Friday, October 30, 2009

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, by Simon Winchester

Who would have thought a man could write a dull book about the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa? He's repetitive, he's flailing -- from the pepper trade to Darwin to plate tectonics to the 19th century telegraph system to Muslim-Dutch tensions in Java to personal recollections and shop talk about his summer in Greenland in the 1960s -- he's breathlessly anxious to assure us the explosion was hugely, terrifyingly big. It was really, really big. By the time he reaches the actual event, on page 200 and something, he passes it by in a paragraph so that we have to look back and blink and re-read it. Oh. That's it? I guess he found the circus elephant in the hotel room more interesting. And, really, need we know that the Dutch colonial ladies wearing feathers in their hats in Java that summer might have been wearing feathers from birds which had actually flown through Krakatoa's roiling and terrifying (and really big) ash clouds?

He also uses the word "rather" too much, but that's a minor point. The whole thing reinforces my impression: in general, avoid books written after about 1975 or so. Something has simply gone out of the English language, or out of the English-speaking, organizational mind. Let's hope the loss is temporary.

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