This Week's Must Read
3:12 pm
Fri August 29, 2014

In An Earthquake, History Fuels One Writer's Anxiety

Originally published on Fri August 29, 2014 7:40 pm

While most of America is thinking burgers and swimming this Labor Day weekend, I can't stop thinking about earthquakes.

Last Sunday, a shaker registering magnitude 6.0 struck the Napa Valley in Northern California. It injured dozens and caused about $1 billion in damages. National media coverage focused on how the quake affected the area's famous wine industry — because America needs to know that our stock of cabs and zinfandels is safe.

I, on the other hand, immediately remembered the Big One: the catastrophic quake that seismologists have long predicted will wreak havoc on Southern California someday... but no one knows when. So every little movement, every sway of a lamp or rattle of pans puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And after the Napa quake, I turned to Simon Winchester's excellent book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 — you know, for some light reading.

The book was released on the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled the city. Winchester details the devastation — houses turned into piles of sticks, blocks leveled by fires that followed, thousands left homeless for months. But the book's most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the quake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hit: "The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace."

Cliched? Sure. But that's the scary thing about earthquakes: You never know when they're coming, or where.

Only one thing is certain: Scientists say the San Andreas Fault that caused the San Francisco quake will unleash the Big One sooner rather than later. So I guess I'll just wait for it, and read and reread Winchester's book again until then. Happy Labor Day!

Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

People in California's Napa Valley are still cleaning up after an earthquake that struck early Sunday morning. It was a magnitude of 6.0 - the worst there in 25 years. In this week's Must Read, author Gustavo Arellano offers a literary perspective on the seismic event.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: When the quake hit, a lot of media focused on Napa's famous wine industry because America needs to know that our stock of cabs and zinfandels is safe. I, on the other hand, got anxious. This earthquake injured dozens of people and caused a lot of damage. But it's nothing compared to the big one.

The big one is what we southern Californians know is coming to us. The catastrophic quake that seismologists say will happen someday, but no one knows when. So every time I see a little movement - every sway of a lamp or rattle of a pan - it puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And then I turn to literature.

After the Napa quake, I reopened Simon Winchester's book "A Crack In The Edge Of The World: America And The Great California Earthquake Of 1906," you know, for some light reading. The book tells the story of a massive quake that killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled San Francisco. Winchester describes houses turned into piles of sticks, thousands of people left homeless for months, city blocks destroyed by the fires that followed.

But the books most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the earthquake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hits. The breeze was westerly, but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace. Cliche? Sure. But that's the scary thing about earthquakes. You never know when they're coming or where. So I guess I'll just wait and read and reread a Winchester's book again and again until the big one arrives. Happy Labor Day.

SIEGEL: That was Gustavo Arellano. He's the editor of OC Weekly and author of "Taco USA." The book that he recommended is "A Crack In The Edge Of The World" by Simon Winchester.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Stay tuned we have more ALL THINGS CONSIDERED coming up right after this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.