During the second week of January the authors of a new book on the 18th century Laki eruption, Iceland’s most devastating volcanic catastrophe, made two presentations in Seattle. One was at Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, Elliot Bay Book Company, and the other a slideshow talk at Town Hall.
One of the authors, Alexandra Witze, is an award winning writer for Nature magazine. Her talk at Town Hall was sponsored by Microsoft and the University Bookstore. A small admission was charged and the auditorium was full.
I bought but have not yet read Island on Fire, so my comments are based on my first impressions of the book and on the presentation. The theme is understanding the magnitude of the eruption and its global impact, followed by discussion of the potential impact of a similar volcanic disaster in the future.
The title was probably chosen for the dramatic image it suggests. The picture it paints, however, goes far beyond what eyewitnesses saw. Laki did produce extremely high flames and more lava (15 km³) than any non-Icelandic eruption in historic times. The flames and lava were, however, limited to a 27 km/16 mi long fissure on an island the size of the state of Ohio. The explosive eruption’s flames are estimated to have gone 800-1400 meters/2600-4,600 feet into the air. But they were only visible from the nearest coastal village, Kirkjubærklaustur, not to the whole island. There was a poisonous haze that affected much of the island, but it was not on fire.
I know only one other book on the Laki eruptions that has been published in English. That is the 1990 translation of an eyewitness’ journal of the Laki events. In English that book´s title is Fires of the Earth: the Laki eruption, 1783-1784. That too may have provided an inspiration for the new title.
Another minor irritation I felt was the authors’ shortening the name of the historic village, Kirkjubærklaustur to Klaustur in the text. I remember when pronouncing that name was a challenge for me. But once you take it apart and recognize its meaning, the word becomes quite manageable. Kirk-yu-byre-kloi-ster: church-farm-cloister, pretty straight forward, right?
On the book’s acknowledgements page they thank someone at the Icelandair Klaustur Hotel for his help. Did the hotel’s commercial simplification of the name make the authors think the village wouldn’t mind ignoring their historic roots? That’s not likely in Iceland! The author demonstrated in her oral presentation that she can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull (ey-ja-fyat-luh-yo-kutl), so why not give Kirkjubærklaustur the same respect?
In the Q & A session after the talk at Town Hall I got to ask the final question — about the process of getting their book published. I had noticed that the book was published in Great Britain a year before the US: Why was that?
I did not write down the response immediately, but as I remember it went something like this: In the US, Iceland is just a small country with a small population, so publishers didn’t think the book would have much of a market. In Britain, Icelandic volcanoes show up on the national hazard list — well below terrorists — but on the same list. So their publisher knew there would be interest in that country for a book that discussed the risk of future eruptions in Iceland. After the book was established there it has been brought to the US book market.
Once again, check it out for yourself: Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. Island on Fire. Pegasus Books, 2015.