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.