April 23, 2004

Krakatoa, West of La Jolla

Went to hear the bestselling author Simon Winchester give a talk at Warwick's Books in La Jolla last night. He's on a book signing tour to promote his book KRAKATOA: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883.

Winchester is a charming speaker, with an genuine fascination and enthusiasm for his subject matter. Originally a geologist trained at Oxford, he speaks with a mild English gentleman's accent. There's a wry, understated wit both in person as well as in his writing (he speaks of the volcano as if it is a moody being, which "wakes up", "breathes", "stirs", and eventually "misbehaves"). It turns out he's a delightful and amusing reader of his own material.

Whenever I go to one of these book author appearances, I play a game: when the author reads segments from his book, I race to find those pages in the book from which he's reading. With nonfiction, it's not hard at all, since once he mentions someone's name or the name of a place, I can quickly look it up in the index and jump to those pages and scan. I usually find the right spot within 10-15 seconds.

It's fun because I find it interesting how authors often change the text, on the fly when they're standing in front of an audience reading right from their own books. I don't mean inserting parenthetical remarks or verbal annotations to the text, but literally as they're reading from their own book, they sometimes add phrases, words, or sometimes even paraphrase, or even skip, whole sentences. If you weren't following along while the author spoke, you'd never know. Winchester for the most part stuck to the text, adding a few words here and there. Some authors turn out to be terrible readers of their own work (nerves? stage fright? never listed to a recording of their own reading?), but Winchester is perfect. I wonder if he narrates his own audiobooks -- need to look into that.

During the Q&A session I asked him about Yellowstone, which some geologists point out may be the next Krakatoa. Turns out not only is he familiar with the issue, but he's headed to Yellowstone soon. He's currently in San Francisco doing a book on the famous 1906 earthquake there, and then he's driving back to his Western Massachusetts home -- by way of Alaska. He's driving up to Alaska first to investigate the Denali and Anchorage earthquake histories, and then shipping his car back to Bellingham, WA, and driving east from there, passing through Yellowstone. Of course he'd be a driver: he's a geologist, he loves the land!

His view on Yellowstone is that one day it will indeed blow, and when it does, it will take much of the Western United States with it. He thinks it's not going to happen for a long time, though, long after humanity is extinct. (He added an anecdote here: he told this story once to another audience, and when he said "after humanity is exinct" some lady in the audience asked, "But what about Americans? Does that mean Americans too?")

One very interesting tidbit I learned at the Winchester talk is that the inspiration for Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream may very well come from Krakatoa. Even though Munch was based halfway across the world in Norway, when the eruption happened, and for several years afterwards, there was so much dust in the upper atmosphere that sunsets were altered dramatically, with wild, sometimes frighteningly unusual and most unnatural colors. While Munch didn't actually paint his painting for years after the 1883 eruption, he saw the strange sunsets in Norway in 1883 and it stuck with him.

Here's a December 2003 CNN.com story with more about the Krakatoa connection to The Scream. And here's a link to a similar story in the Guardian.

He also mentioned that since international telegraph cables had been installed prior to the Krakatoa eruption, this turned out to be the first event in history where word of the catastrophe reached the whole world within hours of the event (he says Boston newspapers were printing the story within 4 hours of the actual eruption).

One other thing: he says he's been out to an area southeast of the Salton Sea, where the San Andreas Fault begins or ends, depending on how you look at it. It's an interesting area because, he says, there are thousands of tiny "mud volcanoes" out in a field, slurping and bubbling beneath your feat. It's relatively unknown and little-visited but he says it's worth checking out. Note to self: add it to the list of things to check out.

Second other thing: while standing in line for the book-signing after Winchester's lecture, I wound up standing next to two men who seemed to be book-hounds. (I swear, one of 'em is someone who stood in line when I attended a book talk and signing by Michael Gruber, an event I photographed and wrote about right here in this blog back in March 2003 -- in fact that link includes a photo of the guy I'm talking about .... he was holding a pile of books then just like he was this evening). They talked about all the books in the store (hey, have you read this one? how about that one?), the upcoming author events they plan to attend (including this weekend's Los Angeles Times Book Fair in LA, with, they told me, 180,000 expected attendees). They spoke about how gracious and friendly Ray Bradbury was, going out of his way to make sure everyone got a signed book. "Not like Michael Chrichton," one of them said. "He's just downright rude." Apparently at a signing this guy was at, Chrichton signed a few books, then got up and started to storm out. Someone said, but wait, you need to sign all these books, pointing to a pile of Chrichton's books. Chrichton is alleged to have replied, "If you think I'm going to sign all that shit, you're crazy," at which point, the bookseller apparently said, "Well, if that's what you think of your own work..." The guy telling this story then swore he'd never read another Chrichton novel again.

Posted by brian at April 23, 2004 12:23 PM

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