Thoughts: Simon Winchester’s “A Crack in the Edge of the World”

Here’s another book “review” (the quotes mean the term should be taken loosely) in the spirit of the previous one I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

Simon Winchester: A Crack in the Edge of the World

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester
(Harper Collins, 2005)

* As the secondary title indicates, this is a story about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It was written by Simon Winchester, a writer whose name I had recognized from book spines but who wasn’t someone I had read previously. I picked this up brand-new a few weeks ago at one of those “foreign book sales” that seem to pop up every now and then at various Tokyo bookstores, for only 700 yen ($6.20). Given that on the copyright page I noticed it said “1st paperback printing: April 2006,” (most books at these type of sales are several years old, at least), and seeing as I lived in San Francisco for 14 years (and experienced the destructive power of an earthquake there firsthand in 1989), picking this up seemed a no-brainer. (Curiously, checking Amazon and the like now, I notice that the book is still being sold in hardcover and that the paperback version is not expected in the US until October. Go figure why the “international” version ended up in a Tokyo bookstore so soon!)

* I have to be honest, this book was a struggle. As it is, I have yet to read the appendix and frankly I’m not sure I will. At this point I’m just glad I got to the end of the main book, for I wanted to give up many times on the way. The book really seems to me to be two books: one about geology and earthquakes and plate tectonics, and the other about the Great Earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906. Unfortunately for me, I bought this book for the latter (and indeed, this is how the book is marketed on the back cover — “An absorbing narrative of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906…” croons the quote from The Independent), while it seemed to me that Winchester was more interested in the former.

* Now, I’m not the best one to make comments about books about science. Frankly, the subject has never been a strong suit of mine (I actually had to take a night school course in biology just to be able to graduate high school on time), and while I’m not particularly averse to science, nor philosophically opposed to the pursuit and understanding of it, my eyes do tend to glaze over rather quickly once the subject goes beyond a layperson’s understanding. And with this book, Winchester seemed to enter specialist territory very quickly into the book, and stay there for way too long to suit me. You can sense that Winchester was aware the he was always running the danger of losing the layperson like myself, but that somehow he felt confident, no doubt born of his many years as a newspaper correspondent, that he could pull it off. For this reader, he didn’t.

* Somehow, based on skimming the prologue in the bookstore, and from the back cover (always a bad idea I know), I not only expected much more of a focus on San Francisco and the actual earthquake, but I also expected that when Winchester did delve into the science of earthquakes, the approach would be less academic, and more of something along the lines of Bill Bryson. (I actually have Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” — another “foreign book sale” purchase — on my to-read list, though after the Winchester, even a book by Bryson on science has me intimidated.) It was a relief to finally, after page 200 or so, get to San Francisco, and not surprisingly the book really picked up for me then. However, I felt that Winchester didn’t go into nearly enough detail — either about the city itself, nor the earthquake and subsequent fire, the book’s ostensible raison d’etre — and so in the end I’m left puzzling as to what this book was really supposed to be about, and who was the audience Winchester intended.

* For me, the best part of the book was the Epilogue, and not just because it meant I was nearing the end of what was overall a rather tortuous book to get through. In the Epilogue, Winchester writes about a road journey up to Alaska, the site of two huge earthquakes (1964 and 2002) of interest to him and his story about how even seemingly far-off seismic events are related to the activity along the San Andreas Fault, and then finishing up at Yellowstone. Here the writing is more travelogue reportage than anything else, and it left me longing that Winchester had chosen more of this style of writing than the scientific reportage that he did employ — as admirably detailed as that was.

* All in all, as I think it should be clear by now, the book struck me as simply too uneven, too scattered, and in a way, too broad. It seemed as if Winchester was always going off onto tangents, as when he digressed into the various issues related to insurance companies and how they behaved vis-a-vis the claims resulting from the 1906 earthquake and fire (in a word, scurrilously). Even more tangentially, Winchester writes at length not commensurate with its importance about the start of the Pentecostal religious movement and how the 1906 earthquake may have been the spark that created Pentecostalism as we know it today. Fascinating — albeit not completely convincing — to be sure, but perhaps better relegated to a footnote rather than 7 pages. Indeed, throughout the book Winchester footnotes items I thought were worthy of being fleshed out more, and conversely, went on for pages about things I felt were better left to a mere footnote.

* Aside from my thoughts about Winchester’s writing and the book’s structure, my main takeaway from the book is just how fragile the earth is, and how inevitable is the destruction that comes in the form or earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, etc. His cautions about the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — the one I experienced personally — and the fact that it had little to do with the San Andreas Fault, couldn’t help but make me worry about the friends I still have in San Francisco and to feel in some part that I “made it out alive.” (Of course, the irony being that I moved to another of the world’s most seismically active places, Japan). Winchester finished his main story with Portola Valley, a well-to-do community foolishly — so Winchester posits — built right on the San Andreas Fault, and while residents such as this one might not be happy with the portrait he paints, I for one would have liked him to have focused more on this aspect of the problem — man’s tendency to play russian roulette with nature in exchange for short-term gain and comfort.

* Not recommended.

One Reply to “Thoughts: Simon Winchester’s “A Crack in the Edge of the World””

  1. There was a one-hour show on PBS about this guy and writing this particular book (I’m not sure if it was produced by KQED or another station). He lived in SF for some period of time to research the book (6 months?) and came off as the stereotype of a pretentious Brit whose personality and sense of humor never clicked with the people he was interacting with (in this case various experts in history and geology from the area). That being said, it was entirely possible that his book could be interesting, as some of the experts were telling him interesting things. It did seem like it would be an “impressionistic” or Bryson-ish book from the show – they covered that road trip to Alaska.

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