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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 [Hardcover]

Simon Winchester
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Sept. 22 2005

The international bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa vividly brings to life the 1906San Francisco Earthquake that leveled a city symbolic of America's relentless western expansion. Simon Winchester has also fashioned an enthralling and informative informative look at the tumultuous subterranean world that produces earthquakes, the planet's most sudden and destructive force.

In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, San Francisco and a string of towns to its north-northwest and the south-southeast were overcome by an enormous shaking that was compounded by the violent shocks of an earthquake, registering 8.25 on the Richter scale. The quake resulted from a rupture in a part of the San Andreas fault, which lies underneath the earth's surface along the northern coast of California. Lasting little more than a minute, the earthquake wrecked 490 blocks, toppled a total of 25,000 buildings, broke open gas mains, cut off electric power lines throughout the Bay area, and effectively destroyed the gold rush capital that had stood there for a half century.

Perhaps more significant than the tremors and rumbling, which affected a swatch of California more than 200 miles long, were the fires that took over the city for three days, leaving chaos and horror in its wake. The human tragedy included the deaths of upwards of 700 people, with more than 250,000 left homeless. It was perhaps the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Simon Winchester brings his inimitable storytelling abilities -- as well as his unique understanding of geology -- to this extraordinary event, exploring not only what happened in northern California in 1906 but what we have learned since about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake in the first place. But his achievement is even greater: he positions the quake's significance along the earth's geological timeline and shows the effect it had on the rest of twentieth-century California and American history.

A Crack in the Edge of the World is the definitive account of the San Francisco earthquake. It is also a fascinating exploration of a legendary event that changed the way we look at the planet on which we live.



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From Amazon

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

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this brawny page-turner, bestselling writer Winchester (Krakatoa, The Professor and the Madman) has crafted a magnificent testament to the power of planet Earth and the efforts of humankind to understand her. A master storyteller and Oxford trained geologist, Winchester effortlessly weaves together countless threads of interest, making a powerfully compelling narrative out of what he calls "the most lyrical and romantic of the sciences."Using the theory of plate tectonics introduced in 1968 by an obscure geologist, J. Tuzo Wilson, Winchester describes a planet in flux. Across the surface of the earth, huge land masses known as plates push and pull at each other. At 5:12 a.m. in 1906, the North American and Pacific plates did precisely that. Along a 300-mile fault east of the Gold Rush city of San Francisco, the earth, in Winchester's word, "shrugged." While the initial shock devastated large parts of the city, it was the firestorm that raged in the days following that nearly wiped San Francisco off the map. The repercussions of the disaster radiated out from the epicenter for years to come. Locally, Winchester finds in the records at City Hall that the destruction led to a huge rise in Chinese immigration. Winchester also cites the tragedy in the rise of the nascent Pentecostal movement, whose ranks swelled in the months and years after in the belief that the catastrophe had been a sign from God.With fabulous style, wit and grace, Winchester casts doubt on the very notion of solid ground and invites the reader to ponder the planet they live on, from both inside and out. B&w illus. and maps. (Oct. 4)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
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 are inclined to occur. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic history and geology June 7 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My wife bought this in PB and I read it.
I was completely taken by Winchester
(as I was in all his other books).
A great read. I wanted it in HC.
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2.0 out of 5 stars a slog April 5 2012
Format:Paperback
This book is ostensibly about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but the reality is that it is a travelogue. Relatively little is about the earthquake itself, and he doesn't even mention the liquefaction that was so important. Winchester does his best to write as much as possible, many sentences when one will do. Some people may like this but I found the book a slog.

The author clearly expects the reader to know far more geography than the average person, whether it be international or local to California or San Francisco. More maps would have helped. I found a few errors and deduce there are likely to be many.
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4.0 out of 5 stars It's a good thing he's such a good writer... June 8 2009
By Schmadrian TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
...otherwise, this book would have been a real labour to get through.

Simon Winchester is 'thorough'. And this is good, because at the heart of everything he writes, is a story...and he's a very good storyteller. However...

However, there were times when I had to confirm the title of the book. That it was in fact about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Because he was bringing in material and references from 'what seemed to be, anyway' all over the place. In fact, I often joked to myself that I was expecting there to be a link in the Appendix, a link to an online resource where you could read all about every person who was actually there that April day, a complete biographical history. (I'll add here that a great parody skit could be made of Mr. Winchester's habits in this area...although it would have limited appeal, so esoteric a subject, he would be...)

Having said that, I applaud his efforts. I now know so much more about this event than before. And feel I've also gained a ton of understanding about related elements of history, of society, of people in general. I feel my world has been delightfully expanded, courtesy of Mr. Winchester's tome.

But the book is woefully mis-titled.
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