Here’s the first Wednesday Wreckage, a new category where I critique a deserving / undeserving book that has raised my hackles, tickled my irritability, or otherwise annoyed me. I have a few fairly negative reviews in my quiver, but this may only be an occasional series: vented spleen is never pretty. Obviously, if you read a review like this, then end up buying any of the WW books and reading them yourself, please hear the “I told you so” that is implied in each of the links. And now, in the spirit of scrupulous fairness, let’s begin with a book published over 100 years ago.
This is a justly little-known book for which I had some hopes when I first read of it. My hopes were quickly dashed. Originally published by J.B. Lippincott in 1898, this book reminds us that some things just weren’t meant to survive. Call it natural selection for books, if you like.
Under the guise of the worst story ever written, The Boy Mineral Collectors manages to also be an unengaging and tediously autodidactic book about mineralogy and mining lore. It would be an unfair complaint that the information is 125 years out of date, and for that matter some of it is still relevant or of historical interest. It is certainly interesting to read about certain materials, and note the absence of references, for the most part, to the rare earth elements and radioactives, as particularly the latter weren’t yet known. It would also be unfair to suggest that the “boy” in the title is needlessly exclusive of women and girls, who in the book are largely depicted as interesting themselves mainly with gemstones and pearls (of which the latter are not minerals, being organic in origin).
The book follows some boys, as one might have already guessed, who go to visit a relative with a variety of mining concerns in Colorado. Tom White and Fritz Mayer, cousins from Ohio, travel to Denver, Colorado to spend three months with their uncle, Benjamin White, and his son Harry. There, as they indulge in an interest in collecting mineral and rock specimens, Fritz and Tom and Harry engage in a series of tiresome call-and-response lectures on the various mineralogies that they encounter. There are discussions of all the things which might entice a bright and curious boy (or girl): gold, silver, platinum, copper, iron, diamonds, rubies, sapphires (for some reason these last two, although chemically almost identical – they are both varieties of the mineral corundum – are divided between two chapters), and more. Evidently written in the interests of engaging a young readership about the earth sciences, the book tries to present the then-state of the art of geology and mineralogy in an enticing, alluring light.
However, Mr. Kelley could not have written his way out of a brown paper bag that had spent a long, miserable week-end in the rain. Granted, it was the fashion of some books for youth of this day to be stilted and formal (or so I believe from my limited reading). The early Tom Swift novels (the first of which were written only a decade later), for example, have the same familiar tone of halting formality about them. This book, however, drives that narrative fashion to newly ridiculous lows. The characters are wooden and barely two-dimensional, the dialogue is clipped and unbelievable. It almost seems like a parody, and read in that way, The Boy Mineral Collectors might at least be funny. The last of the lectures at the end of the book, however, which basically consisted of a list of some of the well know diamonds of history, nearly killed me through sheer boredom. Some of the earlier chapters where chemistry and mineral identification were discussed were accurate and fairly interesting, and despite their stilted and lifeless delivery, you could use them, with small modifications, as a guide to performing the same experiments yourself (if you do, make sure you have the appropriate safety gear). Overall, Kelley’s book reads like a badly-delivered book by someone aspiring to rewrite Plato’s Republic for mineralogy, but who unfortunately only possessed the writing ability of a Harlequin / Mills & Boon romance writer.
Overall meriting two stars for the sake of its content, The Boy Mineral Collectors is really only readable if you come to it with considerable background in mineralogy and its lore already. If you haven’t been a collector for a while, or have not taken at least one college-level mineralogy course, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere for your elementary texts. I can’t think of how this book would have enticed anyone into an interest in mineral collecting, but maybe it inspired someone like a young Peter Zodac (founding publisher of Rocks & Minerals magazine in 1926, who would have been the right age to have encountered it). For that matter, I wonder if my grandfather, who was slightly younger than Zodac, read this book. He actually spent part of his youth in Colorado and was also a mineral collector. To my mind, though, reading The Boy Mineral Collectors makes me fairly certain that the best way to get someone interested in mineral collecting as a hobby is to show them the beauties of the mineral kingdom first hand, rather than by engaging in a Socratic dialogue about the joys of the geosciences.
Fortunately, the book is available freely from Google, if you really are intrigued by the notion of reading it, enjoy weird old didactic texts, or simply hate good writing.
Originally reviewed 18 November 2012.
Read this book for free from Google Books (you will have to sign in to download it).
Find a copy of The Boy Mineral Collectors (if you must) on AbeBooks.com.