cover image Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

Brenda Maddox. Bloomsbury, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-63286-912-8

Biographer and science writer Maddox (Rosalind Franklin) follows the trails of multiple Victorian geologists in this account of the era popular avocation and pastime. Maddox proffers general overviews of the field, which book-end a series of minibiographies that focus on noteworthy figures from 19th-century British geology and their contributions to modern understandings of Earth’s structure. Leading lights such as Charles Lyell, whose 1830 publication of Principles of Geology spurred interest in the field, and Charles Darwin star in multiple chapters, while other lesser-known figures, including Mary Anning and Roderick Murchison, only feature once. By following several people, Maddox allows readers to see the rise and fall over time of particular ideas regarding geology. Unfortunately, she stumbles a bit in describing the many intersections of those lives. The individual chapters are well written and accessible, but taken as a whole there is a lot of overlap in how the material is discussed. Events repeat as individuals move in and out of each other’s lives, and there are also passages in the text that are near duplicates of each other. Interspersed contemporaneous poems on geologists add some extracurricular interest, but better treatments of these people and ideas already exist. (Nov.)