Summary and book reviews of Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

Krakatoa

The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

By Simon Winchester

Krakatoa
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2003,
    432 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2004,
    448 pages.

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About this Book

Book Summary

The bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World examines the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the earth's most dangerous volcano -- Krakatoa.

The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for a cataclysmic disaster -- was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogotá and Washington, D.C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island's destruction was heard in Australia and India and on islands thousands of miles away. Most significant of all -- in view of today's new political climate -- the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims: one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere.

Simon Winchester's long experience in the world wandering as well as his knowledge of history and geology give us an entirely new perspective on this fascinating and iconic event as he brings it telling back to life.

Author's Note

I had first seen Krakatoa, or at least, the place where the great volcano had once been, when I was wandering through Indonesia as a foreign correspondent in the 1970's. The fact that this was the site of the greatest explosion in modern recorded history was truly awe-inspiring -- that I was just a few miles away from the center of so vast a cataclysm was a simple fact that exerted a powerful hold on me, and has ever since.

Some years later I read one of the very few books that recounted the events of 1883 in detail -- and I realized as I was reading that the writer (the book had been published in 1965) had not the faintest idea of just why Krakatoa had exploded, and why it had done so with such unimaginable ferocity. Back in 1965 there had been no scientific explanations: it was one enormous mess of mysteries. But, quite coincidentally, at just about the time I made my first visit, a whole new set of theories were being developed that would eventually account, with great precision, for almost every one of Krakatoa's dramatic acts. And so when I went there in the 1970s I was not just fascinated and awed: I knew why it had all happened.

The idea of my writing a book, now that we were all armed with this new knowledge, came to me only after I had written about William Smith, one of the fathers of early geology. The response from readers suggested to me that, all of a sudden, geology was being seen as a romantic science, and that, quite fantastically, it had developed cool. So I went off to Krakatoa once again -- and found to my utter astonishment that it had completely changed, that it had grown. It was 500 feet taller than when I had last seen it -- because whatever had caused it in the first place was still working. This tipped me over the edge: the original tale was a fine and awful story, and what is more the forces that had caused all the terror to take place were now fully understood. To write a new book, about Krakatoa yesterday, today and tomorrow, seemed all of a sudden just the most natural thing to do.

Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps -
Prelude
1. "An Island with a Pointed Mountain"
2. The Crocodile in the Canal
3. Close Encounters on the Wallace Line
4. The Moments When the Mountain Moved
5. The Unchaining of the Gates of Hell
6. A League from the Last of the Sun
7. The Curious Case of the Terrified Elephant
8. The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom
9. Rebellion of a Ruined People
10. The Rising of the Son
Epilogue: The Place the World Exploded
Recommendations for (and, in One Case, Against) Further Reading and Viewing
Acknowledgments, Erkenningen, Terima Kasih
Index

Chapter One
"An Island with a Pointed Mountain"

Though we think first of Java as an eponym for coffee (or, to some today, a computer language), it is in fact the trading of aromatic tropical spices on which the fortunes of the great island's colonizers and Western discoverers were first founded. And initially supreme among those spices was the one rather ordinary ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for a cataclysmic disaster -- was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined.

Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogotá and Washington, D.C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island'...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The Los Angeles Times - Kenneth Reich

...an exhaustive and often exciting account of the Krakatoa events.

The Washington Post - Valerie Jablow

There are some problems in his coverage of events before and after the eruption, but this is a good read for anyone interested in Indonesia, geology or earthshaking catastrophes.

Book Magazine - Eric Wargo

A lesser writer would have trouble juggling such diverse topics as the seventeenth-century pepper trade, nineteenth-century Islamic nationalism and the geological processes that cause continents to drift and collide, but Winchester uses the disaster, which became a worldwide media event, to incorporate these stories (and many others) into one mightily fascinating book.

San Francisco Chronicle

Winchester's exceptional attention to detail never falters.

Boston Sunday Globe

A pleasure from beginning to end

The New York Times - Richard Ellis

Krakatoa (the book) is, also like its subject, deserving of superlatives It is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.

Entertainment Weekly

A real-life story bigger than any Hollywood blockbuster.

Chicago Sun-Times

Winchester...is noted for his ability to turn scholarly history into engrossing narrative.

Publishers Weekly

...a work that is relevant to scholars and intriguing to others, who will relish it footnotes and all.

Library Journal - Gloria Maxwell

As a rich blend of science and history, this book is highly recommended for most public and academic libraries.

Kirkus Reviews

Supremely well told a fine exception to the dull run of most geological writing.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

Starred Review. All readers, science-prone or not, will be delighted by this experience-expanding book.

The Economist

Masterful build-up of literary and geological tension.

Reader Reviews
Werner

For the educated few amongst us ...
Once the 15 year-old teenagers, who can be excused for only being concerned with the "excitement" of drugs and sex, eventually grows up to (hopefully) responsible and educated adults - then maybe they will start to understand the value that a book ...   Read More

k

Crapatoa
Worst book I have ever read! DO NOT READ! Really boring with lots of long and unnecessary words. Only reason I read it was for 8th grade science.

Mark

Rakata=Krakatoa, the true story and more
I found this book to be an almost definitive work on ALL of the aspects of this event, not just restricted to the geological.. it includes in considerable fascinating depth, glimpses of the reigious - socio - policital involvments of the Native ...   Read More

C

Don't read it. The volcano erupts, it says it on the front cover. It was because of tectonic plate movements. Save a bunch of long words and descriptions, that's all you need to know. Go get something else done instead of wasting your time. (15 ...   Read More

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