Sunday, March 06, 2011

[Books] Book Look: Krakatoa

Book Look: Krakatoa by William Manchester: The loudest sound in recorded history occurred on August 27th 1883 when Krakatoa, a wee little island in Indonesia just west of Java, vaporized itself in the last and largest of four major explosions. Krakatoa was one of the most cataclysmic events ever witnessed by humans and there are no end of descriptive superlatives that can be employed, but that's the one that gets me: The Loudest Noise in Recorded History.

It was heard 3000 miles away at the far end of the Indian Ocean. It shattered the eardrums of sailors on ships nearby. It reverberated in shockwave form around the world seven times over the course of the next five days (though only measureable by sensitive instruments). I don't know why that one stands out to me over the final explosion being some multiple times more powerful than the largest nuclear weapon, or the pyroclastic flows that boiled alive folks on the nearby islands, or the tsunamis that killed the majority of the victims, or the rain of hot ash, or the ship hulks found far inland, and so forth. It's the noise that gets me.

The full story of Krakatoa naturally goes way before and beyond the final cataclysmic event itself. This is problematic for the book, because Manchester is not the most focused fellow. Krakatoa is part history, part personal memoir, part science, part commentary, which is fine if there is a firm structure. There isn't. Reading Krakatoa is like having an extended conversation over dinner and drinks with a charming, but scatter-minded, academic who drifts off on long tangents.

We start by going all the way back to pre-colonial history and the first sightings of Krakatoa by the Portuguese and how it came to be named and the evidence for the timing of previous known eruptions. All this is well and good, but could have been aptly summarized in a single chapter instead of several. We then step into the scientific side of things with a long discussion of the genesis of plate tectonics and how it explains the long ridges of volcanic activity that cross the globe, with a generous and fairly romantic aside of the author's personal experiences as a young student doing research in Greenland.

We should now be on about chapter two or three, but we are roughly half-way through the book and we still haven't got to the meat of things. Even in the microcosm of the description of the eruption proper we seem to hop back and forth from island to island and forward and back in time. It was very hard to get a sense for the actual events in a coherent timeline.

Manchester does better in placing things in social context. The advent of the telegraph and other bits and pieces of scientific technology and their role in events is nicely done. The explanation of the Muslim uprising in the days following Krakatoa as being highly dependent on the natives feeling the volcano was a punishment for accepting the wicked ways of the Dutch seems a bit strained. The follow up of the scientific research that came in the wake of the eruption is well filled with minutiae and extraneous detail.

The tale of his own visit to Krakatoa decades later fares better, but it is one of the few humanistic points in the book. And I suppose that is the ultimate problem I have. Despite the narrative form, nothing much about this story seems to be about people. We encounter a few personalities who were present and left documents, but none are fleshed out or sympathetic. There are tiny glimpses of struggle and conflict, but no heroes or cowards that are truly moving. That may not be Manchester's fault. It could be we just know very little about the individuals who were there and survived. It could be that the Dutch never produced charismatic Shackleton or Burton types. But whatever the case, mostly what we are left with is raw information and Manchester's personal enthusiasm. The natural spectacle is awesome, but Wikipedia can handle that.

You see what I'm driving at. The "Should you buy this book?" question gets answered with a qualified no. I can't see Krakatoa thoroughly satisfying anyone's curiosity. It might work for skimming -- if a section doesn't touch you, just skip ahead a bit. That's a plausible plus.

By the way, Krakatoa is growing again, quite rapidly, and is rather active. We may get to see, and hear, it again. This time we'll probably have videos on youtube before the sound reaches us.