The best books about geology that tell great stories

Keith Heyer Meldahl Author Of Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains
By Keith Heyer Meldahl

Who am I?

When I first crossed the American West nearly 4 decades ago in my ’67 Chevy, it changed my life. I had never imagined mountains built of contorted rock shoved miles into the sky, faults slashing like fresh scars across the landscape, and starkly beautiful deserts where people seemed an afterthought. After many happy years of researching and exploring the West with my geology students, I knew I wanted to tell the story to a larger audience. The result has been three books: Hard Road West, Rough-Hewn Land, and Surf, Sand, and Stone. 


I wrote...

Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

By Keith Heyer Meldahl,

Book cover of Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

What is my book about?

Unfold a map of North America, and the first thing to grab your eye is the bold shift between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. In Rough-Hewn Land, Keith Meldahl takes readers on a 1000-mile-long field trip back through geologic time to explore America’s most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes. He places us on the outcrops, rock hammer in hand, to examine the evidence for how these rough-hewn lands came to be. We see California and its gold assembled from pieces of old ocean floor and the relentless movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. We witness the birth of the Rockies. And we investigate the violent earthquakes that continue to shape the land today. Into the West’s geologic story, Meldahl also weaves its human history, showing us how geologic forces have shaped human experience in the past and how they direct the fate of the West today.

The books I picked & why

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The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

By Robert M. Hazen,

Book cover of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

Why this book?

Written with the clarity and zest of Bryson and McPhee, but with the added benefit that Hazen is a professional geologist. I like this book because of how Hazen takes the reader into the process of how a geologist works and thinks. Hazen’s specialty is mineralogy, and his main thesis—that living organisms and minerals evolved together with each shaping the other’s future—makes for a unique and thought-provoking take on the history of our planet. 


The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World

By Steve Brusatte,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World

Why this book?

Dinosaur paleontologists never seem to lose their kid-like enthusiasm. Merge that with scientific expertise and skillful writing, and you have this book. Among the crowded field of popular dinosaur books, this one stands out as scientific storytelling at its best. Brusatte takes us from discovery to boney discovery, tracing the origin of dinosaurs, their rise to dominance, and their bad-luck demise. 


Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault

By John Dvorak,

Book cover of Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault

Why this book?

The title is a bit misleading. This book is more of a history of thinking and discovery about seismology—the study of earthquakes—with a focus on the San Andreas fault. What I like best is how Dvorak weaves the personal stories of scientists into the geologic story. Too often in textbooks and general-audience books, scientists don’t exist as human beings with foibles, preconceptions, and occasional bursts of insight. I wish that other books presented the human side of science as effectively as Dvorak. 


A Short History of Nearly Everything

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of A Short History of Nearly Everything

Why this book?

Bryson’s classic is so good, I have re-read it several times. This book sums up the history and major developments of practically ALL the sciences, geology included. Written with zest and humor, and the wide-eyed wonder of a passionately interested amateur, this book is mind-boggling in its scope. No scientist could have written it—we are all too specialized. Only an author of Bryson’s skill could have cast his net so broadly. The result is a triumph. 


Annals of the Former World

By John McPhee,

Book cover of Annals of the Former World

Why this book?

Every geology book collection should include this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. McPhee travels with four different U.S. geologists, visiting their outcrops and laboratories while tracing the evolution of geologic thought and discoveries. McPhee has the eye of a scientist, the soul of a poet, and the pen (keyboard?) of a master author. The result is fluid and beautiful writing about science and those who practice it. 


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