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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 Hardcover – October 4, 2005

173 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (October 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060571993
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060571993
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (173 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #144,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman ; The Map that Changed the World ; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these have both been New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Patrick D. Goonan on December 30, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book by Simon Winchester has many good stories and contains as lot of useful information on earthquakes, geology and geography. It also contains a lot of good material that brings the period before, during and after the 1906 earthquake to life. However, this title also has a number of drawbacks that prevents it from being a great book.

Some of the issues for me were:

-- The title doesn't quite match the contents. The book is less focused than the title suggests.

-- I think more time should have been spent on deciding what to keep and what to cut. There is a lot of unnecessary detail and I wonder if the author forgot about the audience he had in mind as well as the main subject.

-- Sometimes the book is too rambling and the digressions are not interesting to many audiences, although extremely interesting to some. Should there have really been two even better books created from this material?

I'm not saying this book isn't worth reading. However, it's important to know what you are getting. If you want a concise and specific book on the SF earthquake alone, this is NOT it! If you want to know more about earthquakes in general and also understand more about the SF earthquake of 1906 then this might be great for you. In short, it is a more technical treatment than the title suggests and although it has a lot of good stories, they are not gathered into a cohesive well-organized whole.
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful By C. Hutton on October 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Simon Winchester is a storyteller and he rambles around the tale of the great earthquake of a century ago. This is not the definitive account of the 1906 quake but the account of what Mr. Winchester found to be interesting -- fortunately it is interesting for the reader too.

The book is a wonderful geology book for the non-science reader as Mr. Winchester lays out why the quake occurred where it occurred (see the maps within) with vignettes with the fallout from the quake. He also makes clear that the next San Francisco earthquake is just down the road and we are no more prepared for that one either. The book cover itself is innovative and almost worth the price of the book. For the reader desiring a more traditional history of the 1906 quake, see Dan Kurzman's "Disaster: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906" (2001).
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91 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Jay Dickson VINE VOICE on October 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Simon Winchester's love of learning and information is so incredibly infectious that even at his roughest his books do not fail to illuminate and interest. As with KRAKATOA, Winchester in A CRACK AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD takes a momentous geological event--in this case, the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906--and proceed to tell us as many stories leading up to and out of it as he possibly can, covering not merely accounts of the event itself (particularly the disastrous fires that came from it) but also ways of understanding the event within its multiple contexts. He tells us much about the commerical and social history of California as well as of the geology of the San Andreas Fault, Iceland, Missouri, Indonesia... s you can see, at times it _does_ get a little much. Winchester loves to amble through all these events at his own pace, but the result is a book that often reads as if it were hardly edited. His prose leaps about with weak transitions (along the lines of "As we have seen earlier," "And this brings us to Enrico Caruso," "And this is not the first time he shall appear in these pages, as we shall see," etc.) and seems as irruptive and eruptive as the events he chronicles; his intriguing and edifying narrative would have surely benefited from more studied editing and more careful organization. There's a wonderful book buried in here, but as with some of Winchester's earlier books this seems rushed and undigested.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Peter Durfee on January 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I think this guy is one of the better nonfiction writers out there now. His "The Professor and the Madman" and "Krakatoa" and "The Map that Changed the World" are all fantastically entertaining and informative reads. "Crack," however, is his worst outing that I've read . . . It's a sprawling, chatty work that covers vast quantities of information in that peculiar voice that says "I'm really successful and can override my editors now."

The bad: There are really glaring factual errors (Alaska is a bit bigger than 600,000 acres). There are doubled-up currency markers like "$60 million dollars." These annoy the editor in me; someone should have caught them, and that nobody did underlines the lack of editorial care that has gone into the work as a whole. He intersperses his own road-trip memoirs far too liberally among the episodes detailing the 1906 earthquake that shook San Francisco to the ground.

The good: That said, the information he brings together is fascinating stuff. As a history of San Francisco (or of early California, really) this book, faults and all, is well worth the read. It was a wild city--the most important on the West Coast, until the aftermath of the quake sent business and population south to Los Angeles--and Winchester's work paints vivid pictures of the people and development trends that made it what it was.

I recommend this book, but I recommend that you read some of his other works too, to see what he's really capable of.
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