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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 [Hardcover]

Simon Winchester
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (107 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 20 2003

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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From Amazon

In Krakatoa, the author of The Map That Changed the World and The Professor and the Madman focuses his considerable research powers on one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history: the volcanic eruption, in 1883, of the Southeast Asian island of Krakatoa, which resulted in the deaths of 36,000 people and sent shock-waves around the world. But what at the time was a mysterious, almost supernatural phenomenon has become, under the precepts of the contemporary science of plate tectonics, explicable if no less tragic. Winchester veers between eyewitness accounts by survivors and the limited scientific measurements of the time in an attempt to describe the indescribable. The event "is still said to be the most violent explosion ever recorded and experienced by modern man," he writes. "Six cubic miles of rock had been blasted out of existence, had been turned into pumice and ash and uncountable billions of particles of dust." Yet words and numbers can barely hint at the scale of the calamity, which resulted in tsunamis that washed whole villages into the ocean and forever changed the very topography of the area. The author also explores the social and cultural topography, noting, "Orthodox Islam, its revival in part triggered by tragic events such as the great cataclysm, was totally transformed in Java during the nineteenth century, with fundamentalism, militancy, and profound hostility to non-Muslims its watchwords." At times Winchester seems to overstate his case, and the link he finds between Krakatoa and the rise of anti-Western sentiment in the Islamic world isn’t especially convincing. But, by weaving together the disaster with science, communications, politics, religion, and economics, he has come up with a comprehensive and often fascinating glimpse into the way the world, and our perception of it, can change in an instant. --Shawn Conner

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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
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. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Krakatoa: The History June 29 2004
Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is a very informative, enlightening, and researched work. Rather than just being a recounting of the day Krakatoa exploded (which the title seems to imply), the damage it caused, etc., the book does much more. It recounts the historical significance of Indonesia (and the Dutch rule there), the importance of the Sunda Strait (where Krakatoa is located), the underlying reasons for massive volcanic explosions (plate tectonics and continental drift), and the social and religious aftermath due to Krakatoa.

I enjoyed the treatment of each of these issues, but at times some of the information seemed to be a stretch in relation to the subject at hand. The first half of the book, the build-up to the massive explosion if you will, was slower and not as engaging as the second half which was absolutely a joy to read and learn. Winchester does a great job of convincing the reader that Krakatoa was truly the first major event that the world of global communication (due to the telegraph and transatlantic communication lines) came to know. Winchester also does a good job explaining why the Krakatoa legacy has endured. Interestingly, much of it has to do with the unique name itself.
Krakatoa is a very good read. From an intellectual standpoint, the book is great, everything that you want to know about Krakatoa you'll find here. From the standpoint of enjoyable reading, the first half and some of Winchester's digressions are difficult to get through, but the second half is a great read. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the subject, or just history itself, but beware if you're looking for a book solely focused on the explosion/destruction of Krakatoa on August 27, 1883.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not the page-turner it's reputed to be. June 18 2004
By A Customer
I guess I'm like most people--I find forces of nature (volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc.) fascinating. The review blurbs on the back cover refer to this book as "a page-turner," and "terrifying." Well...not really. I have no doubt Mr.Winchester knows his stuff. However, my experience with this book is like that of a number of people who have left reviews here--do you HAVE to go into this much set-up to talk about a volcano? Perhaps it's me. One of the best "disaster" books I ever read was John Hersey's "Hiroshima." It dealt with a few major characters, dropped you right in the middle of the situation, and you were exhausted and heartbroken for the characters when you finished--and it was less than 200 pages. Reading "Krakatoa" is like being told a story by a professor whose train of thought is easily derailed by the amount he knows. If you are interested in geology, I have no doubt you will find this book fascinating. If you are an average reader, like me, you will find this book slow at best, mind-bogglingly tedious at worst.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Read About A World Review Nov. 7 2008
By James Gallen TOP 100 REVIEWER
In "Krakatoa" author Simon Winchester examines the great explosion of August 27, 1883 from all angles, including historical, scientific, social, political and religious. He starts by explaining the social structure in the Dutch East Indies at the time. He then goes on to explain the scientific explanations for what happened and why. A fascinating portion is the story of the scientific studies which recorded the effects of the blast including water waves thousands of miles away and the air wave which circled the globe seven times during the first fifteen days. As the book progresses he impact the blast had on the natives and Europeans living in the area. He eventually suggests that the rise in Muslim devotion in the Dutch East Indies may have been the result of a fundamentalist turn to Allah after the catastrophe. The book ends by chronicling the volcanic activity and the island at the site of Krakatoa in the years since the explosion.

Krakatoa was the first major natural catastrophe to occur after the network of underground cables united the world. This made it a "World Event" which has fascinated readers ever since. I had long heard of Krakatoa and appreciate the opportunity to gain a better understanding it and its implications. It raised an interest in other scientific histories and the history of the Dutch East Indies. A book than can do that merits a recommendation.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly difficult to read May 30 2004
I launched into this book on (what was supposed to be) a five hour plane ride, having read books such as Isaac's Storm, The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, et all which mixed weather, science, history, and a human element in a way that was educational and interesting. This looked to be the same. Three and a half hours later, as the pilot indicated that weather in New York was forcing us to circle indefinitely (and later take a detour to DC to refuel) my aggravation level was exacerbated by the fact I was stuck on the plane reading what amounted to a science book about volcanos. The first 100+ pages of this book go into a high level of specificity about volcanos - the index lists out 27 page references to plate tectonics, for example, to give you a flavor.
At about its midpoint (as we landed in DC to refuel) the book picks up. There is some social history here - interesting stuff about Dutch colonialism in the region, the Muslim development of Indonesia, global forms of communication and at what stage they were developed - that sort of thing. There is some coverage of the affects of the eruption around the world as well, both on science and the population at large. In all, that amounts to about half - the more interesting half - of the book. I found myself skipping swaths of the book near the end that dealt with the scientific aspect.
It may be all in the expectation. But do know this book goes into the scientific side of the eruption of Krakatoa in more detail than you'd expect by reading the book jacket or the various breathless reviews excerpted from USA Today, Time Magazine, et al. I would have liked more political and social perspective. At any rate, should you be on a long flight, I'd recommend a second book for insurance purposes.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable read
I can't say I have ever had more than a passing interest in the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, but I generally enjoy Simon Winchester's writing and this book did not disappoint. Read more
Published on Dec 17 2010 by C. J. Thompson
1.0 out of 5 stars Skip it
I was looking forward to reading "The map that changed the world" by the same author after this book. Read more
Published on June 21 2004 by Ashish
3.0 out of 5 stars There Are Better "Natural Catastrophe" Books Out There
With all these other comprehensive, excellent reviews around, is there a need to say anything more? Perhaps, if it can be said somewhat more concisely than the other reviewers... Read more
Published on May 28 2004 by jeffergray
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but rather stretched
Simon Winchester is right when he claims in this book that Krakatoa's eruption in 1883 has a hold on the popular psyche like few other similar events. Read more
Published on May 23 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious and Over Rated
I loved Simon Winchester's book, the Professor and the Madman, but Krakatoa was very slow and, I must say, poorly written. Read more
Published on May 19 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars wandering tedium
There is a great deal of information in this book - unfortunately not much of it is about Krakatoa. There is a lot of wandering on the part of the author. Read more
Published on May 12 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes meandering but always fascinating account
In "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded" Simon Winchester has produced a comprehensive account of one of the most widely known, but perhaps least understood, natural disasters of... Read more
Published on May 4 2004 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Winchester is a teacher to the world. Among his previous books are the best-selling The Professor and the Madman (1998) and The Map That Changed the World (2001), in which he... Read more
Published on April 19 2004 by B. Viberg
2.0 out of 5 stars Wading through material for the explosion
If you heard Winchester's NPR interview in fall '03, you've heard te most exciting parts of the book. Read more
Published on April 5 2004 by Cindy Peters
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