Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Review: Krakatoa (2003) by Simon Winchester

Krakatoa:  The Day the World Exploded:  August 27, 1883 (2003)
Simon Winchester

An early 19th century image years before the great eruption.

I came to this book knowing almost nothing of Krakatoa except that it was east of Java. I now realize that Hollywood misled me on that rudimentary fact and the great volcano is actually situated west of Java. 

I don't think I've ever before come across a volume that can be termed a work of popular geology, but this is surely it, a superb example of a genre I didn't dream existed. I missed out on geology in college, where the introductory course was supposedly geared only to allowing athletes to meet their science requirement. Earth science was mostly overlooked in my high school as well, and while I certainly had heard of continental drift, I don't believe the relatively new notion had made its way into any of our science texts.

Simon Winchester, then, has done his best to relieve my ignorance of plate tectonics and subduction zones. His book also provides keen insights into the spice trade, the Wallace Line, 19th century science, the evils of Dutch colonial rule, the rise of Islamic militancy in Indonesia, and the enduring mysteries of ecological succession. In other words, Krakatoa is not merely about the powerful volcano exploding; it is about the complex world that volcano tore asunder.

Krakatoa: 1888 lithograph

Krakatoa:  1883 Photo


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