Book Review: Krakatoa

Krakatoa:  The Day The World Exploded:  August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester

This is a deeply interesting book, but at its heart there is something quite uncharitable about it on several different levels.  For one, the author makes quite a few digs at Dutch imperialism, commenting that it was crueler than British imperialism and less likely to lead to nostalgia.  For another, the author subtly praises the anti-imperialistic mood of militant Islam, itself a move of either great cowardice or moral blindness in light of the evils that militant Islam has done in Indonesia and other places.  For another, the author has named this book Krakatoa despite the fact that the volcano should actually be known by another name, Krakatau, and the author simultaneously feels smug about this while also continuing to title his book by the mistaken name that readers would be more likely to know.  I must admit that my disapprobation of the author’s lack of charity–and for his commentary on evolutionary speculation–tends to reduce my appreciation of this book as a whole.  It is not only the fact value that influences how we see a given work like this one but also the tone in which the book is undertaken, and this book demonstrates that Winchester’s tone is far from beneficial in some cases.

In terms of its contents, this book is nearly 400 pages long and is divided into ten large chapters and various other material.  The author begins with a list of illustrations and maps and a prelude.  After that the author looks at the geography of Krakatau and how the island got its name and how it was viewed in early European maps and charts (1).  This leads to a discussion of the construction of Batavia (now Jakarta) as well as historical eruptions of Krakatau before the one the book is mainly about (2).  The author spends a chapter discussing the Wallace Line and its role in speculations about plant and animal evolution (3) before going more into detail about the evidence of historical eruptions of Krakatau before 1883 (4).  Finally, at this point the author is ready to discuss the main eruption itself, with two chapters that discuss the initial 1883 eruptions and the way that news of them spread (5, 6), a relatively short chapter about a terrified elephant who may have been sensitive to what was going on (7), and a chapter about the actual eruption itself and its dramatic effects on affected areas (8).  After this the author discusses the rebellion of militant Muslims (9) as well as the later rise of the so-called Son of Krakatau (10).  After this there is an epilogue about the place that was exploded, some recommendations for (and against) future reading, and acknowledgments and an index.

There is both something admirable and frustrating about this book.  The author clearly writes with ambition, though it is not always clear whether he is showing off his supposed knowledge of science and history or seeking to provide reasons why the reader should care about what goes on in remote Indonesia in the strait between Java and Sumatra.  On the one hand, he does a great job at putting the eruption into a context that demonstrates its importance in showing the global effects of volcanoes and thus the interconnectedness of the world when it comes to climate, as well as the way that the natural disaster had political consequences and was important in part because of Indonesia’s connectedness with the world of technology.  Even so, this book has a great many shortcomings, not least is the author’s rather irritating and biased perspective.  Even if there is a lot to criticize about it, it certainly is a worthwhile book in making the reader aware of the larger ramifications of volcanic blasts like that of 1883’s Krakatau eruption.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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