Review: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883

Simon Winchester (2003)

Forgive the pun but like a volcano, this book blew.

What a colossal disappointment this book was. It’s about a volcano that explodes, right? The biggest, baddest, loudest volcano to blow its top in modern times.  It was the Earth explosion heard ‘round the world. A real-world Jerry Bruckheimer-esque special effects extravaganza.  So naturally, when you read such a book, you tend to expect a little action. This book took a full 100 pages of filler before it got to a point where the mountain was even faintly rumbling.  That’s about 70 pages too many of scientific background, historical context and extraneous information that added little more than heft to this book.

Winchester’s writing style favors The Tangent. We all know people who can’t tell a story by going directly from point A to point B without throwing in digressions from points C through Z, thereby stretching a two-minute story into twenty. Krakatoa’s frequent side trips killed any momentum the book might have been building toward the main event; they invariably added little and generally served to frustrate the reader (me!) It got to a point where I could predict these interruptions—each time the book started to get really interesting.

Another problem with this book is redundancy. Prepare to be amazed at the myriad ways Winchester can state that Krakatoa blew itself up and it’s not—there—anymore!!! “Krakatoa…had simply and finally exploded itself out of existence,” is just one of many variations. This is one fact that you won’t forget, because you read it over and over again.

I understand that context and knowledge of the science behind the event are important to the telling of Krakatoa and its place in history, but there’s context and then there’s padding.  It’s as if Winchester was working under a page count requirement that he had to fill. As I was reading Krakatoa—I stuck with it to the end because of the subject matter—I couldn’t help thinking an author like Erik Larson would have worked magic with this subject. Anyone who’s read his page-turner Isaac’s Storm knows how historical narrative and scientific facts can be interwoven into a riveting book about natural phenomenon.

2 thoughts on “Review: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883

  1. The NYT’s capsule review of this book calls it a “brilliant” account: “thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientfically accurate. It is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.”
    Hmmm, somehow I trust your review much more.

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