Winchester on the Frisco quake of ’06

Simon Winchester has just produced (1995) another non-fiction gem: A Crack in the Edge of The World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (HarperCollins).

The bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa opens this recent non-fiction book with a view of the earth from the moon, and a description of the tiny momentary ripples an astronaut with a powerful telescope might have discerned in the vicinity of southern California when the earth cracked apart at San Francisco nearly a century ago.

In fact those brief perturbations, the result of a tumultuous subterranean grinding of tectonic plates in collision, measured 8.25 on the Richter scale. The San Francisco quake wrecked 490 blocks, toppled some 25,000 buildings, broke open gas mains, cut off electrical power and sparked enormous fires, leaving 700 people dead and a quarter-million homeless.

Winchester tells the story masterfully, balancing scientific and human-interest concerns against a wider exploration of modern planetary geology. Not since John McPhee has anyone written so engagingly and dramatically about the earth’s geological processes. ♦

© 2005