Geological love story

Considering all the earthquake talk and stories about animals fleeing Yellowstone (but not really), I figured now would be a good time for a review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

I admit that I sometimes like to read disaster nonfiction (I don’t get out enough anymore) and from the title it seems like a disaster story, but it is much more than that. Winchester in good geologist fashion gives you the entire view  of why the earthquake happened and not just a description of its aftermath. Quite frankly it makes the story more engaging if quite a bit longer. It isn’t just death, gore, and destruction, but you feel you’ve learned a few new things along the way.

A Crack in the Edge

Places I never want to live

So, it is the story of the Great California Earthquake of 1906 and its fiery aftermath. To set up that story up though he begins with plate tectonics. (Side note: It KILLS me that plate tectonics was only discovered in the 1960s. I remember learning about it in school and thinking that it was the one science thing that just made sense. When I read Winchester’s Krakatoa I was floored by the fact that it was a recent discovery.)  He then takes a long trip from one edge of the North American plate to the other. He starts in Iceland and moves across North America to California giving science and history lessons along the way. My favorite chapters were actually the social histories of California during the gold rush and in the period before the earthquake, but the science holds up too for the non-scientist.

The closing chapters are of interest considering recent events/news. He visits Yellowstone and talks to some geologists there who are studying the geysers. One of the fun sentences in this chapter is “Yellowstone is thus, on purely statistical grounds, ready for an eruption almost any day.” At least he reaffirms that I don’t want to live anywhere in California, or the west coast, or west of the Mississippi. At least not until I’ve lived a long full life and have made peace with my maker.

Incidentally, this book has one of the best description of dawn I’ve ever read. In his prologue he asks you to imagine watching the earth from the moon as dawn arrives on April 18, 1906, the morning of the earthquake. He says “To the east of the line, all would have been bright and daylight. To the west, an impenetrable dark.” When the earthquake happens it would have been indiscernible from space, a mere shrug of the planet, but on land it was nothing but hell.

Simon Winchester is shaping up to be one of my favorite writers. He deftly creates readable descriptions of difficult scientific ideas while placing the science in the social and historical context. In this book, he is at the top of his game.


Books! Hot Lava #cbr5


Woodcut of Krakatoa

After reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, I am embarrassed to admit that I learned about the volcano only after hearing the B-52’s song Hot Lava sometime in my college years. I’m ashamed because Winchester says many times that Krakatoa was the volcanic event that everybody learns about and remembers. Well, not this gal. Thank you Fred Schneider and company for sending me to the encyclopedia to look that word up (these were the days before Wikipedia, although not pre-Internet, thank you very much).

I picked the book up because I have a strange obsession with disaster stories, Into Thin Air being a favorite. Winchester’s book is much more than just a chronicle of the 1883 volcanic explosion though. He deftly combines natural history, geology, political sociology, history and more to create a full picture of Krakatoa’s place and importance. Each chapter takes on a different piece of the story, from the colonial history of what would become Indonesia, to the development of the Wallace Line, to an excellent chapter on the discovery of plate tectonics and much more. While he of course chronicles the disaster itself he does so as a detective trying to piece together the exact happenings rather than sensationalizing the events.

The only place he falters slightly is in the political history. He argues that Krakatoa’s eruption helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism, but honestly I think the Dutch and the colonial project did that just fine without Krakatoa’s help. While the eruption definitely created chaos that destroyed daily life, many factors went into the widespread anti-colonial insurgencies throughout Asia. Luckily he reins it in before drawing direct causation, but this chapter was the weakest. As the book was written and published after the Bali bombings in 2002, he was probably trying to draw in a wider audience.

My other criticism is why I give the book four our of five stars on Goodreads. I appreciate a good map, even in location-heavy fiction, but especially in nonfiction. The maps in the paperback version of this book are horrendous (I only hope they are better in the hardback). For example, the map of Indonesia doesn’t even have Krakatoa labeled! I had to go to Google to figure out where the island was located. I would overlook one editorial mistake but the rest of the maps are equally as bad (no legends, difficult to read). I guess they were going for a period (Victorian) look by having them hand-drawn. That is what I like to believe at least.

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It is very well-written and covers extremely difficult science in an understandable way. Although he covers a wide-range of topics, he weaves them together to form a very coherent story of a volcano.

PS: After reading this book I now know why the lyric is “Krakatoa, East of Java” (when Krakatoa is west of Java). They may have been fans of the film, Krakatoa, East of Java.