Book Review:
A Field Manual For The Amateur Geologist (Alan M. Cvancara)

Reviewed by Richard Busch

Lithosphere (February 1996); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

Many rocks, minerals, and fossils can be appreciated for their esthetics; but to appreciate their scientific value, one must know something about the geological conditions under which a specimen was formed or preserved. Unfortunately, most books about geology tend to fall into one of two categories -- either they provide a few pages of pretty pictures with minimal commentary (such superficial books are disparagingly referred to as "comic books"), or they are directed toward professionals -- with descriptions containing undefined technical jargon. Finding a good introductory book for serious amateurs has always been a problem.

Despite a little bizarreness, A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist by Alan M. Cvancara nicely fills the gap between geological "comic books" and professional books. Dr. Cvancara, a retired Professor of Geology at the University of North Dakota, does not assume the reader has any previous geological training; however, he does assume the reader is seriously interested in learning about field geology. To accomplish this goal, Cvancara has divided the book into four major sections plus five brief appendices.

The first and largest section is devoted to describing landforms and the geological processes which create them. The reader is lead, in turn, from landforms created by the actions of streams to those created by glaciers, ocean waves, wind, groundwater, landslides, volcanos, and tectonic processes. The section concludes with a chapter which concisely describes the major characteristics of different landforms as a guide to identifying them in the field.

The second major section of the book deals with geologic time, dynamic geological processes such as mountain building, and the reconstruction of past events using geological evidence. Included is a list of U.S. National Parks with brief descriptions of the special geological features of each area.

The third section deals with rocks, minerals, and fossils. You won't find detailed descriptions of all the minerals or fossils known to science here, but that is not the intent of the book. Although the author seeks to educate the reader on how to identify the common rocks, minerals, and fossils, the main thrust of the section is to relate their presence to the geological processes and environment in which they are found.

The final section of the book, entitled "How to Do Geology," discusses some of the tools of the trade (like geologic maps) and puts all of the preceding material together so the reader can go out into the field and make intelligent geological observations. Appendices include lists of major geological museums in the U.S., addresses of state geological surveys, a brief description of the main geological provinces in the U.S., and a list of roadside geology guidebooks for the U.S.

Rather than provide a separate glossary of geological terminology, Cvancara defines terms in the body of the text. Unlike many introductory books on geology, he includes pronunciation for the terms. Unfortunately, his pronunciation guides do not use dictionary syntax. As a result, the pronunciations are generally useful (breccia is BRETCH-ee-uh), sometimes superfluous (graphite is GRAPH-ite), and occasionally incomprehensible (Cvancara is SWUHN-shuh-ruh).

Once in a while Cvancara strays from the book's amateur orientation, such as when he mentions the use of electrical well logs in a discourse on exploration geology, but such detours are few and minor. Especially interesting is a chapter on "stone sleuthing," in which the author suggests studying tombstones to learn about rock weathering. The chapter, illustrated with a photograph of the Cvancara family plot, concludes with the author's suggestion that the reader use his or her newfound knowledge of rock durability to select their own tombstone to last the ages!

The book does not attempt to explain everything, but rather provides a good first step toward developing a sound understanding of geology.

A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist by Alan M. Cvancara; ISBN 0-471-04430-X; paper; 1995; John Wiley & Sons; $14.95.

Copyright © 1996 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the February 1996 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002