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

by Simon Winchester

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,8431132,685 (3.81)282
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 die 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.… (more)
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The title and subtitle say it all. First, we are presented with the geology of that part of the world, Indonesia, at that time the Dutch East Indies, and the geological discoveries of plate tectonics and subduction in the 1960s. Then a history of the region with the Dutch taking over. Then followed descriptions from various eyewitness accounts, of what happened before, during, and after the explosion of Krakatoa. The island itself completely disappeared, and several new small ones came into existence. Although only 5th on the Volcanic Explosive Index [VEI], Krakatoa affected the whole world and climate though widespread atmospheric dust. Some of the famous artists of the day painted landscapes with Krakatoa-affected sunsets in their unusual coloration. For example, there was: F.E. Church's "Sunset over the ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario", a beautiful, almost abstract painting with unusual coloration. Why did this explosion happen? Basically, plate tectonics--two plates had been rubbing against each other for thousands of years and this rubbing finally culminated in this explosion. This was the first news item reported around the world after a tiny few lines first reported on an inner newspaper page. A fascinating study and delightfully written. ( )
  janerawoof | Sep 30, 2022 |
Interesting book. I first heard of Krakatoa when young and a movie came out "Krakatoa East of Java". Pretty bad movie but I did gain knowledge of this island and it's explosive end. Learned a lot from this book. Recommend to anyone who wants to learn about volcanoes and the East Indies. ( )
  Nefersw | Jan 14, 2022 |
This was an interesting read for me. Although I have heard of Krakatoa, I really did not know much about the volcano or the disaster that resulted from its eruption. Winchester went into great detail about the historical and scientific contexts of the event. He often took the reader on tangents into topics somewhat related to the event. For example he gave the background on the Alfred Wallace/Charles Darwin controversy because Wallace discovered the Wallace line which was important in the development of plate tectonics which can be used to explain why volcanoes such as Krakatoa erupts. If you don't mind the meandering details there is a lot of interesting information. If you just want him to get to the point of the disaster, it may be annoying. Overall, I enjoyed it. I learned a lot about volcanoes and history and I enjoyed the exploration of the science behind how the island is being reborn and repopulated by nature. ( )
  Cora-R | Jan 8, 2022 |
I've been interested in Krakatoa for quite a while--can't remember when I first heard about the volcano, but I do know that I'd heard of it in conjunction with planet-wide cooling brought on by the dust kicked up by the explosion. Honestly, I thought I'd be getting more of that, the social and global impact of the eruption. I have a feeling my enjoyment of Dead Wake colored my expectations. That said, there was plenty I found fascinating. It's almost amazing how much information is fit into this book, from history to geology to technology to...erm, memoir?

The book probably could have used a bit more editing, which surprised me since I enjoyed The Professor and the Madman. Quite possibly the editor of Krakatoa let the author rest a bit too much on his laurels earned for that book. The strangest part was the author's random description of a research trip he took to Iceland, which was smack dab in the middle of an explanation of geological phenomena. I don't believe there was anywhere else in the main body of the text where he inserted himself even in passing, but there were four or five pages about his little northward jaunt. While definitely interesting, it was just out of place. That kind of information belongs in the preface and epilogue--where he did have a great deal of personal information that very neatly bookended the distance of science and history with the closeness of personal experience. There were also quite a few footnotes that seemed like they should have been integrated into the text, since they had information that was actually important (though most were good, fun but skipable footnotes). I might have also liked a little more easing in to the explosion--Winchester seems to have started with the assumption that readers have more than passing familiarity with the events, but I knew next to nothing and found it hard to keep up with dates until he broke down the eruption's timeline in the middle of the book.

My favorite aspect of the book was learning about how the eruption of Krakatoa was really the first disaster with a worldwide impact to be felt by people all over the world. I don't mean in physical terms--other volcanoes have erupted and changed the climate, other disasters have occurred--but in terms of technological globalization. By the end of the 1800s, communication could happen by wire even over vast distances beneath the ocean, which meant that the event was discussed in world newspapers a day or two after it happened. (I'd still like to learn how telegraph lines were laid in oceans.) For the first time, instead of just noticing that sunsets were exceptionally brilliant or winters exceptionally cold, people all over the world knew why. I couldn't help thinking several times about the tsunamis that devastated the same region in 2004, especially in how the media approached the disaster. Without the speedy spread of photography in 1883, it sounds like the general public was more interested in the scientific aspects of the explosion. In 2004, the emphasis was very much on the human loss and devastation.

If you're interested in volcanoes, geology, regional history, or Krakatoa itself, you'll enjoy this book--but you'll definitely want to have at least some sort of interest before you pick this book up, to keep you going through the wide variety of topics.

Quote/Key Thought Roundup

6) In learning of [Java, Sumatra, Sunda Strait, Batavia] and of the terrible events that occurred there, so the world's people suddenly became part of a new brotherhood of knowledge--in a sense it was that day in August 1883 that the modern phenomenon known as "the global village" was born.
First mention of the communication angle that so fascinated me. On another note, I was cheered and tickled to see that Winchester uses almost as many dashes in his writing as I do.

72) There had been a great southern continent, Gondwanaland [...] According to early theorists the Tethys [Ocean] had originated by way of continental sinking--an ever popular explanation for all manner of earthly mysteries, and which of course remained the basis for such enduring myths as the vanishing of Atlantis.
"Gondwanaland". Seriously? Actually, the funniest part about the name to me is it's distant, completely accidental similarity (g! a! l! d!) to the name of Galard, the continent that sank in my awful book, Lavardia.

111) During the infamous San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 parts of the fault, which in recent years has accelerated its rate of sliding to almost four inches a year, shot past each other a total of twenty-one feet in a matter of twenty seconds!
A) Holy cow! Twenty-one feet!
B) How did anyone think it was a good idea to rebuild after that?
C) Another earthquake is unlikely to happen in exactly the same place, but...do people know if their house is built on that slipped fault line?
D) Why the heck is Starfleet HQ built in such an unstable part of the planet?


267) The [air] shock wave from Krakatoa's final cataclysmic explosion had traveled around the earth not once but seven times.
A) Holy cow! Air waves! Seven times!
B) I was fascinating to learn that, since weather forecasting was in vogue in the late Victorian times, hundreds if not thousands of upper-class people had these waves recorded on their personal barographs.


269) Here was one of the first provable instances in which a natural event occurring in one corner of the planet had effects that spread over the entire world. [...] Few in Victorian times had begun to think truly globally. [...] The world was now suddenly seen to be much more than an immense collection of unrelated peoples and isolated happenings: It was, rather, an almost infinitely large association of interconnected individuals and perpetually intersecting events.
While I won't wax lyrical about beautiful prose in this book, I did get very caught up in these eloquent descriptions about the globalizing impact of the event. Obviously my interest in this aspect of the book is coloring my opinion, but still...

317) Chapter 9: Rebellion of a Ruined People
In this chapter, Winchester remembers that there were more people than just the Dutch colonists living near Krakatoa. There were a few mentions of the local populations earlier on in the book, but they tended to be colored with the exoticization of his contemporary sources--not exactly comfortable reading. This chapter, though, aiyah! It's the first chapter actually devoted to the native population of the region rather than heavily favoring the European colonists and it focuses a great deal on the influence of Islam. In addition to being annoyed that more wasn't said about the local people earlier on (aside from bashing their record keeping), I was surprised how aggressively the author went after the militant factions of the religion as key instigators of post-Krakatoa uprisings. It sounds like there's no doubt that religious leaders did have a big impact on the events, but there's relatively little space devoted to other potential causes of dissatisfaction with the alien colonizers. Don't you think that after several hundred years of rule by a foreign body there might be a few local people interested in independence instead of a holy war? Take this paragraph:

322) Did Islam come to act as a banner under which these people might turn against the Dutchmen whom they could now, all of a sudden and with the clarity of a new perspective see not as their benevolent leaders and well-intentioned mentors but, as so many imperial agents are eventually viewed, as their oppressors?
Wow, dude, you really think that this change in outlook toward the Dutch was "sudden"? That there was no reason for Indonesian Muslims and non-Muslims alike to be dissatisfied with the imperialists? While I readily accept that the eruption may have pushed the situation to a boiling point, I am incredibly skeptical that this revolt came out of nowhere but Islam and Krakatoa.

337) The rebellion had been crushed; an inquiry was staged; the Dutch slowly instituted reforms; taxation was eased; strictures on travel were relaxed; a mood of tolerance and ethical standards took root.
Okay, I kind of hesitate to bring this up, but the author is British. I can't help but feel that there's some lingering imperialist resentment seeping into this section, in which the Dutch are portrayed only as mild, reasonable people and Indonesian Muslims as an uncontrollable, violent element.

361) Unnecessarily long word(s) of the day: chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophilic archaebacteria. They're bacteria that live in heat vents in the bottom of the ocean. They're in a footnote, and barely relevant.

371) The author visits the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia's Krakatoa observatory where an observer describes a "routine eruption".
He said he watched [the eruption] for a moment only, counting the seconds by snapping his fingers. He walked back to the Kinematics machine and, sure enough, ten seconds after the first sight of the smoke, after ten snaps of his fingers, the needle began to move. [...] He was still clicking his fingers while he watched the machine--until another five seconds had passed, when ... right on cue, there came from across the strait a rumble.
As someone who does not live in a geologically active area, this man's cool calm impressed me. "Oh, just another eruption. I've got the visual, mechanical, and sound distances memorized. Tra la la."

382) [The new Krakatoa crater] was a place that was all too evidently primed, ready at any instant to explode again--and, in exploding, to do goodness knows how much harm to goodness knows how many souls waiting unwittingly down below.
A) You just got done telling us that Indonesia has this earthquake detector in place along with plans of action in case of another massive event--there's no preparing for a sudden event, but it's not nothing.
B) You just got done telling us that consistently active volcanoes are much less likely to explode because they're constantly releasing bits of pressure instead of building it up.
C) We get that it's scary. You just spent a whole book telling us why. You don't need to go out of your way to sensationalize an already impressive natural phenomenon.
( )
  books-n-pickles | Oct 29, 2021 |
"Civilization exist by geologic consent, subject to change without notice" Will Durant


I have been anxious to read this book since I found it at used book sale in the Spring. This is an event I knew hardly anything about, Thumbing through it before buying it, it seemed a good choice. I don't regret buying or reading it, however, there is more to this book than the eruption of Krakatoa and the devastation that resulted from it.

The first 150 pages gives an in-depth history of the Dutch Colonization of what we now know as Indonesian. Also among this section Winchester somehow gets off topic and tells the history of Lloyds of London, and Rueters News. It is a trial to get through if you were not expecting it. The writing of the history, the story was just fine- a lot of fun facts-just not what I was expecting.

Half-way through we finally get to the meat of the story-UGH now we are bogged down with a million and one scientific terms and explanations. I love how another reviewer put it "extraneous supporting data that was collected and explained, and that can be long-winded, meandering and at times tedious. ".

The last section of the book delves into how Krakatoa also "erupted" the political climate in this area of the world. The population of Muslims in this area of the world is quite large, however in the early 19th century their practice of Islam was much different than what we know today. A lot of mystical beliefs were combined with religion. Some Javanese believe(d) that Java's location is the closest area where Heaven and Earth meet-thus there can be transmissions to and from the two spheres. Many believed the eruption of Krakatoa was a sign that End Of Days were upon us. Winchester makes a connection between fanatical Islam and the eruption. All of this was very interesting-but the story of Krakatoa, what I was looking for- was only a small piece of this book.

Do I understand photodissociation or plate tectonics any better-absolutely not. If you are a science nerd, you may enjoy this book a bit better than I did. If all you want is the story of Krakaoa, I would look elsewhere. I gave the book 3 stars for being well written and 1/2 star for the fun facts I learned a long the way. ( )
  JBroda | Sep 24, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 110 (next | show all)
Most controversially, Winchester attempts to credit Krakatoa with the rise of militant Islamism in Indonesia.
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Winchester, Simonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Chinami, ToshihikoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
de Cumptich, Roberto de VicqJacket designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jay, ConeyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vannithone, SounIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I dedicate this book, with pleasure and with thanks, to my mother and father.
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(Prelude) It was early on a warm summer's evening in the 1970's, as I stood in a palm plantation high on a green hillside in western Java, that I saw for the first time, silhouetted against the faint blue hills of faraway Sumatra, the small gathering of islands that is all that remains of what was once a mountain called Krakatoa.
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.
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Indonesia itself has and has had more volcanoes and more volcanic activity than any other political entity on the earth, in all recorded history.
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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 die 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.

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