A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester
(Penguin Books, London: 2006)

First published by Viking in 2005.

READ: December 2006 - January 2007

There is no need to be an avid earthquake junkie to enjoy this book,* though it would be fair to say a passing interest in natural disasters helps. Former journalist Simon Winchester, who is trained in geology, has written an intensely compelling account of the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake was simply devastating. Striking early in the morning on April 18, 1906, it reduced a large part of San Francisco, one of the United States' most vibrant cities, to rubble. And what the earthquake did not destroy, the widespread fires that subsequently broke out finished off. Many thought the city would not be able to rebuild, but within a few months, it was back on its feet.

This is not just a social history of the people of San Francisco, detailing how peoples' lives were interrupted by the earthquake. While that in itself might be interesting enough, it certainly would not be adequate to sustain my interest for ~400 pages. Instead, in addition to bringing the 1906 earthquake and its reluctant participants to vivid life, Winchester also takes us on a fascinating geological tour. To research this book, he in fact traveled from just outside Albany in New York State, and straight across the southern United States to California. He then continued his travels northwards, through British Columbia up to Alaska (which is frequently hit by large quakes), and then back down through the Rockies and across the North American plain to his starting point in New York State. Along the way, he visits some of the most important geological hotspots, and tells us about their most interesting histories. Who knew, for instance, that a little tiny town in Missouri has suffered tens of thousands of earthquakes in the years since it was rocked by some quite violent ones in 1811, and that someday (in another 100 years or so) it will be hit by more big ones? Also, have you ever stopped to think that Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful is really just biding its time before, one day, it will turn into a super-volcano?

Set against the backdrop of the 1906 earthquake itself, Winchester tells us about these quirks of geology, and also takes us on a fascinating tour through the history and world of earthquake science, plate tectonics. This book should be called "Earthquake Science for Dummies (and It's Interesting, Too!)". Winchester knows his subject, and he gives just enough of a personal touch to every part of his subject (throwing in anecdotes, etc.) that what ought to be dry geological theories become quite interesting.

In fact, I suspect Winchester could make the phone book sound interesting.

* Unlike your beloved reviewer.


Tasha said...

Hi Julie,

I am a friend of Mark and Amynah's and followed Mark's link. I LOVE SImon Winchester and just finished his book on Krakatoa. I highly recommend it. Like this book, he makes plate tectonics incredibly interesting and understandable.


julie said...

Thanks Tasha! I remember meeting you at their wedding.

Krakatoa is high on my list of must-reads, but I'm holding back from picking it up just now - as I'm leaving this corner of Japan in about 5 months, I have to finish the other books on my shelves that will remain behind when I go! But yes, I've heard nothing but good things about Krakatoa...