Woodcut of Krakatoa
After reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, I am embarrassed to admit that I learned about the volcano only after hearing the B-52′s song Hot Lava sometime in my college years. I’m ashamed because Winchester says many times that Krakatoa was the volcanic event that everybody learns about and remembers. Well, not this gal. Thank you Fred Schneider and company for sending me to the encyclopedia to look that word up (these were the days before Wikipedia, although not pre-Internet, thank you very much).
I picked the book up because I have a strange obsession with disaster stories, Into Thin Air being a favorite. Winchester’s book is much more than just a chronicle of the 1883 volcanic explosion though. He deftly combines natural history, geology, political sociology, history and more to create a full picture of Krakatoa’s place and importance. Each chapter takes on a different piece of the story, from the colonial history of what would become Indonesia, to the development of the Wallace Line, to an excellent chapter on the discovery of plate tectonics and much more. While he of course chronicles the disaster itself he does so as a detective trying to piece together the exact happenings rather than sensationalizing the events.
The only place he falters slightly is in the political history. He argues that Krakatoa’s eruption helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism, but honestly I think the Dutch and the colonial project did that just fine without Krakatoa’s help. While the eruption definitely created chaos that destroyed daily life, many factors went into the widespread anti-colonial insurgencies throughout Asia. Luckily he reins it in before drawing direct causation, but this chapter was the weakest. As the book was written and published after the Bali bombings in 2002, he was probably trying to draw in a wider audience.
My other criticism is why I give the book four our of five stars on Goodreads. I appreciate a good map, even in location-heavy fiction, but especially in nonfiction. The maps in the paperback version of this book are horrendous (I only hope they are better in the hardback). For example, the map of Indonesia doesn’t even have Krakatoa labeled! I had to go to Google to figure out where the island was located. I would overlook one editorial mistake but the rest of the maps are equally as bad (no legends, difficult to read). I guess they were going for a period (Victorian) look by having them hand-drawn. That is what I like to believe at least.
Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It is very well-written and covers extremely difficult science in an understandable way. Although he covers a wide-range of topics, he weaves them together to form a very coherent story of a volcano.
PS: After reading this book I now know why the lyric is “Krakatoa, East of Java” (when Krakatoa is west of Java). They may have been fans of the film, Krakatoa, East of Java.