By Simon Winchester

On August 27, 1883 the volcanic island of Krakatoa blew itself into pieces, making a noise that was clearly heard almost three thousand miles away, which is still the greatest distance ever recorded for unamplified and electrically unenhanced natural sound. Shock waves from the explosion, measured by barograph, traveled around the earth seven times. Giant waves, or tsunami, triggered by the eruption killed over 30,000 people, and the effect on tides was registered as far away as the coast of France.

Simon Winchester, a geologist by training, has written not so much an account of this “day the world exploded” as a biography of the island of Krakatoa itself: its birth, death and rebirth. As in books like The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World he does a great job describing the historical and intellectual context. In his hands the story of Krakatoa becomes, among other things, a story of the discovery of evolution and plate tectonics, the laying of the first submarine telegraph cables, and the political and religious development of modern Indonesia.

But the star of the show is the volcano, whose name became “in one awful ear-splitting moment a synonym for cataclysm, paroxysm, death, and disaster.” How that name entered the English language is a story in itself. The local form of the name is usually given as Krakatau, the origin and meaning of which is a mystery. At the time of the explosion, the spelling in an eyewitness report describing the eruption of “Krakatan” was changed by London newspaper editors to “Krakatowa.” It is a variation of this that has stuck ever since.

Krakatoa is a book with greater sweep than Winchester’s previous bestsellers, ranging from the mists of geologic time to a description of the author’s recent visit to Anak Krakatoa, the smoldering “son of Krakatoa” that is currently rising out of its parent’s ruin at the rate of about five inches a week. As usual, Winchester has a knack for presenting the personalities behind what can seem like rather dry intellectual debates. This extends to his making the island itself, in its various manifestations, a character with its own identity as well as an illustration of the crucible of life in operation. He is on shakier ground when dealing with political subjects, and his chapter on the eruption of Krakatoa as a political catalyst leading to an upsurge in Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism in Indonesia is unpersuasive.

While the account of the eruption and its aftermath is the headline, blockbuster stuff, it is as a chronicle of natural history and the adventures of the human mind in understanding and coming to grips with that history that the book really makes its mark.

Review first published May 10, 2003.

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