Two for one today.
I spent a lot of time last December writing about earthquakes and volcanoes (and indeed, my life was unexpectedly hit last December by a series of earthquakes and volcanoes and I still have not recovered). I did just enough research to get by explaining the hows and whys to fifth graders but didn’t feel like I knew a lot about these topics. I was reminded of this one day when watching the 1936 movie San Francisco on Turner Classics (and what a fine job they did in the special effects department for the quake in that movie; really it’s quite impressive for those pre-CGI times. Watch it if you have a chance, or at least the last half hour or so) and thought, well, the 1906 event is as good an entry place as any for a rather big subject. So off I went to the library and found Simon Winchester’s 2005 book, A Crack in the Edge of the Word: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.
What a frustrating and irritating book this was, or at least it was to me. I am going to complain about something which would seem admirable, but I found annoying, that is that this book is barely about the San Francisco earthquake. It’s about lots of other things—it’s a treatise on plate tectonics, it’s a history of North American earthquakes (sort of), it’s (somewhat vaguely and messily) the story of California, it’s a travel memoir. The last thing it is about is the San Francisco earthquake. Oh sure, the event shows up tantalizingly and tangentially from time to time, but it is buried in everything else.
Now about that everything else. A large part of this story is told through the cross-country journey of Winchester on his way from Massachusetts to Northern California and his return trip back via Alaska and Yosemite. Now that sounds like a pretty good idea, doesn’t it? I like reading about people’s travels. I like learning about different places. I have no problem with the idea of an author injecting him/herself in the story. But here’s the problem with that approach—it depends heavily on how much the reader likes the author (and oh, how much have I liked some authors), and in this case, well, I just didn’t like him that much. I don’t mean I actively disliked Winchester or think he’s a bad person; obviously I don’t know enough about him for that. But I just didn’t find him a particularly enjoyable person to spend a lot of time with, which is odd. He certainly is enthusiastic. But he is also verbally tiresome and when he muses about just about anything, with his penchant for purple prose and chunky words, I often had the urge to say, “Oh, just shut up and get on with it, will you?” (indeed, a familiar feeling, I am sure, to anyone who has read anything I have written)
We get lectures on the origins of plate tectonics; we get Winchester’s thoughts while camping on a California mountainside. We get a little bit about the economics of mid-19th century San Francisco; we get the story of Winchester’s 1965 trip to Iceland. We get information about the epicenter of the 1906 earthquake and what constitutes an epicenter; we get Winchester’s feelings about various Midwestern towns and their charm or lack thereof. Really, there is an awful lot of useful information in here in regards to earthquakes, the formation of the earth and the different plates, what you can learn from various rocks, and so on. The problem, though, is that it is all just so scattered that it’s hard to maintain interest in any topic. The book just feels like it has no flow. When it does finally get to the 1906 earthquake (aside from a tease in chapter one), somewhere around page 200, the smattering of stories and personal accounts leave you wanting more, but instead, unfortunately, it is off to Alaska with Mr. Winchester. If you want to really learn about life during and after the earthquake, you’ll have to go to other places, I suppose.
Two other notes about this book: again, I will say it—if a footnote is so long that it either takes up more than one third of a page or extends onto another page, then it belongs in the text. And other choices about what belongs in the text of the book are equally puzzling. At one point, Winchester mentions the intensity of a quake, then puts in parentheses that intensity is different than magnitude and that it was too big a topic to explain here so we would have to read about it, and the Richter scale, in Appendix A. Okay. Winchester managed to spend about six pages pondering the name of the Ohio town of Wapakoneta (the birthplace of John Glenn, we learn…no, don’t ask what this has to do with anything). Is it too much to ask, in a book about earthquakes, to have an explanation of the difference between magnitude and intensity explained in the main body of the book? I read the appendix and there was nothing in the material that would have seemed out of place with the other earthquake information. The actual intensity scale and Richter scale could have been in an appendix, but there was no reason to bury this otherwise useful material.
My other complaint is just that this book has an appalling amount of typos in it, especially for a book by a high-profile, established author. I’m only an average copy editor, but I found numerous mistakes: two prepositions in a row, as if a change was only half-made, no spaces between words, it’s instead of its, and an instance where the year 1866 is referred to in a section about an earthquake in 1886. Did anyone proofread it? Other than the bored intern who just wants to get back to his/her online poker game, that is? You just don’t expect to see this many careless errors in a book like this.
Now after all that, you would think a person would say, “Well, that was quite disappointing. I’m never going to read another book by Simon Winchester!” But not me. I am either an idiot, a masochist, or just somewhat peculiar (d. all of the above), because I immediately went to the library and got one of the prolific Winchester’s earlier books, Krakatoa. Part of this was because I always feel somewhat guilty when I don’t like an author’s work, and want to give another try just to make sure; part was the topic, the huge eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, which in light of my earlier writing on volcanoes (I had to pretend to be a volcanologist. Don’t ask.), seemed too much to resist.
This book is actually better than A Crack in the Edge of the World, if for no other reason than that we are spared a round-the-world trip to Jakarta with Winchester (though, alas, he does drag us along at the end on his pilgrimage to the site of the defunct volcano). Again, we are treated to more about plate tectonics—more specifically how the theory evolved and came to be accepted. Is there anyone in the world more willing to write about plate tectonics than Winchester? I doubt it. You could give him an assignment to write about the Westminster Dog Show and he’d probably run off to dog sled across Greenland under the pretext of studying the origins of Spitz dogs but would then instead write numerous stories about his university days as a geology student, taking rock samples in the North Atlantic while searching for the line between the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate. Indeed, Winchester’s formative years were heady times for early plate tectonic fans and we never forget this.
But the book does include other stuff I found interesting. I liked reading about Alfred Russell Wallace, the scientist who came up with his own understanding of how evolution worked that were so similar to Darwin’s that when he wrote to Darwin explaining them, they probably finally kicked the notoriously slow-paced Darwin into action to make sure that he got credit for them. The result is that Darwin is remembered by many, and Wallace remembered by few. But Wallace, who spent most of his life on the islands that are now known collectively as Indonesia, made another hugely important contribution. Parts of the islands had flora and fauna that were peculiar to Australia, all those marsupials, eucalyptus trees, and the like. But then there was an almost clear dividing line were the plants, trees, birds, and mammals turned back to those found in the rest of the world. In one place, you could find kangaroos, wombats, and platypuses; right next door, though, the animal population consisted of otters, bears, deer, and wolves. The line where two very different plates collided brought these distinct habitats, which had evolved separately while drifting far away from each other, close together. The imaginary line that separates them became known as the Wallace Line, so there is some remembrance of the poor fellow after all.
The other enjoyable part of the book is, of course, the personal accounts and descriptions of the day of the Krakatoa explosion. Trust me, you don’t want to experience a large-scale volcanic eruption. The effects of the volcano’s force was felt in numerous ways around the world. Amateur scientists around the world noticed air pressure disturbances that showed that vibrations from the event essentially circled the world seven times. Temperatures dropped noticeably during the next year, as clouds of ash blocked and dulled the sun’s warmth. The ash itself caused beautiful sunsets that led artists to stake out twilights and produce a frenzy of minutely shaded rose and gold landscapes.
As I said, this book was more tolerable than the other, but it still could have been improved. Again, it jumps around a lot and covers some topics in depth while only touching on others seemingly randomly ( a long discourse on the pepper, but not even a mention of the effect of the salt water from the tsunami waves on the soil of the islands). I’m not saying that I need everything in a book to be completely, rigidly linear, but I do think Winchester misses opportunities to build suspense and drama. Instead it tends to feel meandering and scattershot.
This book also suffered from the same inexplicably long footnotes and poor copyediting as the other, which is just completely incomprehensible. And on a personal note, while I am glad that Winchester took the time to discuss the importance of the telegraph to this event, I look forward to the day when we will no longer have to see the name of that charlatan Morse attached to the word telegraph or its code.
In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for in these books. But this is just me—the style that I disliked might work well for others. I never want to discourage anyone from reading anything so you won’t do yourself harm by reading these—they’re both really short, too, so it doesn’t even require a big time investment. But if you do read either one or both and find yourself annoyed, irritated, and occasionally bored, well, realize you are not alone. Welcome to our own little club.