Home > History, Literature, Reviews, Science > Simon Winchester and the Gap in the Middle of “A Crack in the Edge of the World”

Simon Winchester and the Gap in the Middle of “A Crack in the Edge of the World”

English author, journalist, and geologist Simon Winchester is a tremendously knowledgeable and voluble writer with an evident passion to share that knowledge and volubility with as many readers as possible. Perhaps relatedly, he is also an inherently distracted, unbearably long-winded, and mostly insufferable non-fiction scribe. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 should be so much more fascinating a read than it actually ends up being, especially given its author’s experience as a travel writer, scholarly historian, and geologist. Winchester should be unique adapted to impart a multifarious perspective on one of the largest and most influential disasters in American history, explicating the earth science behind the 1906 San Francisco quake, delving into the rich historical record of players and circumstances in the galvanizing events, and providing a first-hand traveller’s view of how California is made by its geological profile into a place that is both irresistible and dangerous.

Winchester should be able to give us this, but he doesn’t. A Crack in the Edge of the World is a meandering bore of a book, only occasionally coalescing into the kind of absorbing account that the memorable event deserves. His book opens with eyewitness accounts of the earth-shaking moment from various figures, including geological grandee Grove Karl Gilbert, as if he intends to revisit their experiences as recurring characters in an in-depth portrayal of the quake. We never, however, hear from them again. Winchester then embarks on a detailed but unfocused history of geology, which includes his trek across the North American plate, from Iceland through various quake sites in the Eastern and Midwestern United States to California and eventually up to Alaska.

Matters crystallize into more involving prose when, after 200 often-painful pages of geology and traveloguery, he at last arrives in the city by the bay and lets the indulgent eccentricity drop away in favour of riveting history of destruction, reaction, and recovery in the great city of the wild turn-of-the-century American West. When he allows his runaway attention to become fixed on a historical event of such evident drama and interest, Winchester’s book is at its best. Even in these most enjoyable chapters, A Crack in the Edge of the World can’t hold its focus quite long enough, hopping from one major figure in the quake story to another, never quite providing more than a sketch of people like Arnold Genthe, whose iconic photographs of the disaster brought its effects to the wider world, or Brigadier General Frederick Funston and Mayor Eugene Schmitz, highly-flawed figures in public life who rose unquestionably to the occasion when presented with a major crisis.

More of a handicap than the book’s uneven nature, however, are the very frequent moments when a dubious assertion, a head-scratching metaphor or analogy, a shameless instance of self-promotion, or a simple, fixable error crops up in the text. One can collect and display examples like a Victorian amateur scientist collects and displays natural specimens. Winchester refers to Ungava as being in “Western Canada” when it is rather clearly a region of northern Quebec. In discussing the reaction of insurance companies to the great quake, he credits them as catalysts for great progressive social reforms when their role seems more commensurate with the financial firming-up of such changes already in place. He calls the businesses destroyed in a series of quakes around New Madrid, Missouri in 1811-1812 “priceless” (would a business not, by its very definitional nature, necessarily have a price?) and later compares Midwestern strip malls to Conestoga wagons with apparent serious intent.

Winchester’s greatest single unsubstantiated claim may be attributing the explosive growth of the American Pentecostal movement to the earthquake almost exclusively, as it was the first great disaster that the charismatic fundamentalists were able to ascribe solely to God’s wrath at the sinfulness of mankind. The church’s founding and exponential growth before (and well after) the 1906 event is of no concern; the quake is what really animated it, he tells us, though it’s not clear how. In an indelibly smarmy and disingenuous moment, he even pretends to cast doubt on this assertion by comparing it to a similarly controversial theory that the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 strengthened and inspired fundamentalist Islamic groups. What he doesn’t think it worth stating is that this particular theory is presented by him in his own book on the subject, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded.

Some of the quake-centric moments aside, then, A Crack in the Edge of the World becomes caught up in many of Winchester’s most irritating habits as a non-fiction scribe. It’s a bit lucky, really, that it wasn’t caught up in more of that than it is; brief mentions are made of his 1980s travel quest to visit every American town named Paradise (what a skull-softening read that would have been), and he also nerdily lists the locations of various worldwide seismographs that recorded the disturbance caused by the quake in alphabetical order. And he never does get around that telling us much at all about the “America” promised in the subtitle except from a geological perspective (which is maybe what he meant by it all along). It’s all too bad, really. Simon Winchester has a truly earth-shaking subject on his hands, but he can’t seem to get himself and his problematic tendencies out of its way.

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