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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded Hardcover – April 1, 2003

3.9 out of 5 stars 405 customer reviews

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It may seem a stretch to connect a volcanic eruption with civil and religious unrest in Indonesia today, but Simon Winchester makes a compelling case. Krakatoa tells the frightening tale of the biggest volcanic eruption in history using a blend of gentle geology and narrative history. Krakatoa erupted at a time when technologies like the telegraph were becoming commonplace and Asian trade routes were being expanded by northern European companies. This bustling colonial backdrop provides an effective canvas for the suspense leading up to August 27th, 1883, when the nearby island of Krakatoa would violently vaporize. Winchester describes the eruption through the eyes of its survivors, and readers will be as horrified and mesmerized as eyewitnesses were as the death toll reached nearly 40,000 (almost all of whom died from tsunamis generated by the unimaginably strong shock waves of the eruption). Ships were thrown miles inshore, endless rains of hot ash engulfed those towns not drowned by 100 foot waves, and vast rafts of pumice clogged the hot sea. The explosion was heard thousands of miles away, and the eruption's shock wave traveled around the world seven times. But the book's biggest surprise is not the riveting catalog of the volcano's effects; rather, it is Winchester's contention that the Dutch abandonment of their Indonesian colonies after the disaster left local survivors to seek comfort in radical Islam, setting the stage for a volatile future for the region. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

An erudite, fascinating account by one of the foremost purveyors of contemporary nonfiction, this book chronicles the underlying causes, utter devastation and lasting effects of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of the volcano island Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World) once again demonstrates a keen knack for balancing rich and often rigorous historical detail with dramatic tension and storytelling. Rather than start with brimstone images of the fateful event itself, Winchester takes a broader approach, beginning with his own viewing of the now peaceful remains of the mountain for a second time in a span of 25 years-and being awed by how much it had grown in that time. This nod to the earth's ceaseless rejuvenation informs the entire project, and Winchester uses the first half of the text to carefully explain the discovery and methods of such geological theories as continental drift and plate tectonics. In this way, the vivid descriptions of Krakatoa's destruction that follow will resonate more completely with readers, who will come to appreciate the awesome powers that were churning beneath the surface before it gave way. And while Winchester graphically illustrates, through eyewitness reports and extant data, the human tragedy and captivating scientific aftershocks of the explosion, he is also clearly intrigued with how it was "a demonstration of the utterly confident way that the world, however badly it has been wounded, picks itself up, continues to unfold its magic and its marvels, and sets itself back on its endless trail of evolutionary progress yet again." His investigations have produced a work that is relevant to scholars and intriguing to others, who will relish it footnotes and all.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1st edition (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0066212855
  • ISBN-13: 978-0066212852
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (405 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,926 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
By late summer of this year, 120 years will have passed since the greatest natural disaster to occur on this planet since mankind began recording history some 30,000 years ago.
It was exactly 10:02 a.m. on Monday, August 27, 1883 when the small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra blew itself out of existence with an explosion that was heard thousands of miles away and that resulted in the deaths of over 36,000 people. That eruption is believed to be the loudest sound ever heard by human ears.
As Simon Winchester points out in this latest of his detailed historical-scientific investigative books, the vast majority of those 36,417 victims were killed not by the explosion itself, but by the enormous tsunami it created. This moving mountain of seawater wiped out whole towns; devastated the social and economic life of a region measured in thousands of miles; and was recorded on tide gauges as far away as France.
Winchester specializes in detailed accounts that shine light into odd or forgotten corners of history. His two most recent successful efforts in that genre were THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD and THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Now he has crafted a vividly written book of 400-plus pages about an event that was over in a matter of hours. KRAKATOA is certainly full of digressions that have only tangential relevance to its main subject --- but those digressions are so well researched, beautifully written and just plain interesting that they become assets rather than liabilities. The reader does not really object to the fact that the eruption doesn't begin until past the halfway point in Winchester's text.
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Format: Hardcover
If ever a book cried out for the services of a good editor, Simon Winchester's Krakatoa is that book. After writing his fascinating The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary it was hugely disappointing to plod through and then eventually abandon in frustration this bloated odyssey into minutiae and self-absorption. And like a bad B-movie, the monster, the volcano Krakatoa itself hardly puts in an appearance until page 150 only to have its dramatic tension decimated by a digressive chapter about the development of underwater communications cables.
The book suffers from at least three major flaws that render it so disappointing. The first is that Winchester simply cannot resist pouring everything including the kitchen sink into his book. The second is that the author seems to believe that the longer a sentence is, the better. And finally Winchester cannot resist injecting himself repeatedly into the book. This reader suspects that Winchester's publisher was in on the fraud knowing that there was a problem and chose to hide it from perspective buyers rather than demand a rewrite. Read the cover sleeves and one is lead to believe that the book is all about Krakatoa. There is not a word about the fact that 90% of the book is about such varied topics as Dutch colonialism, plate tectonics, the early history of undersea cables, and even personal events from the life of the author. Call me stupid, but I expected to read a book about Krakatoa, not about the personal life of Simon Winchester and every non-volcanic tangent that the author found personally interesting. Had the sleeve synopsis borne any resemblance to the book, I would certainly not have started reading it.
There were some good parts, but they were few and frustratingly far between!
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Format: Hardcover
A few volcanoes have had larger eruptions. One volcano -- also located in what is present-day Indonesia -- killed more people. But no volcano has gripped the public's imagination all over the world like Krakatoa.
Simon Winchester explains that this was as much a matter of timing as it had to do with the deadly power of Krakatoa's eruption. When it exploded in 1883, the world had just been linked together by underwater cables over the previous two decades. News readers in the West were thus linked to events in the East with an immediacy they never had before.
All around the world, scientists of the time were able to use this information when measuring and observing certain phenomenon in their own localities. As Winchester points out, this was significant, marking the first time that scientists had proof of the interconnectedness of the world, that the globe was not just a hodgepodge of separate regions.
As some reviewers have already mentioned, perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is the chapter called "Close Encounters on the Wallace Line". Here Winchester shows how Alfred Russel Wallace's observation of distinct fauna on the Indonesian Archipelago, narrowly separated by the eponymous line that splits through the middle of the group of islands, in a way foretold the twentieth century discovery of continental plates and subduction -- the processes responsible for the volcano's terrible eruption. (Wallace himself seems to have had an intuition that geological processes were responsible for two such different groups of animals being clustered together.)
After Winchester gives this context, he then moves on to the actual eruption of Krakatoa.
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