

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet by Ted Nield

There are very few books that I immediately want to read again even before I’ve finished them.  This is one.

What to say?  That Ted Nield writes with the kind of clarity and style that, should he turn it into a narrative, would make even the phone book fascinating reading?  That’s one thing.  Add that to the fact that he’s writing about something inherently fascinating, and you have the recipe for a truly outstanding book.

Nield tells two histories: the history of supercontinents forming and rifting, and the history of our discovery and understanding of them.  Many times, when an author tells two tales, one takes second place to the other.  Nield manages to unfold them both in tandem, so that neither is slighted.  And he still finds time for interesting diversions: gentle pokes at Madame Blavatsky and other purveyors of New Age lost continent woo, the United States’ brief flirtation with the Queen of Mu, snowball earths, why the supercontinent Rodinia may have been vital to the evolution of life on Earth and why understanding supercontinents is so very vital to our survival now.  It’s a lot of territory to cover.  He does it in 270 pages.

At the end, he fires a scathing broadside at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and those who abuse and ignore science for their inane ideologies.  One paragraph in particular stood out:

I have tried in this book to show something of how ideas in science often grade into – perhaps even sometimes derive from – myth, and I have done this to show how important it is to know the difference between the two.  The truth is that we, as a species, can no longer afford the luxury of irrationality and prejudice.  We are too many and too powerful to live in dreams.  And the greatest and most irrational of the prejudices from which we must free ourselves is one identified by Lucretius in the last century BC: the belief that the world was made for us.

Supercontinent says all that needs to be said about the importance of science in general and geology in particular, and it contains everything I love about science: the incredible power and beauty of the natural world, and the passion and persistence of the scientists who work so hard to understand it.

Fantastic.

Now for something a wee bit less old… but still revealing billions of years in the life of this planet.

Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories and Mystery. Image courtesy Wayne Ranney.

Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories and Mystery. Image courtesy Wayne Ranney.

Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories and Mystery by Wayne Ranney

I’ve only read the first edition, mind, but I know Wayne Ranney, and I know his work, and I can tell you safely to go buy this book if you and yours have any interest at all in the Grand Canyon. Do you want to understand the cutting-edge scientific thinking on how that enormous gash formed? Wayne’s there for you. He’s got it covered. He’s the kind of writer who can make even very complex ideas in geology understandable, and he includes plenty of good, clear diagrams and illustrations to help you on the way. I’ve always been rather attached to the canyon, considering I grew up practically on its rim. This book helped me love and appreciate it all the more. It’s one hell of a story. When you’re done with it, you’ll want to dive deep into the rock layers, so be sure to pick up a copy of Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, too. The paleomaps by Ron Blakey and the text by Wayne will make you feel like you’ve been there for all two billion years revealed in those canyon walls.

For those of you who want to take someone on a nice Mediterranean trip for the holidays, but can’t afford the ticket, I’ve the next best thing right here:

The Mountains of Saint Francis. Image courtesy W. W. Norton.

The Mountains of Saint Francis. Image courtesy W. W. Norton.

The Mountains of Saint Francis by Walter Alvarez

This is the best book on geology I’ve ever read.  Ever.  Oh, others have been wonderful, informative, and well-written, but there’s something about this one that just filled me to the brim.  Maybe it’s the shock – I thought of Walter Alvarez in connection with dinosaurs and killer meteorites, not the mountains of Italy.  Maybe it’s the fact he brings a totality of place and time to the subject, allowing you to experience more than just the rocks of Italy.  Maybe it’s the fact he introduced me to some fascinating fathers of geology, people I’d never known: Nicolaus Steno, who began his career in the 1600s by dissecting bodies and ended it by discovering Earth’s anatomy; Ambrogio Soldani, an abbot who pioneered micropaleontology all the way back in the 1700s.  Maybe it’s the rocks, who become characters in their own right, and with whom one can become very close friends indeed.

I don’t know.  There’s just something about this book – it’s bloody poetic is what it is, gorgeously written, easy to understand while not being dumbed-down, full of passion and wonder and delight.  Walter Alvarez adores geology, and his love glows from every page.  I wish everyone would read this book.  Anyone who’s ever been even mildly interested in how mountains came to be, what rocks tell us, and how we know what they’re saying, would benefit.  Anyone who wants to fall in love with science, whether it be for the first or five hundreth time, will find this book is a perfect matchmaker.  And anyone who’s ever loved Italy will love it even more after this.

The only thing it’s missing is color plates.  Otherwise, it’s perfect in all its particulars, and I’m grateful indeed to Walter for writing it.  More, please!

If you wish to engage in a little South American adventure instead, I have just the thing:

Devil in the Mountain. Image courtesy Princeton University Press.

Devil in the Mountain. Image courtesy Princeton University Press.

Devil in the Mountain by Simon Lamb

Simply astounding.  That’s what this book is.  The Andes are fascinating mountains and Simon Lamb absolutely does them justice.  You’ll find out how puzzling features like the Altiplano came to be, for instance.  And it provides a fascinating look into field research: the difficulties of getting it done in politically unstable areas of the world, the extremes in weather, the hazards of altitude sickness, camping in the freezing cold, dealing with horribly limited resources….  Simon puts you there.  This book is a must for anyone who wants to live the geologist’s life, or wants to know more about it, as well as learn how the Andes came to be.

Would you like a selection of amazing science writing that includes many famous geobloggers, including this author? Gotcha covered!

The Best Science Writing Online 2012. Image courtesy Amazon.

The Best Science Writing Online 2012. Image courtesy Amazon.

The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Jennifer Ouellette and Bora Zivkovic.

This book includes delights by moi, and our own David Bressan, and our very adored Chris Rowan, and our not-quite-a-geologist-but-we-give-him-a-key-to-the-clubhouse-because-paleontology’s-close-enough Brian Switek. It also has spiffing essays from leading science bloggers of all kinds, so if you’ve been trying to slip geology in as a science to consider, but your loved one has eyes only for physics or chemistry or biology or similar, one o’ these may just be the way to go. They get all that – plus a smashing introduction to geology. What’s not to love, eh?

And last, but absolutely not least, one of the most beautiful, intriguing, and inspiring books I have ever read. My dear friends and readers, this book gave me the gift of geology – it started my geology writing career. This book has given more than one person the gift of loving the rocks. And if you can afford only one richly-illustrated, poetically-written, geologically-epic book, this is it. Ready? Here ’tis:

 

In Search of Ancient Oregon. Image courtesy Timber Press.

In Search of Ancient Oregon. Image courtesy Timber Press.

In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History by Ellen Morris Bishop.

I’m not going to quote from this book, because all of it is quotable.  Dr. Ellen Morris Bishop, author and photographer, is a wonderful writer who brings Oregon’s geology to brilliant life.  It’s rare to find a PhD scientist who’s also a talented writer who’s also a brilliant photographer, but Dr. Bishop is all three.  You hear words like “expertly written” and “lavishly illustrated” tossed about for books that don’t strictly deserve it.  This one most decidedly does.

If you’ve ever been even the slightest bit interested in geology, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you like landscape photography but don’t give two shits about how the pretty rocks came to be there, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you’re interested in the flora and fauna of long-vanished worlds, you owe it to yourself to get this book.  If you want to know some awesome places to visit in Oregon, you owe it to yourself to get this book.

This is the book I give to folks who think they might be interested in geology but really aren’t sure and aren’t rocks mostly boring anyway? This is the book that ensures they never look at rocks the same way ever again. This book is amazing. Buy it.

Right. So. There’s a little list for gift-giving ideas, and by now, you may be eyeballing several and thinking, “Hey, y’know, I’d really like to read that!” Nothing prevents you from receiving as well as giving. So share this list around to your family and friends. Let the gift of knowledge be the one you share this year.

As for those naughty geologists on your list, well, I’ll have an ode to the traditional gift to the not-nice next week, plus the greatest candy you can ever give a geologist (that’s not filled with beer, I should say).

Happy mid-winter gift giving!

 

Image is a black-and-white cat lying on a pile of the books mentioned in this post.

The above books are endorsed by my homicidal felid. Misha hopes you enjoy them, when she's not plotting death to the human species.

I know, I know: this list includes no recent books. I’ve been busy reading papers. Have you got a favorite published in the last few years? Let us know!

Portions of this post originally appeared at En Tequila Es Verdad.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Eromanga 12:15 am 12/17/2013

    Thanks Dana.

    Link to this

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