Science Book a Day Interviews John Farndon


Special thanks to John Farndon for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Complete Illustrated Guide to Minerals, Rocks & Fossils of the World

John Farndon is an internationally known author, as well as a playwright, composer and songwriter, whose work has been performed at such theatres as the Donmar and Almeida in London and the Salisbury Playhouse and selected for showcases, such as Beyond the Gate. He has written hundreds of books, which have sold millions of copies around the world in most major languages and include many best-sellers, such as the award-winning Do Not Open, which received rave reviews in the USA and became a cult-hit as well as featuring on the New York Times and Washington Post best-seller lists. – From John’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Minerals, Rocks and Fossils of the World?

I decided to write Minerals and Rocks because I felt there was a great need for a book that provided a comprehensive and practical guide to rocks for the keen rock hunter – and indeed anyone who is fascinated by the wonderfully rich variety of natural materials making up the ground beneath our feet. I felt that other books about rocks were either scanty or overly visual pocket guides which only covered a limited range of types or simply helped you identify specimens – or else were immensely and tediously technical.

I wanted to create a guide instead that was both comprehensive and authoritative – and yet easy to read and follow – and also told you enough about each specimen and its story to whet and satisfy your interest, rather than just classify it and stick it away in a box. That to me is why people collect rocks and minerals – because each and every specimen has an absolutely fascinating story to tell.

It all begun when I met rock collector Richard Tayler when looking for samples to feature in a smaller book on rocks. Richard has travelled the world and built up an amazing collection which is stored in a haphazard array of huts, sheds and outbuildings in his huge garden just outside London. This provided the core of the samples in this book. They are not all the almost unbelievably perfect samples one finds in museums, and that’s the point – they are the rough and ready examples most rock hunters actually find. And Richard’s collection showed me just what a barely-told story there is to tell. I was lucky enough, too, to team up with the wonderful Dr Alec Livingstone, an immensely experienced and rigourous mineralogist who was long keeper of one of the world’s finest mineral collections in the National Museum of Scotland, and also a brilliant X-ray mineralogist. Between them, Richard and Alec helped me steer what I hope was a path between the practicality of hands-on rock hunting and the rich rigour of technical geology.

#2 – There have been various editions of this book. How many versions have come out, how have they changed over the years?

Yes, there have indeed been many versions of this book, but I don’t know exactly how many, since the publishers don’t always tell me! For me, though, the biggest and most important change was to a smaller format edition. The original book was a large format, coffee-table kind of book. That’s great because it allows the pictures to be big and clear, and is just the kind of format for checking your specimens against when you get home, or simply scanning through when the weather is too bad – or you simply want to know about rocks. But I campaigned successfully for the publishers to reduce the print and page size without cutting the content at all, and producing a version compact enough to carry out in a bag or take with you on a trip. That’s the edition I’m most pleased with.

#3 – When writing a guide for rocks and minerals, what are the most important things that need to be conveyed?

I think in many ways that came in my answer to the first question. I think it’s not only important to provide all the detailed information and genuinely practical guidance to help rock hunters identify and classify specimens – but also to tell the stories behind the specimens, because that’s the reason why people are fascinated by rocks. There is a magic in rocks and minerals, an endlessly fascinating and marvellous tale to tale both very very ancient and as newborn as possible about the world on which we walk, and I think it’s vital for a book about geology to include that.

#4 – What feedback have you had from your readers over the years?

All the feedback I’ve had about the book has been immensely gratifying. One thing I’ve found especially satisfying, besides the kind words of practical enthusiasts, is that students of geology and geography have written to say to me that although because this is not an academic book it’s not on their official reading list, it’s helped them really understand their subject, and reminded them why they wanted to study in the first place.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I’ve just published a book called Do You Still Think You’re Clever? which was a follow-up to book I wrote called Do You Think You’re Clever? which was such a success all around the world that I was asked for more. The book is designed to make you think, and it’s full of possible responses to the weird and often fiendish questions candidates for Oxford and Cambridge university sometimes get asked at interviews, such as ‘Is nature natural?’, ‘Which way is the Earth spinning?’ ‘What makes a strong woman?’ and ‘How would poison someone without the police finding out?’ I’m currently working on a book called The Omnipaedia, which is book about how to know everything, and will, I hope, turn everyone who reads it into a polymath… which may be just a little ambitious, I know! So wish me luck with that. I’m also developing a book about cultural landscapes – to tell the story not just of the natural landscapes of the world, but the landscapes as they have been reshaped over the millennia, and much of the world’s surface has. It’s one of the great untold stories of our planet.

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