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a crack in the edge of the world

15 February 2006

Simon Winchester's recent book A Crack in the Edge of the World is a welcome addition to the growing list of first-rate non-fiction titles by Winchester, and a sobering entry in the literature of natural disasters that become social disasters. Winchester's theme is San Francisco, 1906, but it could be the story of any city built in the teeth of potential catastrophe.

Though Winchester doesn't mention Hurricane Katrina directly, the aftermath of the New Orleans disaster made its implicit way into the final draft of A Crack in the Edge of the World. Winchester notes the seamless heroic coordination of efforts between the American military and local civilian authorities in the immediate rescue operations in 1906, and the swift supply of decent temporary housing to refugees.

And he uses the word "refugee" advisedly and pointedly. Winchester, a geologist who made his mark as a writer of popular histories of philology, argues strongly for the appropriateness of the word "refugee" to describe the domestic homeless of 1906. Seeking refuge, he says, they are appropriately called "refugees." Point taken; but language is no more stable than the San Andreas Fault. By 2005, the word "refugee" had come to mean almost exclusively a foreign asylum-seeker. People who bridled at being called "refugees" in their own homeland were indignant, but not ignorant.

San Francisco and New Orleans have a lot in common. Neither one is built in an advisable location. They are great natural ports, but hideously exposed to the elements. Each city has served the U.S. as a kind of national red-light district at times, a place where the standards of Puritan morality are suspended. Each has been virtually wiped out. In 1906 as in 2005, officials wondered aloud whether it was worth rebuilding the homes of certain ethnic communities. (San Francisco's Chinatown was only rebuilt after strong diplomatic pressure from Beijing.)

But will New Orleans recover? Even San Francisco, though it is now the center of a huge, affluent urban-suburban area, never regained the relative prominence it had achieved by 1906, when it was undeniably the metropolis of the American West Coast. In some ways the trauma of 1906 still affects the Bay Area a century later – not to mention the certainty that the fault will misbehave again, with effects impossible to anticipate accurately. As Winchester says, the next San Francisco earthquake is not a question of "if" but "when." And "when," despite the utter lack of predictors, is by statistical precedent going to be some time in the next 25 years.

I like Simon Winchester's books for their large and uninhibited mix of different disciplines and perspectives. A Crack in the Edge of the World doesn't have the humanistic narrative focus of other disaster accounts like Erik Larson's fine Isaac's Storm (1999, on the Galveston hurricane of 1900: Galveston, another city that still reels from a long-ago disaster). But Winchester's book combines travel writing, geology, economic history, religion, cultural history, architecture, and politics into an exciting if sometimes slightly redundant mix that fascinates.

Finally, appreciation for a very cool aspect of Winchester's books: the dust jacket that folds out ingeniously to become a poster. I have never seen anything quite like the multiple wedding-cake like folds of the jacket on A Crack in the Edge of the World, and I have read a bunch of books. It's not often that a new book has an entirely unprecedented feature.

Winchester, Simon. A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the great California earthquake of 1906. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.