No Words Wasted Sale

Saturday, July 26th, 2003


Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

by Simon Winchester

A review by Doug Brown

How could anyone not be interested in a book about an entire island blowing up in a cataclysmic explosion that was measured by barometers around the globe? It was the first disaster to be almost instantly reported worldwide, due to a newly completed network of transoceanic telegraph cables. As with Winchester's other books, Krakatoa overflows with rich characters and vivid landscapes. His well-established love of words and etymologies enlivens descriptions and makes the familiar seem new. Confusion over the name of the island itself is the topic of much etymological discussion; "Krakatau" is more correct, but the misspelling "Krakatoa" was used in wire reports to the world and has become stuck in the public mind. However, he missed on one -- baseball's World Series is not named after a New York newspaper called The World; it is simply a superlative name (Sporting Life magazine started the trend in 1884, trumpeting the winners of the first American championship series as "Champions of the World").

The first half of the book sets the stage, starting with an introduction to the geologic history and biogeography of what Alfred Russell Wallace called the Malay Archipelago. We follow the first human colonists along the island chain, and then meet later western (primarily Dutch) colonists. By the time we get to 1883, we are richly steeped in the geology, history, biology, and culture of the area.

Ironically, this will be many readers' primary complaint with Winchester's approach: The island doesn't blow up until over halfway through the book. For sadistic voyeurs like myself, itching to get to the main event, Einstein's time dilation effect is readily demonstrated while reading those early chapters. But upon arrival at the eruption, Winchester's meticulous stage-setting is rewarded. We understand geologically what is happening, and we see the effect of the explosion on a variety of different people in different places that we are already familiar with. For those tempted to jump ahead from earlier chapters, I advise patience. Think of this as a history of the East Indies with a chapter on a big eruption rather than vice versa, and it will go by more smoothly. The subtitle is thus somewhat misleading, for only a third of the book deals with the events and aftermath of August 27, 1883. The last fifty pages cover life in the area since then, with some very speculative connections between the eruption and the subsequent rise of Islamic fundamentalism (which probably owes more to backlash from colonialism than geology).

Overall, though, Winchester has created a lush, rich book which forgive the cliché vividly captures a bygone era. People wanting to learn about the eruption alone, lifted out of its social/historical/geographical context, should try to find a copy of Simkin's out-of-print title Krakatau 1883 (which Winchester also endorses in his exhaustive further reading section). But if you want to really understand why this event happened where it did, why the region is so curious biogeographically, and how that has shaped the lives and cultures of people who have lived there before and since, this is an excellent overview of the subject.

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