I’ve spent a lot of time in my life with a variety of different field guides, especially mineralogy field guides. In fact, I’ve already reviewed the first one that I ever owned elsewhere. Furthermore, if I run across a new one which I haven’t seen before, I’ll always pick it up and bring it back to the nest. It’s a something of a sickness.
What you quickly learn, though, is that every field guide has a least one thing that it does really well, and one absolute, glaring, stark-staring-drive-you-bonkers flaw. And, surprise, that’s exactly the case with the “Smithsonian Handbook”, “DK Handbook”, or whatever else you want to call it.
Of course, these books were never meant to be used in the field. For one thing, if they were, they’d be printed on waterproof paper so that geologists and mineralogists couldn’t get them filthy. But most of the time, unlike a birdwatcher, for example, people working in the field know, more or less, what to expect when they go to a location.
That being said, the choice of how to organize and present not only the minerals, but the data about them, is one that sometimes says as much about the editor and writer as it does about the reader who is bothered by it.
DK/Smithsonian Rocks and Minerals is organized by mineral chemistry: it’s a safe and logical choice. Mineralogy is the field which drove 18th and 19th century chemists to identify and categorize new elements, which in turn drove discoveries in physics. And what is particularly useful about the book is the very regular, sensible presentation of important key facts: the chemical family, composition, specific gravity, fracture, hardness, and cleavage are presented in little uniformly colored boxes around the entries for each mineral discussed. And, as a helpful bonus, some basic information on simple chemical testing is provided, which always appeals to the “curious experimenter with acid to pour and time to kill” side of my personality. However, streak is not given for each mineral, and, crushingly, no locality information is given for specimens: this means, basically, that even if you were to try to use something in “the field”, based on this book, you’d have no idea how close you might be to something (or indeed, how far away). It’s a critical omission, fortunately dealt with by other books. If I had to guess, this problem derives simply from trying to keep to the format, and therefore squeezing too much information onto every page.
The final fifth of the book deals with rocks, rather than minerals, which are handled in a similar fashion to their cousins – again, well-illustrated, and sound, as far as the identifications go. Overall, the photos are good, and generally the book is useful – up to a point. But it is easy to see why starting collecting can be frustrating for young and old alike: there’s a lot to read and a lot to learn, and, like it or not, no single book ever gets it all right. This one is good as far as it goes, and will be a useful addition to your rockhound’s shelves, especially if you understand its flaws in advance.
Originally reviewed 13 December 2013.
Find your copy of Rocks and Minerals, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).