Rocks and Minerals, by Herbert S. Zim: A Review

Rocks and Minerals, by Herbert S. Zim (Golden Books, 1980).

Rocks and Minerals, by Herbert S. Zim (Golden Books, 1980).

The Rocks and Minerals Golden Guide was one of my first rock and mineral books when I was quite young, and it holds a fondly-lit place in my memory for that reason, certainly. Nostalgia is a powerful trap, and one of which all readers should be wary. However, in the case of these little guides, the clarity and intelligence of the presentation is as useful now as it was sixty years ago.

What is pleasing to me is that, each time I now open the book, with thirty-something years more experience and education behind me (although I don’t claim any greater wisdom, having learned the hard way that it’s best not to claim to be “wise” under any circumstances), I still find Zim and Shaffer’s effort to be essentially sound. Zim didn’t pull any punches with these books: in this book on mineralogy for younger readers, you are expected to bring your curiosity, and a dictionary if you don’t understand the terms used. A good basic book on chemistry might also be helpful. I find that refreshing, particularly having seen some of the positively idiotic efforts to bring science education to kids in the past twenty years and despaired. When, in various venues, a parent would ask me for a book about rocks and minerals for kids, I would always show them this one first. I’ve given away several copies of it out of my own collection when I encountered young people who might happen to appreciate it, in various workshops that I’ve taught on minerals and rock tumbling, and I still keep an extra copy or two, just in case.

Rocks, Gems, and Minerals (Revised Edition), by Herbert S. Zim (St. Martin's Press, 2001).

Rocks, Gems, and Minerals (Revised Edition), by Herbert S. Zim (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

Zim’s book is thorough, without being burdensome, and it gives a lot of simple and useful information on mineral testing for identification purposes, which, presumably due to fear of litigation, is missing from nearly all new “field guides”. I might complain that none of these books is really useful “in the field,” as it were, but for working on minerals at home, they can be most helpful. Interestingly, the pages on blowpipe, bead, and flame tests have been retained in the newer edition published in 2001 (now titled Rocks, Gems, and Minerals for some reason), although such tests require some use of acids. I would of course urge anyone considering such tests to seek the advice and assistant of a qualified chemist or mineralogist, and to ensure that adequate and reasonable safety precautions are undertaken when handling corrosive materials. Also still present are the pages on identifying and storing radioactive minerals (again, not something I oppose at all, provided one takes appropriate steps to ensure proper containment, most small radioactive samples can be collected without incident or concern). As a goodly number of  collectors, myself included, now tend to do their rockhounding at their local annual gem and mineral show, identification is not perhaps as important as it was, but dissolving some powdered malachite or vanadinite in acid and then flame-testing the solution can still make for a fun and educational afternoon for the older student or mineralogy undergraduate.

Certain references have been updated across editions, but on the whole, this book is still a sound and delightful presentation, knowledgable without being preachy (something which I wish I could master), and full of interesting facts. Some might consider the illustrations by Raymond Perlman to be a drawback – the book is thoroughly illustrated in color with beautiful renderings of mineral specimens, as well as some slightly dated depictions of rock hunting “in the field”, but I find that the watercolored pictures give a more general sense of what a specimen might look like, something which the almost too-harsh precision of modern mineral photography sometimes fails to achieve.

On the whole, if you’re interested in this area, don’t gloss over this book. If you know mineralogy well, it will be an enjoyable bit of light reading. If you’re a newcomer, or a keen amateur, you’re pretty certain to find something to interest you, which in turn will encourage you to read further. Either way, good hunting!

Originally reviewed 15 March 2012.

Find your copy of Rocks and Minerals on (the link leads directly to search results).


About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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3 Responses to Rocks and Minerals, by Herbert S. Zim: A Review

  1. I both owned this book myself and sold many copies of it during the years I worked at a science and nature store at the mall. I totally agree with your review–it really is written in a scientifically sound, but understandable, way. That is sometimes a difficult balance to strike. This book, along with the Smithsonian Handbook on Gemstones were the ones I recommended most to would-be rock collectors! I hope I can visit the Smithsonian one day just so I can see that collection with my own eyes.


    • Glad I’m not the only one who likes this great little guide.

      I like the Smithsonian Handbooks series – DK prints some gorgeous books – and if you haven’t seen Rock and Gem, by Ronald Bonewitz (another DK / Smithsonian book, but large format), it’s well worth a look.

      I’ve been through the Smithsonian collection, but so long ago that it’s not too clear in my mind. Rock & Gem magazine has a couple of articles per year about museums, and there are a few on my list to visit now.

      Any other recommendations?


  2. Pingback: Rocks and Minerals (Smithsonian Handbooks), by Chris Pellant: A Review | Books, Reading, and Me: a bibliomane blog

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