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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

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,867545,531 (3.66)105
  1. 50
    Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester (oregonobsessionz)
  2. 00
    The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain (geophile)
  3. 00
    The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 by Philip L. Fradkin (geophile)
    geophile: Readers who enjoy one of these books may like a different viewpoint of the same event by another author.
  4. 00
    When the Mississippi Ran Backwards : Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes by Jay Feldman (geophile)
    geophile: Those interested in the history and events surrounding either of these great earthquakes may be interested in learning about the other. While the San Francisco earthquake is well known, fewer people know about the New Madrid earthquake.
  5. 00
    Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester (John_Vaughan)

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» See also 105 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
  Familyhistorian | Feb 10, 2019 |
Classic example of why authors need editors. I was excited to read this book to help knock off another challenge (as well as to whittle down my reading list) by reading about...EARTHQUAKES! Exciting, right? I was intrigued by the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and thought this would be an excellent book to read. It's been awhile since I've read Winchester's other books (I've read at least two I think) and thought this would be a good pick up.
Man. This is exactly why strong editors are needed. This is one of those books where the author is clearly in love with his own voice and for whatever reading any badly needed re-drafts/re-writings and editing didn't happen. It's really not a story about the 1906 earthquake. It's about the history of California, how earthquakes happen, geology, his adventures traveling around California, etc.
He doesn't actually get to the earthquake until the end of the book really. It's mentioned here and there with the perspectives of some people but it doesn't really pick up until the end. You have to read about Iceland and Africa and tectonic plates and the history of California and the gold rush to get there. That is not what the back of the book says it is. That is not what I read this for.
By the time I actually got to the earthquake, I had lost all interest. Although I am familiar with some of Winchester's work (and somewhat remember the dragged out feeling with it) this was by far a worse endeavor by him. There is interesting information, but it's so disjointed and all over the place that I found it's not worth the slog to get through. I really wanted to read about the 1906 earthquake and wish the author had stuck it.
I regret buying it. Borrow from the library if you must! Hopefully there is another book out there that actually addresses this subject and does it a lot better. Not sure I'll read another one of Winchester's books. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
Wonderfully detailed account of the science and geology of earthquakes, specifically focusing on the 1906 SF Earthquake. Does not overly dwell on this specific quake, but rather places it in the context of history and geography. Premise of the book being the planet is an immense interconnected whole, one happening triggers another. ( )
  MM_Jones | Feb 5, 2018 |
Author Simon Winchester was originally trained as a geologist and it shows; the account manages to be technically correct, engagingly well written, and erudite (Winchester uses “thixotropic” in a sentence) simultaneously. This is not a chronological narrative; Winchesters segues faultlessly from first-person descriptions of the earthquake, to the history of San Francisco, to a detailed but highly readable explanation of plate tectonics, to accounts of earlier American earthquakes (1886 Charleston, 1811 New Madrid), to early geological surveys of the United States, to recent California quakes. Some of this comes as commentary to a cross-country trip Winchester took, with stops at historic intraplate earthquake sites (as well as Meers, Oklahoma, where paleoseismology shows huge fault displacements in the past few thousand years but nothing of particular interest in recent history). With a background firmly established (all the way to the first hint of plate tectonics, about 3 Gya), Winchester then gets back to the 1906 earthquake.

Lots of fascinating eyewitness accounts of buildings falling over, the ground undulating, and general seismic mayhem. San Francisco was a machine politics city at the time, and many of the public building had been poorly constructed by politically connected contractors, resulting in collapse of many stone and brick buildings, while wooden buildings survived – temporarily. The earthquake was followed by fire, as numerous stoves overturned, gas lines ruptured, and electric wires shorted. With most of the water lines broken, the fire was eventually contained by dynamiting firebreaks. The politicians later seized on the fire as the “actual” cause of the disaster, believing that it would be easier to get financing to rebuild the city if it were not perceived as being in an earthquake zone. Official documents always referred to the “Great San Francisco Fire” rather than “Earthquake”. Insurance companies got into the act; those people who had policies covering earthquakes were told that the actual damage to their property was caused by fire, and those with fire insurance learned that their houses had been destroyed by an earthquake and reduced to a valueless heap of rubble before burning (Lloyd’s of London was an honorable exception to the trend and paid all claims).

There’s a terrific appendix detailing the various earthquake magnitude and intensity measuring systems – Rossi-Forel, Omori, Mercalli-Cancani-Sieberg, Modified Mercalli, Medvedev-Sponheuer-Karnik, and European Macroseismic Intensity for intensity; and Richter for magnitude (although, unfortunately, he doesn’t explain why the Richter scale needed to be modified to handle ultralarge earthquakes). There’s also a short explanation of difference between S- and P- waves and how this is used to locate a distant earthquake.

Terrific maps, great glossary and bibliography, and very entertaining as well as educational. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 1, 2017 |
Super interesting tie ins of history and geology, politics and personal experiences. ( )
  lissabeth21 | Oct 3, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (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
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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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