Saturday, September 17, 2011

Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World

Call it coincidence, but as I was writing about em dashes and long sentences lately, I was reading Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World. If you like long, lyrical sentences, festooned with em dashes, read on.

The geology of the northern half of California—whether we are talking about San Francisco Bay or the Central Valley, the Coast Range or the Sierra, the Monterey headlands or the cost of Humboldt country or Mount Diablo itself—is all interlinked, subtly confusingly and, for the geological mapmakers, often maddeningly. These links go far beyond the borders of the state—political lines that pay no heed, in this case, to the absolutes of geology. They spread far, far beyond—as we shall discover, they reach up to Alaska, they percolate across to Wyoming and Montana, they reach back west across two oceans as far, in fact, as India and Australia. One might say, indeed, that the story of what makes California so complex and so interesting and so dangerous—and what makes Diablo so similarly geologically alluring—has implications for, and connections to, the planet in its entirety.

It’s a marathon of a paragraph, but I like its layered, controlled complexity. Yet taken too far, that style can delineate itself to death:

[The basalts] spilled over and laid themselves down on the old Pangaea-Columbia-Arctica-Ur granitelike continental rocks that exist underneath, making the confection of geology that—in juxtaposition with all the ice and snow of climate and the storms and winds of weather, the polar bears and lichens of biology and the Eskimo and Inuit and Danes and Americans soldiers of anthropology—constitutes the great and mysterious island known today as Greenland.

The good news is, that specimen is the exception, not the rule. Winchester’s long and winding sentences are usually a pleasure to parse. Like poetry, they require more of you, but they reward the effort.

The same can be said of A Crack in the Edge of the World’s subject matter. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is the center of a narrative constellation that includes a roadtrip across North American geologic points of interest, a people’s-eye history of California from Gold Rush to early twentieth century, a seminar on geologic science, and ruminations about the fragility of human existence versus nature. Consult the 27-page index for other topics covered.

Put another way, if books were beer, A Crack in the Edge of the World would be an earthy, flavorful stout: gaggingly thick for some people, satisfyingly rich for others. I found myself in the latter camp.

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