If you want book recommendations, talk to scientists. They read. A lot.
Need proof? There are 11 libraries in the National Museum of Natural History. Apart from the main branch, most are connected to a specific research area and about the size of a large living room. There’s one dedicated to birds, another to minerals, and so on.
But this is a post about our staff’s paleo picks, so I went here:
The masterminds—paleontologists, exhibition developers, and educators—behind the new exhibition, Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World, gave me the titles of their favorite fossil reads and I hunted a few of them down.
For the most part, the books are variations on a theme: life and the forces—geologic and other—that lead to evolution or extinction.
Some are macro in scope, others chronicle the fate of a single species or region. Humans make cameos in many of these narratives, either in the form of paleontologists searching for answers or humanity writ-large altering the planet we inhabit.
Like the fossil record itself, these books prompt you to contemplate the profound and the amusing. Richard Fortey does both in Trilobite! Eye Witness to Evolution (my favorite title). I found myself wanting to put these Fortey phrases on T-shirts or holiday cards:
“Without death there is little innovation. Extinction—the death of a species—is part and parcel of evolutionary change.”
“Naturally, there would have been no baby trilobites without sex. Sadly, we do not know as much as we would like to know about the sex lives of trilobites.”
(Trilobites, for the record, are those iconic segmented, flat marine fossils that lived long before dinosaurs. Like today’s insects and crustaceans, they were arthropods.)
So, whether you’re looking to start a paleo book club or for gift ideas for fossil enthusiasts, consider these reads—grouped broadly into themes. And for those of you who like to judge books by their covers, we've included a slideshow.
The Big Picture
- Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, by Richard Fortey
- The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature, by Loren Eiseley
- Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, by Andrew Knoll
- A History of Life in 100 Fossils, by Paul D. Taylor and Aaron O'Day
Case Studies in Evolution
- Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin
- Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by Stephen Jay Gould
- Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution, by Richard Fortey
- The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples, by Tim Flannery
- Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip, by Kirk Johnson (Author and the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History) and Ray Troll (Illustrator)
- Attending Marvels: A Patagonian Journal, by George Gaylord Simpson
- My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek
The Human Footprint
- The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, by David Archer
- Apocalyptic Planet: A Field Guide to the Future of the Earth, by Craig Childs
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
- The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, by Emma Marris
On Time and Climate Change
- The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future, by Richard Alley
- Nature’s Clocks: How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything, by Douglas Macdougall
- The Complete Dinosaur, by Michael K. Brett-Surman (Editor), Thomas R. Holtz (Editor), James O. Farlow (Editor), Bob Walters (Illustrator)
- Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages, by Thomas Holtz (Author) and Luis Rey (Illustrator)
- Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy, by Mark Witton
- When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Pre History of Life in the Triassic, by Hannah Bonner
- If You are a Hunter of Fossils, by Byrd Baylor (Author) and Peter Parnall (Illustrator)
By Tina Tennessen, Writer/Editor, National Museum of Natural History
Editor’s Note: Thanks to many of the National Museum of Natural History's paleo experts for their suggestions, Dr. Kay Behrensmeyer, Amy Bolton, Dr. Matthew Carrano, Sant Director Dr. Kirk Johnson, Dr. Nick Pyenson, Siobhan Starrs, Dr. Hans-Dieter Sues, Dr. Abby Telfer, and Dr. Scott Wing.