July 21, 2016


Rocks, Minerals & Gems: The Definitive Visual Catalog of the Treasure Beneath Your Feet. By Sean Callery and Miranda Smith. Photos by Gary Ombler. Scholastic. $19.99.

     The amazement of the ordinary is what drives this wonderful look at things we encounter constantly but to which we generally pay very little attention. “We could not live without rocks – we would have nothing to stand on and build with!” explain Sean Callery and Miranda Smith, and when you think about things that way, rocks are absolutely remarkable. Yet they are mundane, too, so familiar and commonplace that it is hard to recognize the astonishing processes that create them: a simple curbstone, for example, is “born in magma; blasted from a volcano; collected, ground up, and transformed into an unnoticed, everyday part of our world.”

     That is, rocks would be unnoticed if it were not for authors like Callery and Smith and, to at least as great an extent, a photographer as skilled as Gary Ombler, whose work – added to a great many photos taken from a great variety of other sources – makes the nonliving rocks, minerals and gems in this book seem to come alive. For one thing, the extreme closeups of rocks show details of their appearance in ways not normally seen in our daily life, and those details, the crystalline regularity and layered beauty and hugely varied colors, make for splendid viewing. Add to that the many photos showing how rocks and minerals are used structurally and decoratively: the malachite foyer in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, the Aztec sacrificial knife with a chalcedony blade, the 11th-century Peruvian mask using pigment made from cinnabar, the fossil-containing shale in which creatures from half a billion years ago may be found – there are wonders aplenty here, and a great deal to explore and marvel at.

     The uses of rock are nearly infinite. Rocks, Minerals & Gems shows an airplane whose fuselage is based on graphite, a 300-year-old flintlock pistol in which the explosion that fires the bullet is made by striking a piece of flint, a camera lens whose focusing ability is due to fluorite, the magnificent Pantheon dome built out of pumice during the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian, a set of 34 monasteries and temples carved out of a basalt cliff in India, and much more. And then there are gemstones: as the authors point out, only 130 of the 5,000 or so minerals on Earth are considered good enough to become gemstones, and only about 50 of those 130 are commonly used. Here readers encounter topaz and citrine, beryl and carnelian, agate and morganite, aquamarine and ametrine, as well as the more-familiar diamond, garnet, ruby, and emerald.

     This is a visual book above all, but there is also plenty of well-put-together information in it for readers. It is easy to forget, with all the areas into which Scholastic has moved (notably including U.S. publication of the Harry Potter books), that the company has its roots in education – and still handles that field remarkably well when it comes to books like this one. For example, in the discussion of quartz, the most common mineral on Earth, there are photos and clear explanations of the ninth-century enamel-and-quartz Alfred Jewel, the use by Roman soldiers of tigereye, the belief that rose quartz can heal a broken heart, the association of chalcedony with the goddess Diana, the use of smoky quartz in crystal balls, and more. The authors explain why opal is referred to as a mineraloid rather than a mineral (mainly because it does not have a crystalline structure), and tell readers that many gems in crowns around the world are said to be rubies but are actually spinels. This is a book to read in any direction, choosing pages sequentially or at random, paying attention for any amount of time – a work to explore at your own pace and browse through as your curiosity motivates you. Parents and children alike will find here a mixture of science and beauty, fact and myth, fascinating history (arsenic has been used in mineral baths and to improve breathing, as well as to kill) and up-to-date information (graphene, a layer of graphite only one atom thick, is 100 times stronger than steel). Rocks, Minerals & Gems is a book that makes the ordinary extraordinary – or, more accurately, shows that what seems to be mundane is in reality quite remarkable.

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