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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America…

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

by Simon Winchester

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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.
  olduvai | Jan 19, 2016 |
I was in a Seoul bookshop desperately looking for something appropriate in English when I saw "A Crack in the Edge of the World" sitting on a shelf. As a bonus, it was selling for about half of the normal (high) cost of an English language book in South Korea. I'd like to think it wasn't a bootleg.

Anyhoo, this is a great read, covering issues around San Francisco's history and how it was the preeminent California city until the earthquake, geology, plate tectonics, Enrico Caruso and more. Winchester has a writing style that leaves you turning the page for more, which was a problem in this case as I was soon again left desperately looking for another English book in Seoul. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Oct 13, 2015 |
This is more an American road trip in geology than an account of the San Fransico Earthquake of 1906. There is a road trip, through the geology of the North American tectonic plate. It is also a road trip through history. In both cases there are numerous asides of observation and mini-facts tending to irrlevance and distraction. But the main story as an explanation of the new geology of plate tetonics, and part of its intellectual invention, provides a manageable pathway to a good understanding of the complexities of the geological substance supporting and shaking human occupied California. Writing a book on this scale and range would be a big challenge. Reading it needs some work which is worthwhile. Winchester keeps the attention focused, provides explanations suited for the lay scientist and interested amateur. It is impressive writing as a combination of scientific geological history, impressions of landscape and humnan interests, and sympathetic though wry look at human challenges and foibles. ( )
  ChrisWJ | May 3, 2015 |
Simon Winchester has elevated the language of science to the language of poetry. His eloquence will hold the attention of and also captivate the reader with his brilliant explanation of the formation of the earth, the ocean floor, the plates that shift and slide to wreak havoc or as he might say cause mischief in so many places. He describes such things as the molten lava “breathing” beneath our surface in such a way that you see the river of fire. He describes the movement of the faults so that you see them slipping and sliding under each other, layered irregularly atop each other, forming ridges like those in a carpet, as commonplace as a crease in a piece of fabric. He uses metaphors and similes to enlighten the reader and make the subject fluid rather than as arid as science can sometimes be for the layman.
When Winchester likens the movements of the plates to a freight train stuck on the tracks with only the center moving outward, the reader can surely see the force of that pressure as it moves the front of the cars forward, finally, in a burst, resulting in the return of that bulge to the center, although in the front there may be concomitant damage; and when he describes the ripple that erupts in a carpet, sometimes, after walking on it repeatedly, the reader will see that “pleat”, as he calls it, forming a mountain one day as it continues to rise. When he describes the splitting water mains and the rupturing gas lines, the reader can feel the disaster in San Francisco approaching, along with the heat, strong tremors and fear, as well as the astonishment and wonderment also felt by some victims. Winchester brought the dry science behind an earthquake and other natural disasters to life. I could visualize the earth forming, the continents moving and the oceans spreading as the earth moved beneath me. With a vocabulary that has become obsolete in the pens of most writers, as they concentrate on sound bites and acronyms, he has mastered the art of prose, making often unfathomable subject matter less bone-dry with his use of language.
Winchester speaks of Freud, Einstein, and Caruso in a casual manner as he creates the foundation for his story with vignettes that sometimes make the reader smile. He begins with the moon landing of Neil Armstong and tells the story of our magnificent planet. Viewing the earth from that bird’s eye view, he describes the inner core beneath the earth’s crust so well that you think you are listening to the secrets of a mystery novel that are slowly being fleshed out, when actually you are being presented with scientific facts. Traveling up and down the western coast of the United States, his explanations burst with information that are at once comprehensible rather than opaque. His research gleaned from journals, diaries and letters is impeccable and his knowledge coupled with his writing skill has made this a very enjoyable, informative read. I know that he placed me in San Francisco at the moment of the quake. I could almost feel the turmoil as the earth raged beneath its surface wreaking havoc above it.
Today, the technology has improved so much that analysis is done by machines more often then people, but the first hand accounts did not contain the coldness of the machine, and therefore the story was connected to emotion. I learned of the reputation San Francisco had when it was born, I could see the cavalier attitude that prevailed, the indifference to any impending disaster, although there had already been some in the previous century. He even draws a relationship between the rise of radical faiths like Islam and Pentacostal Evangelists during catastrophic times, equating the catastrophes to a sign of G-d’s displeasure and a need for doubling down on their dogma. His analysis of the behavior of the insurance companies during the disaster is still relevant today!
Although I cannot profess to have understood every word of this highly detailed and descriptive book, concentrating on the April, 17, 1906, San Francisco earthquake, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this author read his own book with just the right tone and emotion to capture my ear completely. The book is both entertaining and informative. ( )
1 vote thewanderingjew | Mar 15, 2015 |
What ages would I recommend it too? – Twelve and up.

Length? – Three or Four evening read.

Characters? – Many historical characters

Setting? – Globally, focuses mostly on California and how geology influences lives and politics.

Written approximately? – 2006.

Does the story leave questions in the readers mind? – How have those influences changed since the 1906 quake. Has the politics improved, or is the town just as likely to be severely damaged by earthquake and fire today.

Any issues the author (or a more recent publisher) should cover? No.

Short storyline: The author discusses their travels through the country to see other geological features, and focuses primarily on the history of California and the political intrigue inherent before, and during the quake.

Notes for the reader: There are a lot of unfamiliar words. have your dictionary ready. Actually, most of them are unnecessary adjectives, so you can ignore them. He seems to be missing some historical accuracy, as he listed Columbus as the discoverer of America. Of course, you can't expect everyone to keep up with all of the latest knowledge! ( )
  AprilBrown | Feb 25, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (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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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
With this book I both welcome into this world my first grandchild,


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.
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)

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