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Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault by Philip Fradkin

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Fradkin, Magnitude 8

Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault

University of California Press
This book sets the gold standard for treatments of California's seismic side: the geology, geography, history and political significance of the state's earthquakes. Magnitude 8 presents not just the familiar cautionary facts and arguments, but also the peculiar sardonic attraction of California's state hazard and the effect of earthquakes on the state's landscape and inhabitants. The book will also take you to the fault trace in localities up and down the golden state.

Title: Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault
Authors: Philip Fradkin
Publisher: University of California Press
ISBN: 0520221192


  • A faultline resident tours the 800-kilometer San Andreas fault
  • Voices of experts and ordinary people are heard
  • Social and political repercussions of earthquakes are presented
  • Life along the fault is described with a resident's sympathy


  • Vivid portraits of the land and people on the fault line
  • Author reveals a resident's hesitations, actions and inactions
  • The science of earthquakes is spot on


  • Published in 1999, before a few more recent developments

Book Review

Every one of California's 33 million people is in a position to feel a great earthquake on one part or another of the San Andreas fault. We learned from Hurricane Katrina that the loss of a major port weakens the whole nation; California has eight major Pacific ports vulnerable to a "big one." Every American has an interest in this famous geologic feature.

But that said, Magnitude 8 is of supreme value to residents near the fault line, from Shelter Cove in the northern woods to the Salton Sea in the southern desert. Philip Fradkin traveled the length of the fault, even canoeing it in one place, and he gives enough information for anyone to visit a dozen prime sites and know what to look for once there. Magnitude 8 is complementary to Susan Hough's Finding Fault in California as an earthquake tour guide, and the student of faults will want both books.

The strengths of Fradkin's treatment are its concreteness, its humanity and its balance. Not only are places brought to vivid life, but so also are the events—each of California's historic earthquakes is presented with first-person accounts from good sources. In reviving the past, Magnitude 8 outdoes all of the centennial-oriented books released from 2004 to 2006, except Fradkin's own Earthquake and Fires of 1906 (part 3 of the "earthquake trilogy" of which Magnitude 8 is the first and Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay is the second). The Golden State has learned again and again about earthquakes, and each time the lesson has been almost entirely lost. Fradkin helps us to remember and to see the constant threat for ourselves.

While Fradkin's voice is that of a fellow citizen, he has formidable reporting skills and a worthy drive to find telling trivia. The monks and nuns of Saint Andrew's Abbey, straddling the fault near Valyermo, are disturbed by the scream of military jets conducting low-level training flights down the fault valley, which is handy for evading radar. Aldous Huxley, who used to stay nearby, once wrote that even those jets could not mask the silence there. Yet this spot was ripped apart in 1857 by perhaps California's greatest recorded earthquake.

A longtime California resident, Fradkin writes with sympathy for the bargain that the quake-aware citizen makes to live there under constant threat. Building techniques, preparation and insurance are all given attention, as is the sorry state of readiness at all governmental levels. And yet the beauty and attraction of the landscape pushes the heart and eye against the brain to yield a peculiar sardonic fatalism in some, a Zen sense of presence in others. Fradkin's neighbor, a landowner on the fault line, confesses at a dinner party, "I love earthquakes." His wife concurs: "In the middle of the night when a quake strikes I'm just horror-struck and clutching, and he's laughing and whooping."

Fradkin, Magnitude 8

Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault

University of California Press

The science in Magnitude 8 is well presented and an important foundation, but not the book's focus. Fradkin avoids nearly all mention of earthquake magnitudes, but you don't notice until he says so. The magnitude number is handy for scientists, of course, but it's only one part of what they need to understand an earthquake. For the public, the number really signifies little. Someone needs to devise an Earthquake Destructiveness Index that will finally put Richter's crude scale to rest. Until then, what's important for people to know is the fact that things could crash down around them without warning.

Unlike Robert Yeats's indispensible Living with Earthquakes in California, Fradkin's book is not at heart a how-to manual. It truly is as the subtitle says: about life, not living, along the fault.

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