Emily's Reviews > Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
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's review
Nov 10, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: 2003
Read in April, 2003

Over the weekend I read Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, a book in which Simon Winchester has the gall to make fun of a geographically mistitled film called "Krakatoa, East of Java," while himself failing to provide an adequate map of the region. There are historical maps, there are maps of where the sound of the explosion could be heard, there are numerous diagrams of fault-lines and continental and oceanic plates, and there is even a black-and-white reproduction of a painting showing a marvelously colorful post-Krakatoa sunset--but there isn't a single map showing where the volcanic island lay in respect to its near neighbors Java and Sumatra. Nor is there a map showing the pre-eruption island to scale, nor one showing the progress of the fatal tsunamis.

That oversight could stand in for the faults of the book in general. Winchester reads like a fusty but enthusiastic professor whose interests rove over many disciplines. He deals with the history of the theories of evolution and plate tectonics, his own experiences researching paleomagnetism, the economics of the spice trade, telegraphy; he provides a lengthy history of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. These sections are individually interesting, but they feel like the rote exposition of a disaster film: you just want to get to the explosion. Winchester seems to be so excited about providing a wealth of hors-d'oeuvres and desserts that he neglects the main course.

The description of the explosion itself is made complicated by the way the author flips back and forth in time, telling each source's story in full before moving to the vantage point of the next observer. Nearly all of the sources are Dutch or English, though the English are no more than tangentially involved in the story. The more than thirty thousand Javanese who died in the tsunamis following Krakatoa's eruption receive short shrift, since the author is more interested in recounting the subsequent studies of doughty Englishmen with their barometers. He makes the interesting point that Krakatoa blew up at a crucial stage in the early history of telegraphy and wire news services but does not pursue the point more than anecdotally.

The book was full of interesting information, but it felt slapdash, motivated by the author's indulgence of his own curiosities rather than his anticipation of the reader's. I came away from it with an intense desire to re-read what remains my favorite book about Krakatoa--fanciful though it is--The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Lobstergirl Precisely!

Richard Excellent point about the maps! I love when a book contains maps, but the ones in this book were surprisingly unhelpful.

Larry The maps! I needed maps!

The rest of what you said pretty much boiled down my issues with what could have been a far more enjoyable book.

message 4: by Paul (new)

Paul Excellent review, articulated my thoughts exactly. After hours of dry reading info about anything but the explosion, I skipped ahead to the explosion but even that was complicated. I spent 10 minutes on the wikipedia page for Krakatoa and my thirst for knowledge on the subject was satisfied.

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