Now, maybe you have heard of Krakatoa, but I had never heard of it before I read this book. And, even if I had heard of it, I wouldn’t have chosen to read a book about a volcano: even the largest volcano ever observed (two larger previous volcanoes have no written records). Sorry, I just wasn’t that interested in vulcanology. Someone gave this book as a Christmas present and so I read it. And I enjoyed it. (the ironies of life….)
So, why should you even be interested in a book about a volcano that literally blew itself completely off the face of the earth on August 27, 1883? Quite a few reasons actually.
To begin with, let’s consider the quality of writing. Winchester has a background in geology and has repeatedly been a New York Times best seller. He has the depth of knowledge and skill to make obscure history fun. For example, I once read his book The Professor and the Madman which covers the writing of the English Oxford Dictionary. He turned the story of a dictionary into a page turner without destroying the facts. Winchester has the ability to find the fascinating points in a story and then to turn them into readable books. (Geology has always been my least favorite science. Winchester made it interesting again.) It is actually a pleasure to read his work.
Next, Krakatoa doesn’t simply cover the eruption, rather it covers the recorded history before the eruption and then follows the history after the eruption. There is a chapter on the precolonial period of Sumatra and Java and several chapters on the colonial life and politics. Very interesting reading. One would almost forget that this book was about a volcano.
A third reason is the social implications of Krakatoa. Because the world had just been networked via telegraph a few short years prior to Krakatoa’s eruption, for the first time a global audience could watch the events of a tragedy unfold in real time. This sudden rapidity of news caused great fear and panic around the world. People asked if the world was about to end? More intriguingly, Java and Sumatra were moderately Muslim in their beliefs before the eruption. After the massive loss of life and property combined with the harsh treatment by their Dutch masters the stage was set for a nationalistic rebellion fueled by radical Islam. The result has been to make those areas the most radical Islamic nations today outside the Middle East.
Sadly, the one objectionable part is the entirety of chapter three. In this chapter, Winchester goes beyond discussing the geography from an evolutionary standpoint to actually portraying hero worship of Alfred Russell Wallace. In Winchester’s mind, Wallace was greater than Darwin but earned the title of “Darwin’s Moon.” Winchester heaps praise on Wallace and others for bringing the world out of religious darkness into the godless light of science. I have never actually read someone who worshiped evolutionists to this degree before. Still, it is the only problematic chapter in this book.
I can understand why you might not be fascinated at the subject matter, but like all well written histories, the subject doesn’t matter when it is handled by a master story-teller. Winchester is just that: a master craftsman at work. This book is well researched and well documented. There aren’t any flaws to poke at in this book.
This book also has implications for the current debate on global warming. After Krakatoa exploded, the temperature around the entire globe dropped by several degrees for a decade or longer. That would have the global temperature recovering about 1900. Modern “climatologists” claim that the temperature has risen 1-2 degrees celsius over the last century. Now taking into account the temperature drop shortly before 1900, could we be seeing a return to the temperature levels pre-Krakatoa? Even if we aren’t, if a single volcano (admittedly a large one) can affect the temperature so greatly, why should I assume that human produced carbon is the great Satan of modern society?
I had never heard of Krakatoa before I read this book. Had you ever heard of it?