My Foot[note] Fetish

I recently finished reading, "A Crack In the Edge of the World" by Simon Winchester and having now read his four most popular books, I have finally pinpointed exactly why he has risen to the top of my favorite authors list. Not that I really have a favorite authors list, but if I did he would be the cherry peering down from atop a mountain of neopolitan. You see, I used to think it was because the subject matter has in all but one of his books centered around geology. Then when I read the outlyer book (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary... and how it owes much of its existence to a murdering madman) I started to think it was because he was just a master storyteller who fortunately wrote non-fiction. Or because he simply had a knack for selecting some wickedly interesting topics.

He's all of those things, but still there's more to it. The reason I so enjoy reading his books rests in the very reason I noticed myself folding some of the page corners down -- the footnotes. At the risk of sounding incredibly nerdy (too late, I know), the best part of Winchester's books are the footnotes. It's in the footnotes where he buries the tastiest nuggets of information; where he tosses in the occasional razor-sharp jab, and where you learn some of the most outlandish facts.

"A Crack In the Edge of the World" is about the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the resulting fire that nearly destroyed the entire city. It's a book that details the tectonic history and activity of the continental United States; California's history; the current status of earthquake science along the San Andreas; and even the possible Gaea-like links between the San Andreas fault, major quakes in Alaska, and the supervolcano residing under Yellowstone National Park. And, I'll throw in, those slumbering Cascade giants I so often gaze at from my porch in Washington.

Maybe it's because of my background in geology, or maybe because I've always been drawn to trainwrecks and in writing about Krakatoa and San Francisco 1906, Winchester has written about two of the biggest natural trainwrecks ever. But regardless, I have found each of his books to be utterly fascinating and wonderfully written. I don't know if I've ever come across a better writer. And most assuredly not a better researcher.

Here's a couple of those tasty nuggest I found particularly interesting and enjoyable. As taken from "A Crack In the Edge of the World":

on misfortune...

The Geological Survey report noted that fully three-quarters of the city's iron safes failed to protect their contents from the subsequent fires. Most tragically of all, merchants often opened safes that were still red hot, with costly consequences: The moment the superheated insides were exposed to fresh air and oxygen, the paper contents -- Treasury Bills and negotiable securities -- burst into flames, bringing sudden financial ruin to owners who had been optimistic but who had now looked helplessly at the blaze.

on Wal-Mart's place in the Yukon...

By now I was finally in the Yukon... Even though Whitehorse tries hard, with its railroad to Skagway and its wonderful paddle wheel ferry on the Yukon River, it does also have a Wal-Mart, and that, for me, is the kiss of death. The notion that the ghost of Sam Walton and the Brutes of Bentonville have come to linger anywhere at all in the Yukon sets me fretting about the state of the world even more than usual. There is worse, however: Someone suggested taking the road farther north still to Dawson City and being initiated into a drinking club that has as its signature libation a whiskey in which is marinated some unfortunate's frostbitten toe. It seemes almost as repellent an attaction as Wal-Mart.

on world-famous creator of the Richter Scale...

Richter, who spent most of his career in Pasadena, at the California Institute of Technology, was a somewhat unusual man; an avid nudist and vegetarian who, to judge from his correspondence and his diaries, enjoyed a prodigious sexual appetite.

on Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort...

Although Beaufort is inextricably linked in the public mind with the measurement of wind, he is better known among sailors as perhaps the greatest hydrographer of all time, with more than a thousand nautical charts of every corner of the maritime world to his credit. He also performed his work under some physical duress: In a battle at Malaga, before he began his work as mapmaker and gale-measurer, he was wounded no fewer than nineteen times, sixteen times by musket balls and three times by a Spanish cutlass. He was given a pension of 45 pounds for his pains.

I anxiously look forward to his next book but will, in the meantime, try to track down some of his older works. If you enjoy non-fiction, I'd highly recommend this book.

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