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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America…
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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California… (2005)

by Simon Winchester

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Finished A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester.   

Notice that the subtitle on the cover is: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. I think I didn't fully grasp Winchester's focus here, even though I have read his previous books Krakatoa and The Map that Changed the World, both of which centered around geology. What I expected was more focus on the mayhem of the earthquake and fire. But you have to read almost half-way through before he buckles down to the actual event of 1906. The first half of the book explains plate tectonics, faults, geologic time and other aspects of New Geology, so you more completely understand what happened in San Francisco. Winchester articulated as simply and clearly as possible this (to me anyway) arcane science.

In an epilogue, Winchester puts other earthquakes (including the 1989 SF 'quake and two Alaskan 'quakes) into the story, as well as connecting variations in seismic activities in Yellowstone to activities along the San Andreas Fault.

Not what I expected, but nevertheless an interesting and informative read. I'll give it a thumb up.
  weird_O | Jul 1, 2016 |
This is a topic that I'm really interested in, but I couldn't get past Winchester's obnoxious, overblown writing style. He's so focused on creating an impressive dramatic lead-up to his story that he obscures his actual point to a ridiculous extent. At the beginning of the book, he goes on and on about a dramatic recent revolution in geology, dragging it out for pages and pages before actually telling us what he's talking about.

"[G]eology has suddenly and seriously changed, and at a pace so rapid as to bewilder and astonish all who come up against it anew, or return to it after a long while away. It is probably fair to say that never before has any long-existing science been remodeled and reworked so profoundly, so suddenly, and in so short a time. Wholly unimagined visions and possibilities allow us to contemplate our planet in brand-new ways." Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I have zero interest in reading paragraph upon paragraph that contains zero actual content.

"Thanks to the new attitudes and instruments and scientific philosophies of the new science, all the events of great geographical moment... can now be seen and interpreted in an entirely fresh context, and in a manner that had rarely before occurred to those who practiced the confusing and cobweb-bound older science with which (from memories of school and university) we are still so vaguely familiar."

I have to admit that the excessive build-up did make me curious about what had changed so dramatically in recent times. So it was a huge letdown to learn that the major difference between the Old Geology and the New Geology was the introduction of plate tectonics—something that I learned about in elementary school 20 years ago. All this dramatic build-up was essentially for nothing; the amazing New Geology was the only geology I had ever known. That whole dramatic build-up led me literally nowhere; it was nothing more than the rambling reminiscences of an older man who had learned a now-outdated school curriculum 50 or 60 years ago.

Apparently this whole geological revolution was inspired by the moon landing, which gave people the unprecedented idea of looking at the world as a whole. I have my doubts. Wikipedia tells me that plate tectonics were accepted in the scientific world in the late 1950s/early 1960s, while Neil Armstrong didn't step foot on the moon until 1969. The whole introduction was just garbage.

Maybe the book got better after that, but I wasn't about to trust this author with any more of my time. I didn't read past the prologue.
  _Zoe_ | Jun 14, 2016 |
This book was a comprehensive look at anything and everything that can be remotely connected to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and ensuing fire. Winchester gives a whole lot of background information that puts the damage in context. The phenomenon of plate tectonics explains how the energy built up and then burst out causing the tremendous shaking. The history of the westward expansion explains the growth of the city at that time.

What I found to be the most interesting, and well worth wading through all the technical and historical background material, were the first hand accounts of the shaking and the pictures of the damage. I was inspired to make the trip to the top of Mount Diablo and enjoy the scenery from up above. Having lived in the area for almost 30 years, I enjoy learning more about its geology and history.

We just observed the 110th anniversary of the quake. Every year it is observed in the chill early hours at the historic fire hydrant and Lott's fountain. It serves to remind everyone in the area of the constant threat we are under and the glorious forces which cause earthquakes. ( )
  mamzel | Apr 27, 2016 |
Another interesting read from Simon Winchester, and especially interesting since I live in the north bay area (Sonoma County). I did get a little bogged down with the geology at times, but it returned to the human side of the equation often enough to keep me engaged in the story.
Inspired me to look into emergency supplies once again to make sure I'm prepared...and to make me a bit nervous once again about going south of the Golden Gate.
I listened to the audio CD read by the author. ( )
  KylaS | Feb 18, 2016 |
Originally posted at https://olduvaireads.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/crack-edge-of-world-simon-winchester/

Winchester begins by tempting the reader with some snippets of information on the earthquake, some depictions of it from first-hand accounts, and some longing and loving depictions of the city and its surrounds, from his perch high above on Mount Diablo.

I can understand all that geological and geographical facts that he pounds away at. It is an earthquake book, that was to be expected. To read of a meteor crater in Winslow, Arizona, though and various small towns in Missouri and California, which have seismologists all excited, ok fair enough, but Winchester does take us on a rather long meandering route through time and space before we eventually get to 1906 San Francisco. He has after all driven from the east coast of the US to the west, and I guess that means he has a lot of time to think about his project, his journey and more.

So to finally return to San Francisco in the 1900s is a bit of a relief. But Winchester isn’t ready to take us to the earthquake, not quite yet. First we learn about the relative youth of America in those days, the treaties signed like the Louisiana Purchase, buying 600,000 acres of Alaska from Russia, then the treaty signed with Mexico for western lands. And of course one cannot talk about San Francisco history without touching on gold. Some Chinese still refer to this area as “旧金山” (pronounced ‘jiujinshan’) or literally “old gold mountain”.

But wait! In Chapter Seven, Winchester heads back to contemporary times, this time bringing the reader to central California and a little farming town called Parkfield, a “much-measured place” full of scientific equipment, devices monitoring monitoring monitoring seismic activity. And there are discussions about plates and a variety of other things that may interest you more than me.

Aha, Chapter Eight takes us back in time again, with more of the story of San Francisco! Ok so in case you haven’t guessed yet, I am more of a history buff than a geography one. I love all these little details about life back then – how prices of goods rocketed after the gold poured in (nearly a million dollars in the first eight weeks), how people abandoned their jobs to go dig up some gold (more than 200 sailing vessels lay offshore in July 1849, sailors all after the shiny things. By the end of the year, this number was 600!). People lived in flimsy tents, and it was filthy and just downright dirty and gross. And corrupted. This was the mid-1800s. And he throws in all these tidbits, like how the San Francisco patois, like the use of ‘crib’ to mean ‘home’, ‘crimp’, ‘shanghai men’, and even ‘hoodlum’. And far more fascinating (at least to me) details about life in San Francisco, in the west in the 1800s. Oh I bathed in this chapter, I really did. Because Winchester, when he’s good, he’s really really good.

And TADA, in Chapter Nine, we get to April 17, 1906! FINALLY.

But NO! He fools us again. Winchester first sets it up with a rather long few pages about the day before it, the adventures of an opera singer, a tenor, in town to perform and staying at the seven-storey Palace Hotel, we read newspaper accounts of the opera Carmen, then some other things about what happened the night before the earthquake, entertainment at the theatre, a couple of fires, all this ending and GAHHH he didn’t get to the EARTHQUAKE!! He ends with dawn, April 17, 1906: “Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace.”

Ok so now CHAPTER TEN, according to my e-book, we are 47.7% into the book. Winchester is on thin ice here. But we finally meet the Earthquake:

“It made its entrance in a spectacular, horrifying, unforgettable way. It came thundering in on what looked like huge undulating waves, with the entire surface of the earth and everything that stood upon it seeming to lift up and then roll in forward from the direction of the ocean. The whole street and all its great buildings rose and fell, rose and fell, in what looked like an enormous tidal bore, an unstoppable tsunami of rock and brick and cement and stone.”

Winchester digs up accounts from various people, policemen, hotel guests, ship captains, even a very young Ansel Adam and his Chinese cook. He makes the simple point that clocks stopped, because they ran on pendulums. And this one detail stuns me. I understand the telegraph wires going down, the fires and all that. But to think that they weren’t able to tell the time because their clocks stopped blew me away. Yes it was a long time ago.

And the destruction. Relentless. Complete. Devastating.
  RealLifeReading | Jan 19, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 50 (next | show all)
Geology is not, at first glance, the most inviting of subjects, but in this book Simon Winchester makes it engagingly, captivatingly readable.
 
Without slighting the human suffering of the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters, and with full attention to the irreducible particularity of their pain, Winchester places their tragedies in an almost cosmic context. The earth is not a stable structure, he teaches us, but a living system.
 
Me, I hated it. I wanted to drop-kick this book across the backyard. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.
 
Part tectonic textbook, part intimate travelogue, A Crack in the Edge of the World searches for the irrepressible primeval forces responsible for these periodic upheavals by examining the scars left along the temperamental North American plate, which stretches from Iceland in the east to the coast of California. Tugging the reader along from Greenland to Newfoundland, from New Madrid, Missouri, to Meers, Oklahoma, Winchester reconstructs a sequence of cataclysms as he closes in on the fateful events of that April morning.
 
This legendary natural disaster and urban catastrophe -- with its rough parallels to today's events -- is the subject of Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World." Unfortunately, Mr. Winchester explores the events of 1906 only after he has taken the reader for a long road trip of geologically significant American towns and 200 rambling and tedious pages on the history of "earlier American geology" and geologists.
 
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Epigraph
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve.

Robinson Jeffers, 'Carmel Point', 1954
Dedication
With this book I both welcome into this world my first grandchild,

Coco

and offer an admiring farewell to

Iris Chang

whose nobility, passion and courage should serve as a model for all, writers and newborn alike
First words
Some time ago, when I was half-idly browsing my way around the internet, I stumbled across the home page of an obscure small town in western Ohio with the arresting name of Wapakoneta.
So far as the ancients of China are concerned, 1906 was a year of the Fire Horse - a time of grave unpredictability that comes along every six decades, and a time when all manner of strange events have the mind to occur.
Quotations
Then he decided he should be taking pictures - except that he swiftly realized he had no camera. So he went to his dealer, a man name Kahn on Montgomery Street, and asked to borrow one. Kahn was only too well aware of the fires licking hungrily toward him, so told Genthe to take anything he wanted - anyway, it would all be molten scrap in a few hours at best. And so Genthe took a 3A Kodak Special, hurried off up the hills that looked down on the city-center destruction, and began to work. Later he wrote of the one picture taken from the upper end of Sacramento Street, close to where his house would soon be consumed by fire. He was peculiarly fond of it: There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the first morning of the first day of the fire (on Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay) which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed onto the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it. Several people upon seeing it have exclaimed, "Oh, is that a still from a Cecil DeMille picture?" To which the answer has been" "No, the director of this scene was the Lord himself."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060571993, Hardcover)

Geologically speaking, 1906 was a violent year: powerful, destructive earthquakes shook the ground from Taiwan to South America, while in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted. And in San Francisco, a large earthquake occurred just after five in the morning on April 18--and that was just the beginning. The quake caused a conflagration that raged for the next three days, destroying much of the American West's greatest city. The fire, along with water damage and other indirect acts, proved more destructive than the earthquake itself, but insurance companies tried hard to dispute this fact since few people carried earthquake insurance. It was also the world's first major natural disaster to have been extensively photographed and covered by the media, and as a result, it left "an indelible imprint on the mind of the entire nation."

Though the epicenter of this marvelously constructed book is San Francisco, Winchester covers much more than just the disaster. He discusses how this particular quake led to greater scientific study of quakes in an attempt to understand the movements of the earth. Trained at Oxford University as a geologist, Winchester is well qualified to discuss the subject, and he clearly explains plate tectonics theory (first introduced in 1968) and the creation of the San Andreas Fault, along with the geologic exploration of the American West in the late 19th century and the evolution of technology used to measure and predict earthquakes. He also covers the social and political shifts caused by the disaster, such as the way that Pentecostalists viewed the quake as "a message of divine approval" and used it to recruit new members into the church, and the rise in the local Chinese population. With many records destroyed in the fire, there was no way to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, and thus many more Chinese were granted citizenship than would have otherwise been. Filled with eyewitness accounts, vivid descriptions, crisp prose, and many delightful meanderings, A Crack in the Edge of the World is a thoroughly absorbing tale. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:22 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Winchester brings his storytelling abilities, as well as his understanding of geology, to the extraordinary San Francisco Earthquake, exploring not only what happened in northern California in 1906 that leveled a city symbolic of America's relentless western expansion, but what we have learned since about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake. He also positions the quake's significance along the earth's geological timeline and shows the effect it had on the rest of 20th-century California and American history.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 7 descriptions

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