The best geological time books

2 authors have picked their favorite books about geological time and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

Book cover of Theory of the Earth Volume I

This is the classic book on the deep history of the Earth. Hutton is known as the father of modern geology, because he understood that today’s rocks represent the accumulation of changes over incredibly long geologic epochs. In publishing his ideas he went against the then-popular notion of catastrophism, which held that sudden, violent events such as floods had shaped most of the Earth’s surface. Hutton instead argued for slow changes over time — a concept known as uniformitarianism — and, crucially, recognized that two rock types at Siccar Point, Scotland, had formed at different times separated by many millions of years. “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time,” one of Hutton’s companions said. That realization set the stage for future scientists to explore the ramifications of a deep geologic past.

Theory of the Earth Volume I

By James Hutton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Theory of the Earth Volume I as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of literature attempts to compile many of the classic works that have stood the test of time and offer them at a reduced, affordable price, in an attractive volume so that everyone can enjoy them.

Who am I?

I’m a science journalist in Colorado, living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that were raised by millions of years of mountain-building. I studied geology in college and now write about the earth and space sciences, primarily for the journal Nature. On reporting trips I’ve camped on floating Arctic sea ice and visited earthquake-ravaged mountains in Sichuan, China. But my favorite journey into deep time — the planet’s unfathomably long geologic history, as preserved in rocks — will always be a raft trip with scientists along a section of the Colorado River in Arizona.  


I wrote...

Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

By Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe,

Book cover of Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

What is my book about?

The 1783-84 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki was one of history’s great natural disasters. For eight months it spewed a poisonous fog, killing people across Europe and triggering famine that may have helped spark the French Revolution. And yet few today know of this extraordinary eruption.

Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the Icelandic pastor Jón Steingrímsson who witnessed Laki’s fury. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology and the history and potential of supervolcanoes around the world. And it looks at how the world might change today should Laki erupt again.

Underland

By Robert MacFarlane,

Book cover of Underland: A Deep Time Journey

This is one of the most gorgeous, profound, and nail-biting books I have ever read. We may be an above-ground species, but, as MacFarlane shows, our underground spaces reveal as much if not about much about the human impact on planet earth. They illuminate “the deep time legacies we are leaving.” Stops on his underground tour include: the invisible city of tunnels beath Paris streets; a remote Norwegian sea cave filled with ancient wall paintings; hollowed-out mountains on the Italy-Slovak border soaked with wartime atrocities. But the most moving journey is into Greenland glaciers where ice sheets tens of thousands of years old are melting away in real time. 

Underland

By Robert MacFarlane,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Underland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane delivers an epic exploration of the Earth's underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Traveling through the dizzying expanse of geologic time-from prehistoric art in Norwegian sea caves, to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, to a deep-sunk "hiding place" where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come-Underland takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind.

Global in its geography and written with great lyricism, Underland speaks powerfully to our present…


Who am I?

I’ve been writing about science and the environment for over 20 years, but always I find myself gravitating to the non-sciency, non-naturey part of stories. My favorite part of my first book, on the American chestnut, was about how people in Appalachia loved and relied on this tree that was largely killed off in the early twentieth century. For Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I was as fascinated by the cultural and psychological effects of plastic as its environmental and health impacts. One of the things I’ve learned is that some of the most powerful things shaping our lives – for better or worse – are ones we don’t notice or see. 


I wrote...

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

By Susan Freinkel,

Book cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

What is my book about?

When I started researching my book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I spent a day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. The list went on for pages. That eye-opening exercise revealed to me how thoroughly plastic permeated modern life. In the space of scarcely 50 years, plastic transformed how we live, work, and play. Plastic surrounds us at every turn; present in the air, the soil, the seas, and even our bodies. The rise of plastic is one of the most profound changes that has taken place in my lifetime – and it was hiding in plain sight. My book was an effort to answer two basic questions: How did this happen? And what does it mean for us and the planet? 

A Fish Caught in Time

By Samantha Weinberg,

Book cover of A Fish Caught in Time

This fascinating, nail-biter of a tale has all the elements of a novel: quirky characters, chance encounters, a determined female curator, chase scenes, mystery, and hunt for something that scientists believed existed only in the fossil record. The story begins in 1938 in South Africa on the deck of a trawler, with young Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer picking through a pile of sharks, starfish, and ratfish—to uncover a beautiful, five-foot-long fish with hard iridescent scales and limb-like fins. Weinberg brings the story, and the coelacanth, to life, weaving a narrative as breathtaking as the fish itself. I enjoyed this book immensely!

A Fish Caught in Time

By Samantha Weinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Fish Caught in Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gripping story of obsession, adventure and the search for our oldest surviving ancestor - 400 million years old - a four-limbed dinofish!

In 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a young South African museum curator, caught sight of a specimen among a fisherman's trawl that she knew was special. With limb-like protuberances culminating in fins the strange fish was unlike anything she had ever seen. The museum board members dismissed it as a common lungfish, but when Marjorie eventually contacted Professor JLB Smith, he immediately identified her fish as a coelacanth - a species known to have lived 400 million years ago,…


Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

Planet Ocean

By Bradford Matsen, Ray Troll,

Book cover of Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record

Planet Ocean is a rollicking romp of a book, even while it is being deeply informative. The writing is full of wit and story, with a strong undertow of awe at the wonders of evolution and geologic time. We learn about these things along with Matsen as he and Troll go on a trilobite safari, visit museums and scientists, and dig for dinosaurs in the badlands of Alberta. The book is lavishly illustrated with Troll’s surreal, sublime, whimsical, and always arresting depictions of such creatures as Xiphactinus, Anomalocaris, Hesperornis, Hallucigenia, and of course Helicoprion.

Planet Ocean

By Bradford Matsen, Ray Troll,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Planet Ocean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the paperback edition of the great pop-paleontology book with the fabulous art that inspired a show that toured the nation's natural history museums. In its own way it has inspired many people to take a new look at the fossil record and imagine creatures and things as they might have been—a blend of word and image unlike any other.

Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

Notes from Deep Time

By Helen Gordon,

Book cover of Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

This is an exemplar of modern science writing, weaving together a travelogue of visits to locations of scientific importance with musings on the significance of Earth history. Gordon has just the right touch of wonder as she peers at frozen records of past climates in an ice-core collection in Copenhagen, and as she scrambles along the Scottish cliffs where 18th-century geologist James Hutton began to recognize the many billions of years of Earth history. She pauses, observes, and brings her reader into a deeper awareness of the landscapes around them. 

Notes from Deep Time

By Helen Gordon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Notes from Deep Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Astounding ... To call this a "history" does not do justice to Helen Gordon's ambition'
Simon Ings, Daily Telegraph

'Awe-inspiring ... She has imbued geological tales with a beauty and humanity'
Shaoni Bhattacharya-Woodward, Mail on Sunday

The story of the Earth is written into our landscape: it's there in the curves of hills, the colours of stone, surprising eruptions of vegetation. Wanting a fresh perspective on her own life, the writer Helen Gordon set out to read that epic narrative.

Her odyssey takes her from the secret fossils of London to the 3-billion-year-old rocks of the Scottish Highlands, and from…

Who am I?

I’m a science journalist in Colorado, living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that were raised by millions of years of mountain-building. I studied geology in college and now write about the earth and space sciences, primarily for the journal Nature. On reporting trips I’ve camped on floating Arctic sea ice and visited earthquake-ravaged mountains in Sichuan, China. But my favorite journey into deep time — the planet’s unfathomably long geologic history, as preserved in rocks — will always be a raft trip with scientists along a section of the Colorado River in Arizona.  


I wrote...

Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

By Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe,

Book cover of Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

What is my book about?

The 1783-84 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki was one of history’s great natural disasters. For eight months it spewed a poisonous fog, killing people across Europe and triggering famine that may have helped spark the French Revolution. And yet few today know of this extraordinary eruption.

Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the Icelandic pastor Jón Steingrímsson who witnessed Laki’s fury. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology and the history and potential of supervolcanoes around the world. And it looks at how the world might change today should Laki erupt again.

The Rise of Fishes

By John A. Long,

Book cover of The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution

From the time the first primitive vertebrates arose in the Cambrian to the appearance of early amphibians around the late Devonian, fishes were by far the dominant life form on the planet. Follow the journey in the highly readable, generously illustrated Rise of Fishes. This fascinating immersion into the diversification of early fishes was written by esteemed Australian paleontologist John Long. Long is also the author of The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, and Swimming in Stone: The Amazing Gogo Fossils of the Kimberley, both of which could also go on your list.

The Rise of Fishes

By John A. Long,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rise of Fishes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fishes that walk, fishes that breathe air, fishes that look like-and are-monsters from the deep. These and many more strange creatures swim through The Rise of Fishes, John A. Long's richly illustrated tour of the past 500 million years. Long has updated his classic work with illustrations of recent fossil discoveries and new interpretations based on genetic analyses. He reveals how fishes evolved from ancient, jawless animals, explains why fishes have survived on the Earth for so long, and describes how they have become the dominant aquatic life-form. Indeed, to take things a step further, we learn much about ourselves…

Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

Deep Time

By Riley Black,

Book cover of Deep Time: A journey through 4.5 billion years of our planet

This gorgeously illustrated coffee-table volume draws on Black’s expertise in science writing and paleontology. She begins with the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8 billion years ago, then moves in short chapters through milestones of the rise of life on Earth. Prehistoric plants harden into coal in the Carboniferous Period, 359 million years ago; dinosaurs roam the Morrison Formation of the western US, 156 million years ago; and small blobs of molten glass from Laos reveal a powerful meteorite impact 790,000 years ago. You’ll never see the timeline of life the same way again. 

Deep Time

By Riley Black,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Deep Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Deep time is the timescale of the geological events that have shaped our planet. Whilst so immense as to challenge human understanding, its evidence is nonetheless visible all around us.

Through explanations of the latest research and over 200 fascinating images, Deep Time explores this evidence, from the visible layers in ancient rock to the hiss of static on the radio, and from fossilized shark's teeth to underwater forests. These relics of ancient epochs, many of which we can see and touch today, connect our present to the distant past and answer broader questions about our place in the timeline…


Who am I?

I’m a science journalist in Colorado, living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that were raised by millions of years of mountain-building. I studied geology in college and now write about the earth and space sciences, primarily for the journal Nature. On reporting trips I’ve camped on floating Arctic sea ice and visited earthquake-ravaged mountains in Sichuan, China. But my favorite journey into deep time — the planet’s unfathomably long geologic history, as preserved in rocks — will always be a raft trip with scientists along a section of the Colorado River in Arizona.  


I wrote...

Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

By Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe,

Book cover of Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark

What is my book about?

The 1783-84 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki was one of history’s great natural disasters. For eight months it spewed a poisonous fog, killing people across Europe and triggering famine that may have helped spark the French Revolution. And yet few today know of this extraordinary eruption.

Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the Icelandic pastor Jón Steingrímsson who witnessed Laki’s fury. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology and the history and potential of supervolcanoes around the world. And it looks at how the world might change today should Laki erupt again.

Monarchs of the Sea

By Danna Staaf,

Book cover of Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods

Evolution, extinction, evo-devo, a “vampire squid from hell”—what more could a paleo-curious reader ask for? Staaf keeps it interesting and breezy as she takes a deep dive into the mysteries of that most ancient and fascinating group, the cephalopods. The fossil record for this extraordinary, important, and long-surviving class (which includes ammonoids and nautiloids as well as the shell-free squids and octopuses) goes back 500 million years. The book is full of “wows,” like a 20-foot-long fossil shell, and the fact that ink has been reconstituted from fossil belemnites and used for illustration. Just wow.

Monarchs of the Sea

By Danna Staaf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monarchs of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An epic and fun history spanning from the mollusks that invented swimming to the octopuses and other intelligent cephalopods of today Publisher's Note: Monarchs of the Sea was previously published in hardcover as Squid Empire.

Before mammals, there were dinosaurs. And before dinosaurs, there were cephalopods--the ancestors of modern squid, octopuses, and more creatures--Earth's first truly substantial animals. Essentially inventing the act of swimming, cephalopods presided over an undersea empire for millions of years--until fish evolved jaws, and cephalopods had to step up their game or risk being eaten. To keep up, some streamlined their shells and added defensive spines,…

Who am I?

When I was young, I worked on fishing boats in Alaska and developed an affection for weird sea creatures. All manner of unusual marine life would come up on the line, like wild-looking sea stars, pointy-nosed skates, and alien-looking ratfish. Later, I graduated from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with a degree in Communications. One of my early jobs was with the Washington Department of Wildlife public information department, writing about fish, as well as other wildlife-related topics. When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, I had the opportunity to create content for a museum exhibit on early life forms. That hooked me on all things paleo. It is a joy to write about and share the things I love—like oddball creatures from deep time.


I wrote...

Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

By Susan Ewing,

Book cover of Resurrecting the Shark: A Scientific Obsession and the Mavericks Who Solved the Mystery of a 270-Million-Year-Old Fossil

What is my book about?

In 1993, Alaskan artist and paleo-fish freak Ray Troll stumbled upon the weirdest fossil he had ever seen: a platter-sized spiral of tightly wound shark teeth. This chance encounter in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County sparked Troll's obsession with Helicoprion, a mysterious monster shark from deep time. In 2010, tattooed amateur strongman and returning Iraq War veteran Jesse Pruitt was also severely smitten by a Helicoprionfossil in a museum basement in Idaho. These two bizarre-shark disciples found each other, and an unconventional band of collaborators grew serendipitously around them, determined to solve the puzzle of the tooth whorl once and for all.

In this groundbreaking book, Susan Ewing reveals these revolutionary insights into what Helicoprion looked like and how the tooth whorl functioned, pushing this dazzling and awe-inspiring beast into the spotlight of modern science.

The Sixth Extinction

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Any book by this writer makes a good read but this one rise above the others—and that is no small feat. This is an odd way to put it but the book brings to life the five catastrophic events that decimated so many species over the course of geological time. The idea of a sixth catastrophic event causing another mass extinction can be seen in human time because human activity is driving the catastrophe. Though it is true that the earth has always had climate change with global warming and cooling, this book shows how dangerous that plain fact can be without context. 

The Sixth Extinction

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Sixth Extinction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.

Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most…

Who am I?

When I left Wisconsin and arrived for a position at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was struck by the state’s nearly manic fear of low prices for the oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay through the Alaska (or North Slope) oil pipeline. Years later I returned to Wisconsin and quickly learned that there was relatively little interest in a pipeline that ran down the entire state in the manner of the Alaska pipeline. Only this pipeline carried synthetic crude made from natural asphalt hacked or melted out of the ground in Alberta, Canada. My interest in the environmental and political aspects of that pipeline set me on the path to a book about asphalt.


I wrote...

Asphalt: A History

By Kenneth O'Reilly,

Book cover of Asphalt: A History

What is my book about?

The asphalt on approximately 94 percent of paved roads in the United States has a chemical cousin in the oil sands (or tar sands) of Alberta, Canada. Oil companies are converting that natural asphalt (called bitumen in Canada) into synthetic crude oil ("syncrude") or diluting it with chemicals ("dilbit") so it can ship south via pipeline through Wisconsin and into storage tanks in Illinois. Refineries are the end destination. Gasoline is the end product. 

Global warming imagery has the earth bleeding co2 and consumed by God knows what. Wildfire and rising sea? War and famine? Pandemic now and pandemic from now on? Asphalt helped shape our environment in so many ways. Now, it might help destroy our environment in one simple way.

New book lists related to geological time

All book lists related to geological time

Bookshelves related to geological time