Bookmarks Issue: 

America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906

A-CrackEdgeWorldDangling the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as a narrative carrot, Winchester leads readers through a crash course in geologic history. The reader hops from Iceland to North America, trundles across the continent on a road trip of seismic events, and ends the journey just outside the Golden Gate Bridge at the San Andreas Fault. Winchester presents the great quake as the young nation’s first national catastrophe, one that echoes today along the Gulf Coast: though the fire chief had warned for years that San Francisco’s water supply would be overwhelmed by a natural disaster, nothing was done until it was much too late.
HarperCollins. 462 Pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0060571993

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] narrative tour de force through more than 4,000 million years of geological history. … The travelogue flows seamlessly into a social history of San Francisco and California and a geological history of the San Andreas Fault." David Nasaw

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Winchester spends the majority of this book making sure you’re more than vaguely familiar with geology yourself, tantalizing you with snippets about the San Francisco earthquake as if to say, ‘Keep reading. We’ll get to that eventually.’" Dan Danborn

Contra Costa Times 2 of 5 Stars
"What works in the natural sciences doesn’t work in the social sciences. Winchester remains a fascinated observer and describer of surfaces, but he never finds the threads that tie all of the human material together, the dramatic arc that makes it compelling, or the themes it might elucidate." Peter Magnani

Business Week 2 of 5 Stars
"Like two plates grinding into one another, Winchester’s approach produces some unfortunate results. Most annoying, he turns literary foreplay into a maddening tease. … Moreover, he fails to produce a central character or theme that could have fused his geological musings with the story of the quake." Spencer E. Ante

Wall Street Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"While there is not much that can be done about moving whole populations, we can surely find policy lessons in the 1906 earthquake, the kinds of lessons that may help us avoid making a natural disaster still more disastrous the next time around. You won’t find much about them in A Crack in the Edge of the World, though. It is much ado about fault lines." Debra J. Saunders

New York Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Crack is a book that bears the faint whiff of smoking jacket and brandy, as if the author had curled up in some leatherbound study with a few dozen previous books and his memories and banged out this one between puffs of pipe smoke." Bryan Burrough

Critical Summary

Winchester’s latest work is a lesson in unfulfilled expectations. Though he presents the book as a history of the San Francisco quake, over the first 200 pages Winchester offers an abbreviated version of John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. Where McPhee made clear his intentions to write a comprehensive geological history of the North American continent, critics feel duped by Winchester, or by the publisher’s marketing department. Many reviewers are dismayed to see him reusing information from Krakatoa ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003). Even more wish he’d return to the human elements that made The Professor and the Madman such a critical and commercial success. Here, exhaustive research begets a fault-filled book, with little human or thematic tension to bind it together.