Book review – Essentials of Geology (13th Edition)

Like so many teenagers, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. However, there was no degree programme in palaeontology in the Netherlands back then (I doubt there is one nowadays), so I was advised that one option to prepare myself was to do a Master’s in biology or geology. I choose the former and never looked back, but remained fascinated with the latter. Now, twenty years later, my job exposes me to many geology textbooks and especially Cambridge University Press has a wonderful output of advanced-level books that I really want to read. But when I reviewed Earth History and Palaeogeography some time ago, I realised I was out of my depth and struggled with the jargon. Is it ever too late to start over and make an entry into a new field? I decided to shell out and invest in a textbook to find out.


Essentials of Geology” written by Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward J. Tarbuck, published by Pearson in January 2017 (paperback, 608 pages)

The task of picking a textbook sounds simpler than it is. Many major academic publishers publish their own undergraduate earth science textbooks. So do you pick Oxford’s Physical Geology Today, Wiley’s Physical Geology: The Science of Earth, or rather Norton’s Essentials of Geology? As I have only read this textbook, this review will unfortunately not help you decide. So, why did I choose Pearson’s Essentials of Geology?

Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward J. Tarbuck are both emeritus professors, so should know the field well, and with the book now in its 13th edition, I figured there has been plenty of opportunity to revise the book in response to feedback from instructors and students. Other reasons were more prosaic: the title sounded just what a geology-newbie like myself would need, and it seemed the book was available in hardback (alas, that was not the case, some databases and retailers are not displaying the right information). Comparing with other textbooks though, it seems that the core material being taught is very similar across these books. If, like me, you are not assigned a textbook by a course instructor, one could legitimately ask whether it even matters which book you pick.

Starting with plate tectonics, which has become the basis on which geology rests nowadays (see also my review of The Tectonic Plates are Moving!), Essentials of Geology takes you through all the important topics and gives you the basics on minerals, the different types of rock, the dynamics of Earth (volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain building, and ocean crust formation), as well as weathering of rocks, desert formation, and landslides (pardon me, mass movement). The hydro- and cryosphere also get attention in a series of chapters dealing with running water, groundwater, glaciers, and shorelines. Finally, there are chapters dealing with geologic time and earth’s evolution, and, required nowadays, global climate change.

“videos accessible via QR codes […] seem like a gimmick, but really are not”

This book is very accessibly written and has all the trappings you have come to expect of an undergraduate textbook: chapters opening with a list of learning goals, questions at the end of each section, and, at chapter’s end, a point-wise summary and a list of assignments. To make sure students remain engaged there are “Did you Know?” sections sprinkled throughout the text, and a huge number of full-colour illustrations and photos. Especially the artwork of Dennis Tasa deserves mention.

Like many modern textbooks, Pearson has an online platform called MasteringGeology that I have not explored yet. It is supposed to give instructors the option to assign interactive media and reading before a class, allow the use of laptops or tablets during classes to assign questions, and hand out assignments after the class. There are also outlines of PowerPoint lectures, test banks, and other teaching resources.

One feature that not all above-mentioned textbooks have is videos accessible via QR codes. If you are a techno-Luddite like myself without a smartphone to scan these, not to worry, each figure also has a shortened URL to access these. This may seem like a gimmick, but having watched them, they really are not. The majority are so-called SmartFigures where contributor Callan Bentley talks you through some of the book’s drawings while annotating them (an example here – don’t you just love how publishers use random capitalisation to spice things up?) His voice is pleasant enough but I felt that these did not always add that much. If you want information explained to you in a different way they will be helpful. Far more impressive and really adding something are the Mobile Field Trips, where contributor Michael Collier takes you into the field in his Cessna aeroplane (an example here), and the use of drones to show you field footage of geological formations (an example here). There are also some proper animations, as well as videos provided by NASA. I admit that I found these clips and animations surprisingly

“[…] despite being a core text, the authors do not present the field as a dogmatic monolith of knowledge”

Something to keep in mind is that the book is quite US-centric, using many examples of geological structures and landscapes found in the USA. Mercifully, the book uses metric units, mentioning imperial units in brackets, though it is not 100% consistent throughout, mentioning imperial units only in “Did you Know?” sidebars and some questions. My biggest gripe, something true of most textbooks, is the floppy paperback format and thin paper used. This book will not stand up on a shelf on its own and is very prone to dog ears and creased pages. I understand that publishers are trying to save weight while producing a book that lies open flat during lectures, but it is hard not to feel they have built in obsolescence by producing books that will last just a semester before being tossed out for the next obligatory edition.

Having worked my way through the book I feel I learned a lot. There were some nice a-ha moments (such as the insight that sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks are on a continuum determined by temperature and pressure) and it clarified the jargon for me. I also appreciated that, despite being a core text, the authors do not present the field as a dogmatic monolith of knowledge. Where scientists disagree and multiple explanations have their own adherents, this is mentioned (examples include the debate over mantle plumes, see Plates vs Plumes: A Geological Controversy, or the different models to explain the formation of desert pavement). Similarly, the book feels up-to-date by acknowledging how many scientists think that the extinction of the dinosaurs was a one-two knockout of Deccan volcanism and a meteorite impact (see my review of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions), or that ancient DNA is showing we interbred with Neanderthals.

Essentials of Geology does what it says on the tin and does so very well. I feel far more confident now to tackle more advanced textbooks (a review of CUP’s Structural Geology is in the pipeline, but I am also salivating over Large Igneous Provinces, Mid-Ocean Ridges, and Orogenesis: The Making Of Mountains). Though I can not say how it holds up in comparison to other textbooks, I can at least say that if you want to get started learning more about geology this is a very good starting point that offers a lot of bonus material other than the book.

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Essentials of Geology (13th edition) paperback

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:






Book review – King of the Dinosaur Hunters: The Life of John Bell Hatcher and the Discoveries that Shaped Paleontology

When I think of turn-of-the-20th-century palaeontology, names such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are the first to come to mind. Their infamous rivalry, known as the Bone Wars, relied heavily on field collectors who did the back-breaking labour of prospecting and quarrying for fossils. Most of these bone hunters are barely remembered, and John Bell Hatcher might very well have remained thus. This meticulous biography by American palaeontologist Lowell Dingus saves Hatcher from obscurity and documents both his hugely successful work as a bone hunter, as well as his later stellar but tragically short-lived career as a curator.

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Book review – Volcanoes: Encounters Through the Ages

I will immediately admit that I have retained a boyish fascination with volcanoes. And, as Volcanoes: Encounters Through the Ages shows, I am not alone. Written by volcanologist David M. Pyle to accompany a 2017 spring exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, this book brings together many historical illustrations from their collections to show how volcanoes have been represented and described over time, and how this has shaped our present understanding. I have not visited the Bodleian Library before, but this book makes me wish I had.

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Book review – The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made Us So Smart

The story of human evolution is constantly being refined with new findings and there is a glut of accessible books that cover this topic from various angles. Yet, with The Cradle of Humanity, geography professor Mark Maslin manages to provide an interesting and novel take on the subject, showing the reader how a happy combination of larger factors conspired to influence and steer our evolutionary trajectory. It could have ended up so differently…

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Book review – The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World

When I read the brief for The Edge of Memory, my first thought was: “Really, Bloomsbury is publishing a book on flood geology?” This creationist take on geology tries to interpret geological features in accordance with the Biblical account of a worldwide flood described in Genesis. If you haven’t read your Bible verses today, don’t worry, if I say “Noah” and “ark”, you probably know which one I mean. My guess was close, but not quite on the ball. Patrick Nunn, a professor of Oceanic Geoscience, here argues that ancient stories and myths hold within them descriptions of geological catastrophes and climatic changes. Welcome to the obscure academic discipline of geomythology.

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Book review – Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:

“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.

And with that, she had me hooked.

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Book review – The Tectonic Plates are Moving!

What has plate tectonics ever done for us? Not having studied geology, I have a basic understanding of the movement of earth’s continents, but this book made me appreciate just how much of current geology it underpins. Marine geophysicist Roy Livermore, who retired from the British Antarctic Survey in 2006 after a 20-year career, convincingly shows here that the discovery and acceptance of plate tectonics was a turning point in geology, on par with Darwin’s formulation of evolution by natural selection. To paraphrase evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: nothing in geology makes sense except in the light of plate tectonics.

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Book review – Land Bridges: Ancient Environments, Plant Migrations, and New World Connections

Before plate tectonics became an accepted idea in geology, Lyell’s doctrine of uniformitarianism still ruled supreme (see my review of Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century for a short introduction). A corollary was that the continents supposedly had always been where they are now. One observation scholars had to explain away was that the same fossils occur on both sides of the various oceans. Looking at maps, some people noticed the thin strip of land connecting North and South America and concluded that land bridges must have formed and sunk beneath the waves at just the right times in history to enable migrations (see Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth for more details). As explained in The Tectonic Plates are Moving!, we know better nowadays. Nevertheless, the concept of land bridges is still alive and well today, and palaeobotanist Alan Graham here introduces five of them, exploring their effects on biogeography, climate, and human history.

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Book review – Earth History and Palaeogeography

This book is an example of what happens when you go down rabbit holes. I have been reading several books on the subject of palaeontology and geology lately, and I know that the face of the earth has shifted over the hundreds of millions of years of deep history covered in these books. But where were all the continents at different times? Many will have seen the iconic maps of the supercontinent Pangaea. But I want to know more. What happened in between? And before? As Nield tells in Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet, Pangaea was only one of several such supercontinents in Earth’s history. But I want to know more still. Where exactly were the continents located? And how did they move? Several accessible books have provided snapshots of iconic moments, such as the formation of the Himalayas (Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet) or the disappearance of the Tethys ocean (Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World). But I want to know more! This technical reference work contains lots of fantastic palaeogeographical maps that answered all my questions.

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Book review – A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice

I have only ever seen Greenland once while flying over it on my way to a conference in Alaska. But geologist William E. Glassley has spent several field seasons together with two fellow geologists working in this rugged landscape, uncovering its geological secrets. This slim volume describes their work, but more prominently, it is a rhapsodic tribute to Earth’s wild places and the transformative experience of finding yourself far away from civilisation. I had not heard of Bellevue Literary Press before, but they aim to publish books at the intersection of art and science, and I would argue this book fits the bill well.

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