A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005) by Simon Winchester tells the story of the Great Earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 (and much, much more) in a way only Winchester could tell it. Winchester has become one of my favorite writers simply because he writes about science, history, and travel in an engaging manner. He also has the James Burke-like talent of making connections among seemingly disparate things. For example, in the early chapters of this book he connects the website of Wapakoneta, OH and geologist Tuzo Wilson as well as making California’s Mt. Diablo a symbol for pretty much everything to come in this book.
According to Winchester, 1906 was a year of seismic activity worldwide, the California earthquake just one of many events. Before we learn about the earthquake though, Winchester takes us deep into the geologic past. Winchester then takes a tour across the North American Plate starting in Iceland. As he travels the continent, Winchester visits the sites of numerous seismic events including such unlikely intraplate locations as Charleston, SC and New Madrid, MO. Finally arriving in California, Winchester takes us to Parkfield a hub of seismic activity and earthquake study.
Winchester prefaces the story of the 1906 quake with a fairly detailed, yet lively, history of San Franciso itself which rises from a wild west boomtown to the greatest city on the west coast. Finally, he relates the story of the quake itself, filled with first person stories of the people who experienced it. This includes some celebrities like operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, psychologist William James, writer Jack London, and four-year old Ansel Adams who broke his nose as a result of the earthquake. Amateur photography also captured the human perspective on the quakes and the ensuing fires.
Winchester also documents the human response to the earthquake. Scientist throughout the world use rudimentary devices to track the seismic activity (many of them in Jesuit institutions). Insurance companies tried to weasle out of paying their claims much to national disapproval, even in Congress. Long-term aftershocks of the earthquake include the rise of Los Angeles as the dominant western city due to its relatively more stable location. Winchester also theorizes that the belief in the earthquake as divine retribution sparked the rise in Pentecostal churches that still affects public discourse today. Another unfortunate aftereffect is the use of Angel Island to detain potential immigrants from China, many trying to claim relation to Chinese-Americans already living in the city because all the records were destroyed in the fires.
In an epilogue, Winchester continues his travels to Alaska where the famous pipeline traverses a fault and is susceptible to the viscious earthquakes of the state. The effects of Alaskan earthquakes can be seen all the way in Yellowstone Park, itself sitting on a volcanic caldera which could blow with disasterous results for the Western States. Winchester ties this up with the hubris of people building on land prone to seismic activity.
Since I’m commuting with my son and no longer have time to read on the subway, I got this as an audiobook to listen to while performing mundane tasks at work. It’s narrated by Winchester himself in his charming, academic English accent. He also amusingly immitates the various accents of the historical figures he’s quoting, such as Caruso’s Italian. I enjoyed listening to this lively historical and geological work and reccomend it highly. I’ve previously read Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Professor and the Madman, The Meaning of Everything, and The Map That Changed the World. You can read my reviews of these books at LibraryThing.
Author Winchester, Simon.
Title A crack in the edge of the world [sound recording] : America and the great California earthquake of 1906 / Simon Winchester.
Publication Info. North Kingstown, RI : Sound Library/BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 10 sound discs (ca. 12 hrs. 36 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.