Book Review: "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester

August 3, 2009

I’m jealous of Simon Winchester, which always leaves me in pouting mood when I read his books: He writes about the subjects I would write about, too, if I had my proverbial act together, with a multi-disciplinary elan reminiscent of wood-paneled studies, lairs of 19th century British men of leisure.

I picture Winchester’s desk, as he writes, piled high with the skeletons of small (exotic) mammals and absolutely adorable, anachronistic scientific devices made all of glass and brass. I want this man’s life, and also the impossible, romanticized Victorian era his craft hearkens to: every man can be an expert, a trailblazer of natural science, but, as I am not a man, none of this would have ever been open to me, so I am nostalgic over something nonexistent.

My geographic ignorance of the Indonesian island arc is profound. Was profound. Reading Winchester’s work on the enormous exploding of a volcano here in 1883 helped, on a layman’s level, to patch up this problem for me. Wichester covers the subject holistically, with snatches of biography, biology, political science, geology and geography. This is very much how I roll, and this book–coupled with an atlas and occasional scampers off to Wikipedia to elucidate (or provide bogus information about) a point mentioned in passing–was key in filling in one of the last areas of the earth that I wouldn’t be able to fill in on a map.

Now I can point at Sumatra, Malacca (AND the Moluccas), Bali and other sundry constituents of Micronesia and Polynesia with gusto.

That is, Winchester’s books, like the books of anyone worth his salt in this genre, gives a reader that sense of learning across the sciences, that generalist thrill and the actual sensation of new wrinkles forming in one’s brain. He doesn’t assume any prior specialized knowledge–though this is quite unfortunate when it comes to the long chapter on the nuts and bolts and history of plate tectonics; anyone with even a passing understanding of the mechanics here will probably glaze over. I did. Not to mention I’d already basically read that chapter in one of his other books on the San Francisco 1906 earthquake.

Winchester spends about two thirds of the book foreshadowing the earth-shattering kaboom that is about to occur (well, in August of 1883). So much so that he has run out of bombastic overstatements by the time he gets there. His writing, if not exactly purple, sometimes bangs out and feels over-endowed; the man has a love of meaningless words like ‘unfathomable’, ‘unutterably’, ‘unimaginably.’ Is it not his job to fathom, utter and imagine for us?

Because of this, the giant rafts of pumice floating around the Indian ocean with thousands of DEAD PEOPLE on them feels somewhat glossed over. His treatment of the eruption’s concomitant tsunami(s) is not dismissive or careless, but suffers from lack of scale and what sounds like a likely irreconcilable lack of sources. It’s simply hard, perhaps impossible, to talk about the sweeping death of tens of thousands rationally, to make it sound like a part of the same story as the anecdotes about British spider experts and headstrong explorers.

What I could not abide, however, were a couple of the book’s technical drawings. One in particular, a sketch of the island group’s metamorphosis (Krakatoa, or, more accurately, Krakatau, was actually a small group of islands, not just one, in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java), portrayed cardinal north pointing off to the bottom left of the drawing. Giving as this serves as the main reference map to the descriptions of all subsequent tales, this is inexcusable. I spent the entire book being confused about which way was up (north), compounded by the fact that the islands’ shapes and existence were constantly changing and that none of the other supplied drawings or maps or charts seemed to agree with each other. Unacceptable! You have just confused your audience!

Winchester also makes a few claims that felt dubious. One that I knew was not true: as part of his consistent condescension to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, he claims that the sounds of the explosion were not heard outside of the mountain range it was in. My stepmother heard it loud and clear in Boise, Idaho, several hundred miles east of the source. Another phenomenon that he mentions is that residents of Batavia (basically Jakarta), to the east of the event, did not really hear anything, but just felt air pressure shock waves. This is the same thing that happened in Portland, Ore. (my hometown) during the St. Helens eruption. The current going theory is that it has something to do with the way that sound waves go up from the volcano and then eventually bounce off the atmosphere and come down. In the area underneath that arc–the areas closest to the volcano–there is silence. Outside it, booming sounds. No one in Portland heard the Mt. St. Helens eruption. It was silent here. In Eugene, Ore., 100 miles south, and thus further from the source, it was quite loud.

This is the strongest of the Winchester books I have read to date. It’s a pleasure to read for those intrigued by geographic and geologic histories of earth. Winchester does a lovely job crafting a narrative, and makes me jealous of him once again.


As always, see all of my reviews on LibraryThing.

Library Thing Early Reviewers

4.5 stars
Wonderful games with Caslon