By Popular Request: Geology Book Extravaganza

By popular demand, just in time for the holidays, here ’tis: a maclargehuge list o’ geology books! Okay, so Heliconia asked merely for an introductory geology book. And Redpanda may not have expected a huge list when inquiring after a few titles to fill in ye olde gaps in scientific knowledge. But if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing, I say – and besides that, I had two years of book reviews to pull from.

So here they are at last, books I recommend to those who need the short (compared to a university degree) and sweet course in geology.

Annals of the Former World
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
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
Earth: An Intimate History. Image courtesy 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!

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

High praise, amirite? And yet, when we move out of the world as a whole and start getting just a wee bit more regional…

The Mountains of Saint Francis
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!

And I haz moar. Not Walter Alvarez, I’m afraid, not yet, but moar!

Stories in Stone
Stories in Stone. Image courtesy Goodreads.


Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams

I have one quibble with this book: it should have included color photographs.  That’s all it’s really missing, though.  David B. Williams, who ended up interested in urban geology because he got stuck in Boston after living in the wild, wonderful geologic paradise of Utah.  Buildings clad in stone became his friends, a link to the natural world.  This book eventually resulted, and you’ll probably never look at a city the same way after reading it.

Each chapter is about a different stone: brownstone, limestone, gneiss, marble, travertine and more.  Architecture connects to geology connects to oddball tidbits of history and human endeavor (and sometimes silliness) in one seamless whole.  And there’s a websiteAnd David sometimes does geological tours of Seattle.  I’m so there! (Someday!)

This is another book I didn’t want to put down, because it felt like it was introducing me to quite a few friends – the Getty Museum, the petrified log gas station, and others – that I didn’t want to part from so soon.  And it’s given me ideas for a great many more adventures.  Inspiring, informative, intriguing – perfect!

This next one isn’t quite geology, but it has geology in it – and it must be included. You’ll see why in a second.

Life on a Young Planet
Life on a Young Planet. Image courtesy Princeton University Press.


Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll

Lockwood recommended this one, and I’m glad he did.  I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I’m getting close to the end.  I hated finishing this book: it’s so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.

From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself.  Andrew Knoll’s sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops.  There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry.  He’s one of those rare talents.  He also explains things well  without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book.  At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first – I’m not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.

I can tell you this: a lot of the things that confused me about how really ancient life is identified got cleared up in the course of reading this book, and I understand quite a bit more about how a little rock from Mars caused so much excitement with ambiguous evidence for life.

Andrew Koll, if you’re reading this: I want a revised edition expanded by a factor of at least ten.

And, finally, we come to a very local book, but one that I think is one of the best books you can possibly teach yourself geology with – especially if you love big, beautiful, rich and detailed color photos.

In Search of Ancient Oregon
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 started me geoblogging in earnest. This book is amazing. Buy it.

Right. So, that’s quite a little list, and you’re probably reeling about now. Don’t even know where to start, possibly, right? Look, many countries are coming up on a holiday during which it is customary to give and receive gifts. All you have to do is find eight friends, family and/or coworkers who are planning on giving you gifties, and hand each one of them a title. Then all you’ll have to worry about is which one to read first!

You can also go for the free download option. Lithified Detritus recommended this one:

Earth's Dynamic Systems
Earth’s Dynamic Systems.


Earth’s Dynamic Systems by Eric H Christiansen and W. Kenneth Hamblin.

I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s got a picture of Mount Rainier on the cover, so I like it already. It is free, which means I like it even more! The table of contents looks like it contains all the necessities. And it’s gone through ten editions, which might be a sign it’s a solid text. The authors were kind enough to make it available for free when the copyright reverted back to them. I’ll report back once I’ve read it, but if any of you give it a try first, let me know how it is!

Right. That should be enough to get you started. I’ll have book recs up for some more specific things soon – my shelves groan with excellent books, copies of which wish to come live with you.

By Popular Request: Geology Book Extravaganza

9 thoughts on “By Popular Request: Geology Book Extravaganza

  1. rq

    Looks like I have some reading ahead of me. Woo hoo!
    (Now I know what to tell my brother when he asks what I want for Christmas. He’ll appreciate the geology angle.)

  2. 2

    Wow, thanks for such a great list! I’m feeling terrible for being a geologist that hasn’t even heard of most of these, let alone read them. They’ve all been added to my wish list, and you can bet that I’ll be picking them up myself if they’re not gifted to me this year.

  3. F

    That’s a pretty sweet list. Does Ten Billion Years have something to do with the tandem story? I haven’t found out exactly, but I see Nield has two defunct (but interesting) blogs as Geoscribe.

  4. 7

    If you’re a Californian, or just interested in reading about a state that’s fantastically varied, try California Geology by Debbie (er, excuse me, Deborah) Harden. Dr. Debbie was still teaching geomorphology and California geology at San Jose State University when I started taking geology classes, but she retired before I could take class from her, which I totally regret. California Geology is a textbook, so it’s expensive, but worth buying used. It doesn’t read like a textbook; it’s full of wonderful info, with lots of interesting asides, and I loved reading it. Also, it’s illustrated really, really well.

  5. 9

    Thanks for the list. I’ve read a couple of them, and will be looking for the others.

    In Search of Ancient Oregon is indeed a gorgeous book. I also concur with the suggestion of McPhee’s The Control of Nature. Of course, anything by McPhee is worth reading.

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