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A Crack at the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

Behind the Scenes of One of America's Biggest Natural Disastersl

The countdown begins. In about four months, the city will be awash in PR beckoning out-of-towners to come "celebrate" the centennial anniversary of the notorious 8.6 magnitude quake which killed a reported 63 people, injured thousands, and destroyed 490 city blocks. The question is, when a curious tourist shambles up to you, will you be ready to field the questions? Lucky for us, Simon Winchester's new book is a great read for geologist/non-geologist and Left or Right Coaster alike. The book is part armchair travel, part history primer, part geologic survey, and part polemic. With 11 maps and 38 illustrations enclosed, the book is never boring.

The title of this book is a slight misnomer: the guts of the San Francisco story do not really show up until page 201. Prior to this, Winchester puts the quake in a context of other 1906 natural disasters including tremors in Chile, Ecuador, St. Lucia and the foaming of Mt. Vesuvius. The book's posterior portion details a short history of Mexican/Spanish exploration and the sociological impact of the Gold Rush. Winchester also describes a trip to Iceland to visit the eastern edge of the North American plate, and then another trip 6000 miles to the west to the California town of Parkfield where the western edge of the Plate hits. In between, he surveys other seemingly innocent above-land climes such as the New Madrid, MO; Meeks, OK; and the New York area above the Ramapo Fault System and then describes why these places are potentially deadly. The book ends with Winchester's trip to Alaska and his survey of the fault line under Denali and the oil strikes that run at its perimeter.

These surveys provide a platform for a discussion of 1960s plate tectonic theories, and why the way the earth was formed 4,550,000,000 years ago explains why it turns on itself now. In local terms, the epicenter of the '06 quake as been disputed -- some historians say Olema but modern theory now pinpoints the ocean area west of Mussel Rock in Daly City. In this way, Winchester also shows how politics navigate the quake's real story.

I like the way Winchester describes geology for the layperson. The San Andreas, he says, is like a bunch of train cars with cars rusted on the tracks at both ends. The "slip" and "strike" associated with the cars is because the middle cars move but they are locked in. The only organizational flaw in the book is made at this point -- the discussion of seismic equipment and the mechanisms used to accurately record activity is relegated to the appendix -- a place some readers might skip altogether.

The quake also held sociological implications -- then Mayor Schmidt distributed 5000 handbills telling citizens that officers were allowed to kill anyone found "looting" (hi Katrina…) Also interesting: bios of unsexy heroes such as London insurance underwriter Cuthbert Heath who told his employees to "pay all claims". (Hi, Katrina?")

In any case, Winchester's book is a great addition to the quake cannon, which has John McPhee's Assembling California at its helm. McPhee's was a book I knew I was supposed to like, but couldn't finish. It's nice when, in the case of Winchester's book, accessibility is not equatable with dumbing down.

A Crack at the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
By Simon Winchester
Harper Collins Publisher
October 1, 2005
Hardcover/$27.95
ISBN: 0-06-057199-3
462 pages