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Book Review: A Crack at the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

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When I was a kid, one of my favourite books was Canadian Disasters. I bought it from a Scholastic book sale and I must have read it dozens of times, more than any of the Encyclopedia Brown books, even. I read about the Springhill mining disasters, the Halifax explosion. The landslide at Turtle mountain. The fire at a Montreal cinema, the obliteration of Newfoundland’s Beothuks. I loved every gory, tragic, pathos-filled page of that slim little book.

You can, therefore, probably imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it took 10 chapters and more than 200 pages before Simon Winchester got around to talking about what happened in San Francisco on April 18, 1906.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from A Crack in the Edge of the World. When I pick up a book to read, I don’t necessarily read the jacket copy closely because I am often frustrated by the amount of information that is revealed, information that shows you the book’s destination without allowing you to savor its journey. Maybe that’s what happened here. I think I was looking for a disaster story about the San Francisco quake and fire with a little geology thrown in. Instead, I got a geology lesson that swirls about, always coming back to the San Francisco quake.

This is not a flaw. It is, in fact, the book’s strength. Simon Winchester is an astute commentator who excels at weaving together the connections between seemingly disparate events. In this book, one of Winchester’s central observations is that the environment at the time of the 1906 disaster is very similar to that of the world today.

A year, and a country, and a president, all of them a balance, all expectant and optimistic and apprehensive by turns as a whole world of changes—changes political, psychological, social, and, most of all, scientific—began to sweep in from the future. The year, in a state of such fine equilibrium, was unusually vulnerable to the unexpected, causing the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of San Francisco to cast a disproportionately long shadow on science, society, philosophy, religion, and art.

Except, perhaps, for the optimism, it seems like 2006 has a lot in common with 1906. Winchester examines the many things that, a century later, are legacies of the San Francisco quake, such as better building codes and response plans. He also reminds the reader of what hasn’t changed, even now that geologists have an understanding of where the earth is most likely to release its pent up energy, people still live in the most geologically dangerous places, including San Francisco. In fact, those who find comfort in the fact that the 1989 quake surely must have bought the city more time will be alarmed to discover that in ’89, the San Andreas was not the culprit. The San Andreas has not released its tension for a century, and throughout the book Winchester reminds us that the “when” of the Big One is likely to be sooner, rather than later.

Winchester also delves into the psychology of earthquakes and disasters. He notes that people have chosen to live in idyllic—yet geologically unsound— communities with a sort of adolescent blind willfulness. People know about earthquakes, but they figure they will be okay, it won’t happen now, it will hit somewhere else along the fault line.

There might also be the hint of the thirsts for adventure and infamy tempting those who live on the faults, working in subconscious combination with the denial and optimism. Winchester notes the work of William James, a Stanford psychologist who examined the reactions of those in San Francisco when the earth shook:

He wrote later that people did indeed remark on how “awful” and “dreadful” the event was; but they were nonetheless full of some kind of wonder at being able to be part of so majestic a catastrophe. They eagerly watched it, James noted; they took pictures of it; and they thought themselves lucky to be enfolded in an event of truly historic significance.

When examining the behaviour of people, Winchester’s book shows us what all crises have in common, reminding us of last year’s tsunami, the events of September 11th, 2001 and other monumental disasters. Amid all the extensive science, the rocks and faults and geology, A Crack at the Edge of the World is a very human book.

This review originally appeared on Fourth-Rate Reader.

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About Bonnie

  • If you liked that book, then you might like John McPhee’s “The Control Of Nature.” It talks about man’s efforts to control nature in three areas: New Orleans, Iceland and Los Angeles. For some reasons or another, we do keep moving to very unstable and unsafe areas and as always expect technology to save us.

  • Very nice review! I took a class with Simon Winchester at San Jose State, when he was working on this book. He is truly one of the hardest working writers I’ve ever met, and I look forward to reading his book. Excellent review which makes me want to rush out to the bookstore.

  • Steve

    Am just reading this book now, and quite enjoying it.

    His book on the volcano “Krakatoa” and it’s 19th century eruption was amazing. All kinds of topics covered in the previous book: biography, history (especially of science), flora, fauna, politics, religion, as well as the obvious physics and geographical, geological and oceanic issues. By chapter 5 of “A Crack…”, I’ve already encountered biography, geology, geography, physics and history.

    Thanks for the heads up on chapter 10 lol. Sounds like a negative comment, but he is a writer who you actually enjoy to hear rambling, as he covers so many topics, you are not liable to get bogged down in something uninteresting for long (physics is not my forte for example, but he keeps it down to a few pages at a time max. lol).

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!