In a narrative tour de force, Simon Winchester dramatises the life of the Atlantic Ocean, from its birth in the farther recesses of geological time to its eventual extinction millions of years in the future. At the core of the book is the story of mankind's complex relationship with this immense sea, which stretches for 9,000 miles from pole to pole. The Atlantic has profoundly influenced the lives of those who have lived along its shores, from hardscrabble pioneers in windswept locations such as the Aran Islands and Newfoundland, to the inhabitants of the great port cities of Lisbon, Rio, London and New York. ATLANTIC brings to life key episodes in this compelling human drama - the age of exploration and the subsequent colonisation of the Americas; the flourishing of transatlantic commerce and the rise and fall of the slave trade; extraordinary tales of sea-borne emigration during the nineteenth century; and the great naval battles that have left an indelible imprint on Atlantic history. Travelling by small sailing craft, container ship and general cargo vessel, Simon Winchester will journey around the edges and across the vast expanse of the ocean to report from the places that encapsulate its most fascinating stories. It is an enthralling mixture of history, science and reportage from a master of narrative non-fiction, and the definitive account of this magnificent body of water.
Simon Winchester, OBE, is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel, and his articles appear in several travel publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic.
In 1969, Winchester joined The Guardian, first as regional correspondent based in Newcastle upon Tyne, but was later assigned to be the Northern Ireland Correspondent. Winchester's time in Northern Ireland placed him around several events of The Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Belfast Hour of Terror.
After leaving Northern Ireland in 1972, Winchester was briefly assigned to Calcutta before becoming The Guardian's American correspondent in Washington, D.C., where Winchester covered news ranging from the end of Richard Nixon's administration to the start of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In 1982, while working as the Chief Foreign Feature Writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location for the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Tierra del Fuego for three months.
Winchester's first book, In Holy Terror, was published by Faber and Faber in 1975. The book drew heavily on his first-hand experiences during the turmoils in Ulster. In 1976, Winchester published his second book, American Heartbeat, which dealt with his personal travels through the American heartland. Winchester's third book, Prison Diary, was a recounting of his imprisonment at Tierra del Fuego during the Falklands War and, as noted by Dr Jules Smith, is responsible for his rise to prominence in the United Kingdom. Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Winchester produced several travel books, most of which dealt with Asian and Pacific locations including Korea, Hong Kong, and the Yangtze River.
Winchester's first truly successful book was The Professor and the Madman (1998), published by Penguin UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the book was a New York Times Best Seller, and Mel Gibson optioned the rights to a film version, likely to be directed by John Boorman.
Though Winchester still writes travel books, he has repeated the narrative non-fiction form he used in The Professor and the Madman several times, many of which ended in books placed on best sellers lists. His 2001 book, The Map that Changed the World, focused on geologist William Smith and was Whichester's second New York Times best seller. The year 2003 saw Winchester release another book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, as well as the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester followed Krakatoa's volcano with San Francisco's 1906 earthquake in A Crack in the Edge of the World. The Man Who Loved China (2008) retells the life of eccentric Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham, who helped to expose China to the western world. Winchester's latest book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, was released March 11, 2011. - source Wikipedia
Un gran bel saggio, direi quasi una biografia dell’Oceano Atlantico, che ci dà informazioni scientifiche e ci parla del suo rapporto con gli uomini attraverso una miriade di episodi: chi ne aveva terrore, chi ci navigò su minuscole imbarcazioni, chi lo attraversò senza saperlo e chi lo attraversò pensando di arrivare altrove; chi scoprì le sue dimensioni, i venti, le correnti, le profondità; i poeti e i narratori di mostri marini che lo cantarono, i pittori che lo dipinsero, chi ha costruito porti e città sulle sue rive. E ancora: le guerre, i trasporti, le comunicazioni, le normative, i voli che ne sorvolano le acque; l’inquinamento marino che mette in pericolo svariate specie ittiche, le petroliere che si spezzano, le piattaforme che esplodono, le acque che si alzano, i cambiamenti climatici… tantissime sono le storie che, senza annoiare mai, Simon Winchester usa per raccontare il rapporto tra l’uomo e l’Oceano Atlantico.
Nel 1942 la nave inglese “Dunedin Star” naufragò lungo le coste al largo della Namibia. Una quarantina di persone riuscirono a raggiungere la spiaggia. In loro soccorso arrivarono quattro navi; una di queste si arenò e due membri dell’equipaggio, il namibiano Matthias Koraseb e lo scozzese Angus MacIntyre, cercarono di raggiungere la costa a nuoto, ma non ci riuscirono, morirono entrambi: il namibiano è sepolto sulla costa, lo scozzese non è stato ritrovato. Dopo svariati tentativi di portare in salvo i naufraghi, tutti falliti, l’aiuto finalmente arrivò da terra, ma ci vollero ben 26 giorni. Allo scozzese Angus Campbell MacIntyre è dedicato il libro.
Using as his central pillar a Shakespearean monologue from As You Like It that lists the seven stages of a man’s life, Simon Winchester offers us the life of an ocean.
He covers a very wide swath in his examination of that very un-pacific Atlantic. Beginning with big-picture geology, he looks at the infant Atlantic and gives a preview of what the world will look like when the Atlantic is no more. There is plenty here about tectonics, volcanism and the mighty forces of a planet that is constantly changing. But his primary focus in on the relationship of people to the Atlantic.
He looks at a host of firsts across many disciplines, the first to cross the ocean, the first paintings centered on the ocean, the first poems, stories, etc. He tells how Islamic control of both ends of the Mediterranean contributed to European expansion across the less contested Atlantic, round about 1492. Much attention is paid to the Atlantic as an arena for battle, from the earliest seagoing battles to contemporary submarine warfare, with a surprising entry here on the importance of chestnuts to munitions manufacture, and of how technical expertise re weapons production influenced the creation of a state decades later. He looks at how trade became a basis for 11th and 12century globalization, traces the development of commercial oceanic trade, and brings it all up to date with a look at current Atlantic traffic, both asea and aloft. He offers a look at some of the ecological implications of that commerce, and notes new technologies that hopefully will mitigate, somewhat, the harm that commerce causes. He also looks at the impact of overfishing.
Atlantic is not a fast read. I suppose that is because of the huge quantity of facts presented. But it is well worth the time.
Some might argue that Winchester has over-reached, that such a globe-girdling tale cannot truly be distilled into a meager 459 pages. (the page count in my pre-release copy may not match the final number) Perhaps the subject is too large for a single volume. But do not be dissuaded by this. Winchester has put together a vast array of fascinating material, diving deep to find bits information that will surprise and please. Winchester’s Atlantic covers many aspects of the great ocean, which seems fitting when one considers the reach of the ocean itself. I had the pleasure recently of being at a lake in Montana that spreads its waters in three directions, one of which is towards the Atlantic. How remarkable the reach of this vast body of water. What a titanic (couldn’t resist) achievement that Winchester has offered us all an opportunity to recognize just how important this body of water is to humanity, to our survival, to our history, to our politics, to our culture, to our art, to our very identity and to our future. The Atlantic Ocean only has another 170 million years before it succumbs to the demands of geology and perishes. So there is not a minute to spare. Swim out to your store and pick up a copy while there is still time.
11/25/13 – My GR pal, Cathy D sent along this link to a fascinating article that concerns the Big A. Seems a large object dropped in on us at what is now the Chesapeake Bay and scientists recently found an explanation for some heretofore inexplicable inland water that was unusually salty.
This “biography” of the Atlantic strives with impossible ambition to paint a picture of the role of the Atlantic Ocean over all of human history using Shakespeare’s scheme of the Seven Ages of Man. A bit of a poetic stretch but ultimately a practical way of framing all the scientific and cultural perspectives he works to include. This is no dry linear account, but a meandering and often lyrical narrative with lots of idiosyncratic digressions energized from personal experiences from Winchester’s own diverse travels and adventures. I enjoyed the experience of him reading this in audiobook format, which was rendered in a confident and energetic diction similar to the BBC standard of David Attenborough.
After a brief tour of 130 million years of geological and biological evolution, the author brings humans on the Atlantic stage with the peoples of Mediterranean civilizations mythologizing the apparently endless sea and then lowing learning to venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules. First the Phoenicians, then the Vikings, and later the Western Europeans and their conquering and colonizing forces. The Vikings and Danes first landed and lived in America, but this knowledge was not widely disseminated. It took a decade of crossings after Columbus for the concept to sink in that the Atlantic was a finite but distinct ocean and the New World a separate continent from Asia.
As the forbidding barrier of the Atlantic was transformed into a doorway, we get the successive ages of man through exploration then competition in exploitation, ending with the prospect of exhausting its resources and destructive impacts on its ecology. Though much of this history may be known to many prospective readers, you may be charmed like me by the way he sweeps through all the transitions with interludes of fascinating detail and highlights from personal experiences. The progressive development of transportation capacity from sail to steam to air travel is a big sweep of his story. Interludes on the first scheduled mail, passenger, and shipping services were of special interest due to being unknown to me. The evolution of naval warfare, history of airflight, and changing conceptions of the sea through literature and art were too compressed to add much to what I knew (other readers may appreciate the synthesis). The history of charting of the ocean bottom and challenges of laying the first transatlantic telegraph cables was new and interesting to me.
Due to my having lived on the Atlantic shore of New England for 35 years, all his descriptions of rocky coasts, storms and fog, and the dangerous chill waters he presents from various sites in the North Atlantic were not so compelling to me. Perhaps not for others. I actually worked out of small boats in eastern Maine for a couple of years with a failing Nori seaweed acquaculture operation, which killed much of any sense of romance about the Atlantic. Winchester’s visits to various ports and island sites of more southern, warmer Atlantic regions helped revive such feelings and unfulfilled desires for travel and adventure such as one gets from travel memoirs. Digressions in Tierra del Fuego, Capetown, the Falklands, St. Helena, and Tristan da Cunha were pleasant forays for me.
The boom and bust in the evolution of whaling and fishing was well done in such a compressed format, especially the story of the cod fishery of the Grand Banks (though not new for me). Unfortunately, he has only one sentence on aquaculture, which was a big deal from the 90’s where I live. That it takes 10 pounds of herring to raise one pound of salmon is a fact that disillusioned me after initial enthusiasm. In the end phases of the book pollution and global warming represent a big theme for his Seven Ages scheme, but he hardly goes beyond the most basic science. For example, he doesn’t even touch on the carbon cycle or the worldwide decline of coral (in recent years linked to acidification of ocean water). He does usefully discuss how the tonnage of carbon emissions from all surface shipping is close to that of the half million of so jet flights and how energy efficiencies for these industries are now being worked on.
In sum, the broad synthesis of this book is admirable in its ambition, inevitably short on substance in many areas, but likely to provide fascinating details and perspective in other areas for most readers.
I can't be objective about this guy. I listened to this as a talking book - and I just love this guy's voice. I could listen to him reading the telephone directory and still be fascinated. This is a 'let me tell you everything I know about the Atlantic' kind of book. He tries to give it a structure, but really, this is just someone very intelligent talking about something they are very interested in.
The stuff towards the end about the damage we are doing to the ocean - particularly the fish that once were there - is very disturbing. One of my favourite polymaths - and there is no higher praise than that.
Oh, dear, Simon Winchester, I think you have to stop being my literary boyfriend now. Someone get this man an editor, quickly. I've never skipped over so many pages of a book before.
It's not that he hasn't dug up fascinating facts and interesting tidbits. It's just that it feels like he took all his notes on 3 x5 cards, then threw them in a pile on the floor and wrote the book like that. I'm reading an interesting description of St. Helena, and then there are poems? A passing mention of how the first people to lay undersea cables were woefully unprepared for the peaks and valleys of the ocean floor and then, somehow, we're talking about Benjamin Franklin. The ocean as a lover? Oy.
I suspect that to really savor this book, one has to accept the author's premise: treating the Atlantic Ocean as the subject of a biography. In fact the original title was to be, "The Atlantic--A Biography". Simon Winchester once commented that the premise for & structure of a book are more important than the actual story or the words used to tell it. While there are sections of this book, paralleling the 7 stages of man, as listed in Shakespeare's As You Like It, that do tend to seem less compelling than others, I still enjoyed the book very much, in part because the author is such a wonderful storyteller, so much so that one feels at times like a fellow traveler, in tow with Simon through the various ages & stages of the ocean.
Of course this book is much different than the tales involving fascinating characters such as Wm. Minor in The Professor & the Madman" or Joseph Needham in The Man Who Loved China. However, since Winchester portrays the Atlantic Ocean as a "living thing--furiously & demonstrably so, forever roaring, thundering, boiling, crashing, swelling, lapping, trying to draw breath & mimicking nearly perfectly the steady inhalations & exhalations of a living creature", one absorbs the author's various details, including a wide sweep of data & geologic terminology, gradually placing them into a broader structural context. Sometimes, this does take a bit of patience on the part of the reader but ultimately, it seemed to me like taking a voyage, with an overlapping theme of discovery.
Among the details that eventually frame a broader picture are the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable to facilitate communication across the ocean, the verification of Leif Erikson's "discovery" of the New World in 1001, though already inhabited by Native Americans, confirmed by a map found in New Haven in 1957 and also the loathsome accounts of slave ships, all becoming rather like a genealogical chart of all who traversed the great ocean, as well as an epic saga of the life of the Atlantic, including "the thousand things & people & beasts & events that act as a reminder of the immense complexity of the ocean that has been pivotal to the human story".
Sometimes, it is the commentary about characters less well-known to readers that seems most memorable, including the mention of Rachel Carson, who did so much to bring marine ecology into focus for the non-scientist. The author also recounts how the Atlantic Ocean has keenly inspired various writers, including Herman Melville, Walt Whitman & Goethe, artists such as Turner & Monet and composers, including Sir Benjamin Britten, Sir Edward Elgar + Richard Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman.
What seems to captivate me most about Simon Winchester's books is his intersection with fascinating characters, in many cases not previously familiar to the reader, including a comment from the last remaining survivor, Sidney Palmer, of the wreck of the "Dunedin Star" along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, SW Africa. As it turns out, the author had visited a small, isolated memorial to the ship's captain, Angus Macintyre, lost at sea while trying to rescue others.
Simon had considered that his leaving of a small token at the memorial might have seemed somehow sentimental but Mr. Palmer, a retired British diplomat who read the account in this book, reminds the author by email, that no generous gesture, however "sentimental" is wasted and on behalf of all of the passengers of the ship on its last voyage, thanks Simon for his thoughtfulness, with this footnote a part of an epilogue. It is such details that lift Simon Winchester far beyond the realm of most authors.
Part science, part history, this ambitious non-fiction includes almost every aspect of the Atlantic Ocean. It covers a diverse array of topics such as its origins, discovery of the gulf stream, early inventions for maritime navigation, explorations, famous shipwrecks, piracy, the slave trade, maritime battles, migration, commerce by ship and air, artistic and literary references, information dissemination, global warming, and predicted lifespan. The author includes many of his own anecdotes from his travels and time as a journalist.
The book has its ups and downs. The amount of material covered is staggering. Certain sections are illuminating, while others are less successful. The author took a shotgun approach to relaying the material, and it was easy to get lost in the minutia. I was occasionally tempted to disengage while he cited various statistics. Listening to the audio book enhanced my enjoyment of this book that might otherwise have been a bit dull. Simon Winchester is an excellent reader with a mellifluous voice. Overall, I learned a great deal about the Atlantic and recommend the audio version to those interested in the science and history of the earth’s bodies of water.
Winchester has had a lifetime of Atlantic crossings, and can weave his personal accounts in with those of vast numbers of other voyagers down the centuries. It's a rambling and enthusiastic book, full of historical lore and incredibly detailed vocabulary. It features the drama of geological plate tectonics, but mostly focuses on Western man, especially English man, at sea. There's the early explorers, the seaside cities, the naval wars, and commercial advances. Only late in the book does Winchester look seriously at the life within the sea. He never gets really oceanographical, and includes no accounts of undersea explorers. Still, the accounts of overfishing and global warming are gripping. Maybe the best part is the fascinating and informative but admittedly speculative writing on how the seas may be changing -- chemically, biologically, and climatically. Always the concern is on how humans and the ocean affect each other's lives. Winchester's conviction that the Atlantic is at the core of human history is Eurocentric, but his appreciation for the sea's majesty is pretty universal.
As a fan of historical nautical books like Seawolves and Barrow's Boys, and of Golding's Ends of the Earth series, I started this book figuratively rubbing my hands in anticipation of some great sea stories and novel science facts to quote to people down the pub. But after about 70 pages I couldn't stand it anymore.
One reason was Winchester's explanation of the thematic thread of the book, a story arc following the idea of Shakespeare's seven ages of man. That it needed explanation just pointed out how weak the idea was. The Atlantic will apparently cease to be an ocean in several million years, but that doesn't mean that a once proud body of water will senesce and die, leaving people mourning its loss. Perhaps that could be appropriate for the Aral Sea, which has been shrunk by human activity within a period of human memory, but we are talking about geological time with the Atlantic. The seven ages concept is just a poor effort to turn the subject into some kind of persona and it doesn't fit.
The second reason is that there is some really sloppy writing going on. Winchester's description of prehistoric man walking down to the sea is what Berger would have called "Mystification". Winchester could have speculated about the event at a remove, but he has to take us walking alongside our neanderthal chum in a way that's just silly. Likewise we get a description of a series of "Unbearably huge" volcanic explosions several million years ago, begging the question of who was around at the time to find them so hard to bear. Then- possibly the clincher for me- is the sentence where some tectonic plates move "infinitely faster" than they had several thousand years ago. If a sixth-former had put that into an essay, I'd hope that their teacher would have told them to take it out.
Winchester starts the book well telling about the sea that inspired him so much as a young man, and I was really willing to go on the voyage with him (so to speak, ahem) through the book, but I predicted that if he was going to mangle up scientific research and facts with such carelessly flowery writing, then I wouldn't be able to enjoy my trip.
This “biography” of the Atlantic ocean is not a straightforward, objective history, not even trying to be. The tone of the book was a bit surprising: how dreamy and abstract Winchester’s attitude towards the Atlantic is! He opens with a journey he once took from England to Montreal by ship, and as he recalls what it felt like traversing the Atlantic for the first time, we can almost see Winchester getting all misty-eyed. He heightens his prose. He reaches for the paint brush. He waxes poetic. The Atlantic ocean breathes, Winchester informs us. It has moods. The Pacific is primarily blue, and fringed with palm trees and coral reefs, but the Atlantic is something else entirely, a “gray and heaving sea...storm-bound and heavy.” He goes on like that for a while. His metaphorical musings on the Atlantic are actually magnificent, and deeply evocative, and they alert us immediately to Winchester’s real purpose in this book, which is not to explore an actual, real Atlantic ocean at all, but rather to create a myth of the Atlantic, a concept. This book is an attempt to capture the MEANING of the Atlantic. If the calm Mediterranean was a symbol of the Ancient world, then the Atlantic is the symbol of the modern age. We are living in a pan-Atlantic civilization, he argues, consisting of the world's most influential countries over the last thousand years, and it behooves us therefore to come to terms with what the Atlantic ocean really means, since it's at the center of our modern existence.
Following from this rather subjective purpose, Winchester has chosen a rather subjective form for his narrative. For this book, he clearly draws from the Herodotus school of history writing, which is fine, because if you can’t gain inspiration from the Father of History, who can you gain it from? Thus, in his grappling with this massive subject, Winchester, like Herodotus before him, freely intermingles historical record, personal anecdote, literary reference, scientific treatise, and everything in between, whatever spirit moves him, showing no qualms whatever in using a personal experience, a conversation he once had with a friend, say, as a doorway into a broader subject. He attacks the ocean from many sides, dividing his book along thematic lines (which only vaguely intersect with chronological lines), and the effect of all this is to make this book into a highly personal journey through Winchester’s ideas about the ocean, the Atlantic tapestry he perceives as holding the modern world together. He tries in vain to make the whole thing coalesce, and very often the threads of this tapestry are weak and stretched far beyond endurance, but hey - Herodotus never found The Key to All Mythologies regarding the Greco-Persian Wars, so why should we fault Winchester for not finding it for the Atlantic? The Atlantic clearly has no single meaning, no unifying identity or character, no matter how hard the writer wishes it so, and his purpose, then, may have been doomed from the start. Still, what he does achieve is to present enough interesting facts and stories about the world, some, I would argue, relating to the Atlantic only tangentially, to make this “biography” of the ocean well worth a read. It's scattershot and hit-or-miss, but on the whole, he hits more often than he misses.
His first chapters are really quite gripping. He tries to make us see the Atlantic through the eyes of ancient peoples. We, of course, take the ocean for granted, chewing peanuts or dozing in airplanes as we fly tediously overhead, but for thousands of years, the Atlantic was a figure of awe, terror, and wonder, an insurmountable and seemingly eternal wilderness of deadly water and bottomless depths, to be feared and avoided and paid homage to. Winchester describes the cave at the southern tip of Africa, at Pinnacle Point, the first known place in history that people ever settled by the sea. He talks of the Phonecians and their brave forays into the ocean to catch snails that emit a purple dye, the Phonecians thus becoming the first Ancient people to ever cross the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic. The mystery surrounding the search for Erik’s Viking settlement in Newfoundland is told in extensive and compelling detail, and Winchester makes the case that this Viking family ought to be honoured more for being the first to cross the Atlantic (which they did 1000 years ago), and Columbus less. (It is hard to argue with that.) He then runs casually and rapidly over some of the more important explorations of the Portuguese and the Spanish at the end of the 15th century, when they first realized the Atlantic was a separate sea, most of which will be old news for anyone with a passing knowledge of that period. Winchester does, though, focus on something many may not know about, the discovery of the Gulf Stream. Once this phenomenon was discovered, Europeans had a fast, convenient way to scoot back home from the Americas, which is kind of cool.
Then, I hit a snag. Winchester chooses to spend pages and pages on the numerous achievements and blunderings of the fledgling science of oceanography, and I must admit, I’m afraid, that my eyes glazed over, though that may not be the experience for more science-focused readers. In these sections, he loses the human element. He presents a series of names and experiments and conclusions, all passing by in a whir, and it’s just too much to take in. When the sailors stepped back, as he puts it, and the scientists took center-stage, “some of the romance inevitably bled away.” Winchester has stated this aptly, as if aware himself of the dry and mundane nature of these scientific advances compared to the earlier epic journeys by ship into the great unknown. Nevertheless, he pursues the subject. I found most of this section hard-going.
His next chapter explores the relationship that art and literature have had with the Atlantic over the centuries. A chapter on art? Sure! Why not? Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he is glad to point out, may have been inspired by an English shipwreck on the coast of Bermuda! He mentions various artists and their representations of the Atlantic, emphasizing the transition in these representations from before the Enlightenment, when they were more fearful and fanciful, to afterwards, when they became more curious and realistic. In this chapter, it became especially clear to me that Winchester is at his best when he speaks of the ocean poetically, communicating what feelings it has evoked, what images and myths have arisen from it. He is less successful when he lists paintings and buildings and operas that, over history, have had something to do with the Atlantic. In the section where he describes for pages and pages the various architectural styles that we find in several cities along both sides of the Atlantic coast, as if these architectures were all inspired by some unifying Atlantic character, I almost gave up on the book. I am glad I didn’t, but it was a tough go for a while. Compare these dry lists to this wonderful anecdote Winchester sticks in about a man he once met, an Argentine Navy man, who took pleasure at the sinking of a British boat during the Falklands War. Years later, when Winchester met this man again, the man regretted his earlier jubilation, since no Navy man should ever glory at the death of another sailor. To die alone at sea, the man told Winchester, is horrible. The man said, “There is a Brotherhood of the sea.” What a lovely moment! I often found these sorts of quiet, affecting scenes a relief from all the daunting lists of scientific experiments and paintings and architectural styles Winchester occasionally supplies us with. These quieter moments of character are sprinkled throughout the text, and I liked them.
Thankfully, Winchester next gets into history, where the book really comes alive. He offers a fascinating historical overview of how the Mediterranean was replaced by the Atlantic as the center of the Western world in the 15th century. The Muslims had blockaded both ends of the inner sea, blocking all routes to Asia, so the European powers all turned West, for plunder, for trade, and for knowledge. This serves as the introduction to an extremely compelling set of chapters largely about war on the high seas, starting with a narrative about 16th-17th century Atlantic piracy and the slave trade. These pirate and slave stories are horrifying, full of cruelty and drama and incomprehensible violence (real-life pirates, it turns out, were much more violent than their literary counterparts. Forget walking the plank: these guys sometimes pulled your entrails out, nailed them to the floor, and made you walk away as they unfurled from your body.) Winchester tells these stories as if he were there, and as if they disgust him. Again, I applauded the personal nature of this book, as he inserted his views and feelings whenever he could. Oceanic war tactics, he then explains, evolved to quash both the pirates and the slave traders, but of course these tactics could then be used against anybody, any enemy nation. Winchester discusses the switch from sea battles within sight of land to battles in the deep of the sea, a very different sort of battle that changed the world utterly. Sea conflict could now take place anywhere in the ocean, and became progressively more ferocious. Eventually, over the centuries, sailing ships were replaced by castles of steel and iron, and ocean warfare became as bloody and shocking and inhuman (and un-romantic) as it ever had been on land. He talks of submarine warfare in the two World Wars, the sinking of the Lusitania, the debate (which seems hopelessly quaint today) over the “rules” of ocean warfare (like a gentleman’s agreement). He discusses the Battle of the Atlantic, the 6-year ocean battle between the Allied submarines and ships, and the Nazi U-Boats, about which Winchester says, “More sailors died in the ocean during those 6 years than in all the ocean conflicts since the Romans sent out their invading expeditions 2000 years ago.” A bracing thought. The truth is, these chapters about pirates, slaves, soldiers, and warfare were, by quite a margin, the most involving of the book. Perhaps this says more about me than it does about the book. Or perhaps not.
Winchester then moves onto politics, and here is where it becomes very clear that a lot of the connections he makes between history and the Atlantic ocean are tenuous, arbitrary or superficial. He argues that parliamentary democracy is “an Atlantic creation,” because it was created in nations that touch the Atlantic. My reaction was to ask, “So?” This began to feel like a fun game to pass the time, like pointing out white Volkswagon Beetles on a long road trip. “What else can we credit the Atlantic for?” the book seems to ask. (At one point, Winchester suggests a link between the Atlantic and the formation of the State of Israel - don’t ask.)
And then came the dry stuff again. The structure Winchester chose for his book obligated him, I suppose, to go from pirates and slave traders to pages and pages of the technical methods, approaches, and tools used by the Basques to capture codfish. Sigh.
The next chapter deals with our pollution of the ocean, which is clearly something that stirs Winchester’s blood (as it should ours), along with the horrible ramifications of overfishing. One of the more powerful images in the book, and also more disturbing, is of the fish factory boats trawling along the bottom of the ocean, smoothly scooping the cod (and their eggs) off the bottom by the thousands of tons. There is something about the mechanical efficiency, the bloodless determination, of that act that just seems so….unfair. To the fish. Winchester captures that. The discussion around the decimation of the cod fishing industry in Newfoundland is enthralling, and in fact the whole section on fish depletion in the Atlantic is probably the most passionate section of the book. It may be where Winchester's heart truly lies. The final chapter continues the discussion of ocean sustainability by bringing in the topic of climate change, and the rising of the ocean levels. He discusses the measures being taken by New York, London, and the Netherlands, lest the ocean levels begin to threaten their existence. (I love his solution to the recent spat of fatal hurricanes hitting coastal communities around the planet - “stop living in villages by the ocean!”) The entire last two chapters, about pullution, overfishing, oil spills, and climate change, are powerfully written, emotionally-laden, and important. I appreciated them very much.
His epilogue is about the likely future of the Atlantic ocean, and describes the continents moving about the Earth and colliding with one another in various possible configurations like bumper cars. Eventually, he intones dramatically, the Atlantic ocean will cease to be. It had a birth, it had a life, and in about 190 million years, it will have a death. A large part of the weakness of this book, I think, can be ascertained by this epilogue. He speaks of its birth and lifespan and death as if we should be sentimental about it, about the future demise of the Atlantic ocean. We have been taking it for granted, he has argued, by polluting it, by overfishing it, by killing its life. And he is right that those are unfortunate things. But that is damage being done to the whole of planet Earth, not just to the Atlantic specifically. The problem is, I just didn’t care about the Atlantic specifically. I don’t think you will either. Despite Winchester’s best efforts throughout the book, I fail to see the Atlantic as a single, bounded entity, with an essential identity and a set of characteristics and specific, localized history, a thing we should cherish and, when it’s gone, mourn. Things happen around it, things happen in it, things happen to it, but if the only thing all these events have in common is a connection with the Atlantic ocean, then they have nothing in common. It’s just a bunch of water! Am I a philistine? Maybe. But I don't think so. Even “the Atlantic” is an arbitrary, man-made invention, a part of the world ocean that we decided, for our own trivial convenience, to give a separate name to. I remain unconvinced that it has its own separate identity, a continuity of selfhood, that we should examine as its own precious thing. That was clearly Winchester's purpose, and on that score, the book is a failure.
So why read it? Well, as I hope to have made clear, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. The book, in fact, is not a failure, because it does other things, at times very well. Some chapters will grab you more than others, and the whole enterprise fails to achieve the goal it reaches for so strenuously, but Winchester has a charming, intimate prose style, a way with an anecdote, and a refreshingly moral approach to history and geography, and he is worth spending a few hours with, at the very least. At worst, you might learn something.
This is a very enjoyable book; it covers many aspects of the Atlantic Ocean. The book describes its formation and its ultimate end, exploration, the use of the ocean for commerce, for food, for battles, and the inspiration the ocean has for literature, art and music. And of course, the book contains some stories of shipwrecks and of the ecological damage that people have inflicted on the ocean.
Unlike some of the other reviews, I found this book to be an easy read. Winchester writes in a delightful, literary, almost poetic style. The physical book itself is quite attractive; the newly designed attractive typeface took me by surprise. (Some more editing is needed--there are quite a few typos.) There are plenty of small, black-and-white illustrations that add to the stories.
Although the book was interesting and somewhat informative, I thought it was a bit boring. The author covers the beginnings of the Atlantic and its development and use over time. From the Phoenicians, Vikings and Basques to present day ocean container ships and pleasure cruises. He describes the geography science of the ocean. He concludes with a warning about the current state of the ocean - it's overfished, polluted by planes, ships and toxic waste dumping and, in general, is being abused. In many millions of years ahead, the ocean will disappear and the continents continue their drifting and will come together again as one large continent, a super Pangea.
This will be short and not too sweet. I have enjoyed some of Winchester's books and others have left me cold. This one left me tepid. He attempts to cover every aspect of the Atlantic Ocean....a biography of the lifeline between the Americas and Europe/Africa and there is just too damn much to tell. His description of the geological beginnings and fantastic maps of the forming of that great body of water are quite fascinating but then things start to go down hill. He adds a surfeit of personal stories/experiences that interrupt the narrative and had me skipping pages. Granted, there are some very interesting sections but there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason as to how the author arranges his information even though he uses the Seven Stages of Man from Shakespeare's As You Like It. It just doesn't quite jell.
Listened to the audio version of this over a period of maybe 5 weeks. Never got dull. I particularly liked the personal stories that served as bookends . . . Simon Winchester crossing the Atlantic as a young man of 18 in a ship, headed for Montreal, and then at the end, visiting the Skeleton Coast across the ocean from Patagonia, where he paid homage to the seamen who died trying to rescue shipwrecked British citizens during WWII. In between those stories, we hear about the geology, geography, exploration, and history of the Atlantic Ocean as well as about the art and literature it has inspired.
On a BookTV interview, Winchester said that he always thought of the book as having the title Atlantic Ocean: a Biography but that marketing folks had changed it. I think biography is a good description. My favorite parts of the book were probably the personal stories and the history but the last section, about the pollution, the overfishing and then the microscopic newly discovered life in the ocean were probably the most important.
At times, I wished I were reading, rather than listening (although the author is an excellent narrator). I needed to take notes, to look up things. Winchester started out life as a geologist but soon morphed into a journalist (who covered the Falkland Wars among other things) and travel writer, then a full time author of all sorts of non fiction. This was my second book by Winchester but I don't plan for it to be my last. 4.5 stars
I never managed to get into this book. I think the scope was too broad and the smaller sub-topics were too brief and shallow to make for an interesting read. There is no cohesion to the book and Winchester bounces around from topic to topic, interspersing them with personal stories tangentially related to the Atlantic. Maybe if Winchester had narrowed down his list of things to cover, and get into more depth about fewer things, it would have been more informative and entertaining.
This is my favorite type of book -- history, science, geography, philosophy, literature mixed together throughout the narrative. I listened to the author read the book with its surprisingly poetic language for nonfiction. He structures the book using Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man to discuss various aspects of such an enormous topic as the Atlantic Ocean: its birth, early explorers, ocean as theme in literature (lover), through many lenses, on to its death. Winchester is a master of the craft of narrative nonfiction.
Basically a collection of essays on the Atlantic, wide ranging and interesting, that covers things such as history, oceanography, literature, environment, seafaring, and a host of other topics. Winchester is a good writer and this is a nice addition to his bib. Surprisingly, most of the information I was pretty much familiar with, but there was still a lot of new things and refreshers, as well.
Like many others have commented, Winchester tried to cover way too much ground here with an over-reliance on questionable and mostly random "facts." The most interesting sections of the book were ones that covered a topic on which I had read much more in-depth, focused books. And what interest I did have in those sections came about simply because those other books had peaked my interest.
One truly frustrating aspect of this book was its Euro-centrism. Last time I checked, thousands of miles of South American, Central American, and African coastlines border the Atlantic in some capacity but these regions are largely glossed over or merely used as the background for European exploits. Furthermore, Winchester exhibits a most peculiar northern European bias; several prejudiced remarks are aimed at southern and/or Catholic populations, most especially the Irish, Spanish, and Italians, and the indigenous populations of North America also take a beating from Sir Winchester (my personal favorite is his use of the term "Eskimo" to describe the Dene; not only is Eskimo an outdated and insulting term, but he didn't even manage to apply it to the nation that it has traditionally described: the Inuit).
But most frustrating of all is the complete lack of sources for his often bizarre or irrelevant claims. Yes, there is a bibliography, but these titles are by-and-large secondary sources themselves. And one would have to do an awful lot of reading through these titles to find the source for some claim made by Winchester as he gives absolutely no indication of where he dug up any of his tidbits.
Throughout the book, Winchester seems quite enamored by the distances between two random points. A fun drinking game would be to have a shot every time he tells the reader how many miles separate two points on the map. In addition to that, if you have a shot each time Winchester inserts himself into the book you'll be drunk in no time (probably the first ten pages or so). And if you have a second shot for each time his personal anecdotes paint himself in a ridiculously good light, you'll certainly die of alcohol poisoning.
"One cannot but hang one's head in shame and abject frustration. We pollute the sea, we plunder the sea, we disdain the sea, we dishonor the sea that appears like a mere expanse of hammered pewter as we fly over it in our air-polluting planes--forgetting or ignoring all the while that the sea is the source of all the life on earth, the wellspring of us all." That environmental theme pops up quite a bit in the narrative of Simon Winchester's "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories." Winchester set out to write a book explaining all there is to know about the Atlantic, which he considers to be our most important ocean. An overwhelming task and one might doubt it's even possible. He may not have succeeded in his initial goal but he comes as close as anyone in writing a biography of our ocean. He explains how the ocean was born, how people living on its shores reacted to it and how, most importantly, it has influenced the development of the civilized world. To do this, he tells tales of man's first attempts to go out on the water, pirates, naval battles, the development of sea-going commerce and other topics. He also includes numerous anecdotes from his personal experience with the ocean. He fears for our future if we don't change and start treating our environment like a home and not a garbage pit. I'm not opposed to space exploration. It has resulted in many benefits for mankind. Still, I wish just a portion of the money and the interest could be directed toward oceanography. This is the planet on which we live. I have no desire to go live on a barren rock where there's no other forms of life.
I'm not sure why I thought I would like this book, given that I haven't liked Winchester's other work. I suppose it's because I've liked other book on maritime themes (e.g. The Outlaw Sea). By the time I made it through the opening anecdote about a transatlantic sea voyage and a drawn-out comparison to flying, and got to his plan to structure the book around the Seven Ages of Man from "As You Like It," I had already totally lost patience.
Le prime pagine di Atlantico bastano per mostrarci l’impresa titanica che l’autore vuole affrontare. Per raccontarci dell’Oceano Atlantico da un punto di vista geografico e antropico, Simon Winchester arriva a scomodare addirittura il Bardo: infatti, è solo grazie a Shakespeare che riesce a trovare una cornice adatta ad accogliere il suo immenso lavoro. Si tratta di una celebre pagina dell’As you like it del Bardo in cui la vita dell’uomo viene ripartita e raccontata in sette grandi età: «Prima, l'infante che miagola e vomita in braccio alla nutrice. Lo scolaro poi, piagnucoloso, la sua brava cartella, la faccia rilucente nel mattino, che assai malvolentieri striscia verso la scuola a passo di lumaca. E poi l'innamorato, che ti sospira come una fornace, e in tasca una ballata tutta lacrime sopra le ciglia della sua adorata. Poi, un soldato, armato dei moccoli più strambi, un leopardo baffuto geloso dell'onore, lesto di mano, pronto a veder rosso, che va a cercar la bubbola della reputazione persino sulla bocca d'un obice. E poi il giudice, con un bel ventre tondo, farcito di capponi, occhio severo, barba ritagliata a regola d'arte, gonfio di sentenze e di luoghi comuni: e in questo modo recita la sua parte. L'età sesta ti muta l'uomo in magro pantalone in ciabatte, le lenti al naso, la borsa sul fianco, e quelle braghe usate da ragazzo, ben tenute ma ormai spaziose come il mondo per i suoi stinchi rattrappiti, e il suo vocione da maschiaccio che ridiventa un falsetto infantile, un suono fesso e fischiante. L'ultima scena infine, a chiuder questa storia strana, piena di eventi, è la seconda infanzia, il mero oblio, senza denti, senz'occhi o gusto, senza niente». É così che Winchester prova ad abbracciare l’Oceano e la sua storia, a cominciare da 195 milioni di anni fa, quando Pangea inizia ad aprirsi e Panthalassa (l’unico elemento acqueo del globo) si infila lentamente tra la futura Europa e la futura America. Dopo milioni di anni di eruzioni vulcaniche, assestamenti violenti, terremoti, lava e quant’altro comincerà a delinearsi una prima forma di Oceano Atlantico. In questo modo comincia a legarsi inevitabilmente la storia dell’uomo a quella dell’Oceano più percorso al mondo. Leggiamo delle allusioni mitologiche al gran mare che si apre oltre le colonne d’Ercole e delle prime esplorazioni atlantiche dei Fenici, delle straordinarie imprese dei Vichinghi e dei Norreni e il loro approdo, a bordo di minuscole imbarcazioni chiamate knaar, nel nord di quel continente che, solo secoli dopo, Colombo avrebbe pensato di scoprire per primo (in realtà, pare, fu Leif Erikson, islandese, ad approdare per primo sulle coste di Terranova). Leggere gli aneddoti che cita Winchester lascia tramortiti e in perenne stato di angoscia: l’uomo altro non è che un’inezia, una minima parte della vita di questa immensa distesa d’acqua. Anche perché l’Oceano di per sé, e soprattutto l’Atlantico, ci viene dipinto come sinonimo di turbolenza, di tempesta, di difficoltà, di imprese fallite, di potenza naturale, di imperscrutabilità. Di costante impossibilità dell’uomo di dominare una tale forza naturale. Tuttavia, è stato proprio l’Atlantico a dare il via alle ambizioni di esploratori, scienziati, guerrieri, poeti, pescatori e marinai, spingendoli al di là del limite conosciuto. Dai Fenici che navigarono fino al Marocco per pescare i murici, da cui ricavavano la porpora, ai Vichinghi, che scoprirono Terranova prima di tutti; dai portoghesi che arrivarono per primi in America Centrale e Meridionale, ai primi vascelli a vapore e ai primi U-Boot; dalle navi piene di pirati a quelle piene di schiavi; dalle prime battaglie tra navi corazzate, alle traversate in solitario; dal Titanic all’uragano Katrina. Come ogni terra emersa, anche l’Atlantico è sfondo di morte come è sfondo di vita. Così dalle esplorazioni e dalle guerre si passa ai commerci, alle comunicazioni, alle scoperte, per approdare infine alla devastazione dell’inquinamento, alla pesca distruttiva, alla scomparsa di intere specie ittiche, allo scioglimento dei ghiacci, all’incubo del petrolio. Questo e molto di più affronta Winchester nel suo meraviglioso affresco che combina assieme il suo personale amore per l’Oceano Atlantico con la storia dell’uomo, inestricabilmente legata ad esso. Moltissimi aneddoti, decine e decine di storie, che convergono tutte verso la più importante, l’ultima. Quella che è già cominciata, che è tutt’ora in corso e che lo sarà per circa 200 milioni di anni ancora: perché tutti gli tsunami, tutti gli uragani, tutte le eruzioni, non sono che un’inezia di fronte a quello che succederà quando inevitabilmente i continenti oggi divisi torneranno ad essere un tutt’uno. Ci saranno spostamenti tettonici chilometrici e devastanti. Questo avverrà a prescindere dalla volontà dell'uomo: la terra ha una data di scadenza anche tralasciando le nefandezze che l’umanità riversa in natura e nell’Oceano in particolare. Le tempeste aumentano di intensità e forza, le correnti cambiano di percorso in maniera autonoma: tutto ci spinge a pensare che questo cambiamento sia inevitabile. Indubbiamente questa non è una giustificazione per tutto ciò che di malsano l’uomo compie nei confronti dell’habitat in cui vive, ma se questo acceleri il processo ciclico che porterà tutto allo stato iniziale è materia di dibattito incessante.
This felt like a whirlwind tour of the ocean, as close to the whirls, eddies, sea breezes and gales of the actual ocean as possible in pages and read cozy on a couch.
History can be desperately boring in the wrong hands, but Simon Winchester is one of the best writers of history I have read. He is eloquent, poetic, while still practical, a combination that defines the standard, or should. John McPhee wrote an opus on geology and got the same tone, of awe and wonderment and poetry, and it feels like Winchester did the same after writing The Map that Changed the World. Rachel Carson said of her writing about the ocean, that if there was any poetry in her writing, it came from the sea. That is here too. He quotes Arthur Clarke who said, ‘how inappropriate it is to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Sea.’ Yes. True.
There were gaps and some boring material, but overall I felt this book captured the history of the Atlantic and its feel and moods. There was almost 2000 years before humans actually crossed it, even though the early Greeks and Phoenicians made small forays outside of their comfort zone in the Mediterranean, it was like space exploration is now, and that uncertainty seems so powerful.
I grew up on the East Coast and went to the ocean during summertime as a child; I was an Atlantic person, of the Atlantic, in communion since I was a baby; “ocean-blessed or ocean-styled or ocean-crossed”; in college, my sister and I discovered the pleasure of long drives and then of long drives to the ocean at night, and that is when I fell in love and was enthralled by the Atlantic. In the dark of night, depending where we went and when we went, the smells and sounds of the ocean were paramount, and if the moon was full, the waves in that light were beyond wild and sublime and contrasted to the narrow city life I knew. It unlocked me, and this book captures a little of why.
“But the Atlantic Ocean is surely a living thing-furiously and demonstrably so. It is an ocean that moves, impressively and ceaselessly. It generates all kinds of noise- it is forever roaring, thundering, boiling, crashing, swelling, lapping. It is easy to imagine it trying to draw breath- perhaps not so noticeably out in mid-ocean, but where it encounters land, its waters sifting up and down a gravel beach, it mimics nearly perfectly the steady inspirations and exhalations of a living creature. It crawls with symbiotic existences, too: unimaginable quantities of monsters churn within its depths in a kind of maritime harmony, giving to the waters a felling of vibration, a kind of suboceanic pulse. And it has a psychology. It has moods: sometimes dour and sullen, on rare occasions cunning and playful; always it is pondering and powerful.”
And this: "It would be some while yet before the sea became, as it is today, a thing of great romance- the archetype of the sublime, that philosophical quality of natural creations that manages to combine the magnificent and the horrific at the same time. Mountain chains with their jaggedly vicious peaks and sheer cliffs, and the dangers of rockfalls and avalanches and lashing storms, are classic examples of the sublime, presenting an aesthetic that inspires awe and reverence. The sea eventually came to be seen as much the same- a thing possessed of an awesome mightiness, a lethal beauty, of which one might be fearful and respective and overcome by, all at the same instant. Come the end of the eighteenth century and the sea was not longer an inconvenience to be overlooked…it was a thing to be honored and even embraced, though always warily, for the sea could always strike back, and with irresistible force and power.”
“Geologists believe that when all is done the Atlantic Ocean will have lived for a grand total of about 370 million years. It first split open and filled with water and started to achieve properly oceanic dimensions about 190 million years ago. currently it is enjoying a sedate and rather settled middle age, growing just a little wider each year, and with a few volcanos sputtering away in its mid-region, but generally not having to suffer any particularly trying geological convulsions. But in due, course, these will come. Before what geologists like to think is too much longer, the Atlantic will begin to change its aspect and size very dramatically. Eventually, as the continents around it shudder and slide off in different direction, it will start to change shape, its coasts will move inward and become welded together again, and the sea will eventually squeeze itself dry and vanish into itself, in about 180 million years. That is no mean life span. Assume for the sake of argument that the world’s total existence, from the postmolten Hadean to the cool meadows of today’s Holocene, encompasses some 4.6 billion years. Once tallied up, the Atlantic’s 370 million years of existence as a separate body of water within that world will have made up something like 8 percent of the planet’s total life. Most other oceans that have come and gone have existed for rather shorter periods: so far as other competing claims for longevity are concerned, the Atlantic will probably turn out to be one of the world’s longest lived…”
I am a geology geek so those passages above were my geopoetry, but I have also been reading more historical exploration accounts, and it resonates deep within me. I remember clearly while I was walking in Seattle’s Discovery Park, not hiking, just exercise in an urban park, when I tuned a bend in the glorious forest and there was the ocean, and there was Mount Rainier in snow, far away but looming high, and for the first time, I felt the awe in discovery, in feeling like the first person to see something, or at least a scant scintilla of that feeling. The power of that feeling rings in me still. Any writing about discoveries like that can place you in the moment, again, with a scintilla of the actual feeling, but perhaps in ancestral DNA, it evokes our pasts, like this:
“Early man’s march down to the ocean began in remarkably short order. Just what impelled him to move so far and so fast-curiosity, perhaps, or hunger, or a need for space and living room-remains an enigma. But the fact remains that a mere thirty thousand years after the fossil record shows him to have been foraging in the grasslands of Ethiopia and Kenya- hunting for elephants…building shelters and capturing and controlling lightning-strike fires- he began to trek southward through Africa, a lumbering progress toward the southern coastlines and a set of topographical phenomena the existence of which he had no inkling. The weather was becoming cooler as he went: the world was entering a major period of glaciation and even Africa, astride the equator, was briefly (and before it became very cold indeed) more climatically equitable, more covered with grassland, less wild with jungle. So trekking down south along the Rift was perhaps the least complicated of early man’s explorations-the mountain ranges on each side offering him a kind of protection, the rolling grassy countryside more benign than the jungles of before, the rivers less ferocious and more crossable. And so in due course, and after long centuries of a steady southern migration, man did reach the terminal cliffs and he did find the sea. He would have been astonished to reach what no doubt seemed to be the edge of his known world, at the sudden sigh of a yawning gap between what he knew and what he knew nothing about. At the same time, and from the safety of his high and grass-capped cliff top, he saw far down below him a boiling and seemingly endless expanse of water, thrashing and thundering and roaring an endless assault against the rocks that marked the margin of his habitat. Quite probably he was profoundly shaken, terrified by the something so huge and unlike anything he had known before.
Yet he didn’t run yelping back to the safety of the savanna. All of the recently discovered evidence suggest he and his kin stopped where they were and made shelter on the shore. they chose to do so in a large cave that was protected from the waves below by its location well about the high-tide levels. Then-whether timidly or bolding or apprehensively we will never know- he eventually clambered down and made it on the beach proper. Then, while keeping himself well away from the thunder of the breakers, he knelt first to investigate, just as a child might do today, the magical mysteries of the seashore tide pools. Pinnacle Point appears to be the place where the very first human beings even settled down by the sea. Specifically there is a cave, known to the archeological community as PP13B, situated a few score feet above the wave line where evidence has been found showing that the humans who first sheltered there did such things as each shellfish, hone blades, and daub themselves or their surrounds with scratchings of ocher. And they did so, moreover, 164, 000 years ago…”
I fulfilled a dream 17 years in the making, of hiking the headwaters of the Colorado River this summer, and while the Colorado drains to the Pacific, I became more tangibly aware of the Continental Divide, and what that means. There is a spring fed stream in Utah that I hike and swim in that is about 500 feet from the Colorado River flowing through Moab, and the act of swimming and touching that water before it continues on to where it goes (Canyonlands! Corona Arch! Grand Canyon! Lake Powell!) is a deep holy moment for me, as I feel connected to the planet on a level beneath the rational. I am intensely aware now that being on the eastern side of the Divide leads to the Mississippi and then to the Atlantic, and so I am still an Atlantic people:
“Only when one includes a human dimension in this story does it present a final but enriching complication. It is when one begins to add up the total numbers of the vast aggregation of humankind who live in some kind of communion with this sea, of those who can rightly be considered belonging to an Atlantic community, or who are- if they are in any communal sense ocean-blessed or ocean-styled or ocean-crossed- to be considered in some regard Atlantic people-that this complication appears.
It is a complication offered up by the great rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
A very great number do. Many more rivers flow into the Atlantic than flow into either the Pacific or the Indian oceans. There are the big rivers of Europe, the Seine, the Loire, the Thames, and the Rhine. There is the Niger, the Kunene, the Orange, and the almost impossibly vast network of the Congo. There is the Amazon, with its headwaters in Peru, and which brings more water and raind forest mud into the Atlantic than the next eight largest rivers in the world bring to their respective seas. There is the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi-Missouri river system which hauls trillions of gallons of water each day down from the prairies and the Rocky Mountains.”
“And the ocean beings and ends beside and eight-thousand-foot mountain in far Northern Montana named Triple Divide Peak. This is the hydrologic apex of the North American continent. Rainwaters that fall onto its northern flanks flow into Canada and into the Artic Ocean. Waters from its western and southwestern sides slip into creeks that eventually take them into Oregon and on the Pacific. Any precipitation that happens to fall on the southeastern slope seeps down eventually into a tiny canyon at the base of which there is an even tinier creek- and which makes it way to the north fork of a river that becomes the Marias River, which flows into the Missouri, then the Mississippi, then the Gulf of Mexico, from where its waters are connected to the Atlantic Ocean. With great prescience, the explorers of that rugged and icebound corner of Montana where the Triple Divide Peak rises gave a name to that tiny creek that spills off the summit. They named the very first river that snakes its way downhill, from below the snowline at seven thousand feet to the grassland at five thousand, and its waters coursing swift and pure through a Rocky Mountain canyon. It was almost as though the river knew what the explorers knew-which was where its waters were going. For they called it quite simply Atlantic Creek. They named it for an ocean with which the state of Montana is now ineluctably connected…”
“It was on just a day like this that I chose to sail, across a lumpy and capricious sea, to the westernmost member of the archipelago, the island of Mykines (in the Faroe Islands). It is an island much favored by artists, who come for its wild solitude and its total subordination to the nature that so entirely surrounds it.”
“I must have sat at the edge (of the cliff) for a long, long time, staring, gazing, mesmerized. The gale had finally stopped its roaring, and the sun had come out and was edging its way into the afternoon. I was sitting on the cliff edge, my legs dangling over half a mile of emptiness... Ahead of me there was just nothing- just an endless, crawling sea, hammered like copper in the warm sunshine and stretching far, fifty miles, a hundred- from up this high I felt I could have been looking out on five hundred miles and more. There was an endless vacancy that at this latitude, 62 degrees north or so, I knew would only be interrupted only by the basalt cliffs of Greenland, more than a thousand miles away. There were no ships wakes on the sea, no aircraft trails in the sky-just the cool incessant wind, the cries of the birds, and the imagined edges of the known world set down somewhere, far beyond my range of sight.”
“Studies of zircon crystals found near an iron ore mine in Western Australia indicate that liquid water was on earth just a few hundred million years after the planet was formed. It was extremely hot water, and it had all manner of noxious and corrosive dissolved gases in it; but it was liquid, it sloshed about, it could and did erode things that it poured over, and most important of all, it was the undeniable aqueous ancestor material to all of our present seas. The ocean I gazed down on from the puffin cliffs of Mykines is in essence the selfsame water that was created all those years ago; the principal difference is that while the Hadean sea was hot and acid… the Faroese Sea was cold and clean, had been purified and well salted by millions of years of evaporation and condensation and recycling, was rich in chemical ions from all over, and was vibrant with life of great complexity and beauty.”
“Is it conceivable that the pre-Colombian peoples, the original inhabitants of the Americas, even tried to head out east across the ocean, to Europe?... Circumstantial evidence hints at the possibility, certainly. Tobacco leaves and traces of coca in Egyptian sarcophagi. A sculpted bronze head in the Louver, said to be Roman of the second century A.D. and which displays features uncannily similar to those of Native Americans. Mosaics from near Pompeii with images of objects that resemble pineapples, chili peppers, and lemons.”
“This calling, as its curious name suggests-oceanography, the writing of the ocean- was at least in its early days something of a fugitive science: for how could it be possible to write of a body of water, especially deep water beyond land, an entity without visible coasts as reference points and no detectable seabed below? It was like trying to describe the invisible mass of air in a room- as task rather beyond the imaginative and descriptive powers of the time… Matters might have been simpler had the science been called oceanology, but it never was, and now only the Russians use the term.”
“Although William Shakespeare wrote often and with an easy familiarity about the ocean-about tides in the affairs of men, about fleets majestical, about a thousand fearful wrecks, about fathers lying full-fathom five, about sea changes and sea nymphs, and winds sitting sore upon the sails-there remains no firm evidence that he ever boarded a ship, nor ever went to sea, nor that he ever set eyes upon the Atlantic. He created art from accounts and descriptions of its many dramas.” “The monstrous and the terrifying were not so prominents in the portrayal on the western side (Americas versus Europe). Such pre-Colombian art as depicts the sea is more accepting, more sympathetic to the oceans caprices of calm and storm. The Incas, while not an Atlantic people, gave thanks to Mamacocha, the goddess of their sea. Those who lived on the Pacific coasts saw her as representing a protective embrace, as the supplier of fish and whales…and generally radiating a mood of benevolence that only altered, albeit witih occasionally lethal ferocity, whenever humankind had not been suitably attentive to her needs.
The Mayans, farther north and on the side facing the Atlantic, were perhaps less spiritually involved with the ocean. There is precious little art that indicates the sea or anything like it, even though their best known color, Mayan blue, would seem the ideal candidate for the makings of paintings related to the sea. They were very commercially connected to the ocean…and the greatest Mayan seaside city., Tulum, but it has little specifically about the sea. The Mayan creation myth does not reference the sea either…
In Atlantic Africa, however, there is still today much of the kind of reference for the ocean that was known among the Inca. Female water spirits, benevolent and erotic by turn, are enormously important in the tribal cultures of sub-Saharan coast-especially among the Yoruba of Nigeria…Benin, Ghana, Liberia, and Gabon. A popular figure, Wata-mama, or Mammywater, has appeared for hundreds of years in the folk art of West Africa, also popping up in the enslaved African diaspora in Brazil.”
This was a very enjoyable book and I am very glad that I took Will’s recommendation and bought it sight unseen. I am pretty sure I will both re-read it and use it as a reference in future.
The book is kind of a biography of the Atlantic Ocean as seen by mankind. There is a brief introduction to its formation and information about its habits, tides, winds and other quirks are scattered throughout the book. The narrative is easy, familiar and personalised, I do not recall ever having read anything by this author before but his style is very readable and the book is peppered with personal experiences and recollections of his lifelong, ongoing relationship with the Atlantic Ocean.
The Atlantic is not a fast read at all it has taken me a couple of months to get through it. This is not a bad thing, it is because it is very full of information so that I have to be in the right frame of mind to sit down and read it for any length of time. The other thing is that it keeps waving enticing sidetracks of information under the reader’s nose; thus it was that I found myself googling early Atlantic oriented prose, narwhals and other misc after reading for a while.
Criticisms of this book, I always have some after all; The early human civilisation and expansion to the West are well covered. However after America is firmly settled it turns into less of an ‘Atlantic Ocean’ book and more of an “American Atlantic’ book. You get this with American authors, they get America-centric, one just grimaces and bears it but I do feel that a couple of chapters wandered off into American internal affairs too much. The other thing I didn’t like was how very Atlantic-centric, it was. Perhaps not surprising given the title of the book. I am however a Pacific Ocean ‘gal and I can’t get on board the notion that the Atlantic is the only ‘real’ Ocean.
For example “... the Atlantic Ocean will still be the centre of the human word.” [pgs 20-21], no dude, for people living on it, yes, however not all, or even most, people do live on the Atlantic. And another “...the sea –level problem is first and foremost an Atlantic problem...” [pg 411] What now? No, really, just... no!
Again, Americans, we just grin and bear them.
These small problems are redeemed in the last couple of chapters where ecological issued are presented, and the epilogue describing the geological future of the Atlantic is a graceful and poetic ending to a book I put down with the sense of a book well read.
Reading Simon Winchester Simon Winchester is like sitting down at a banquet with an historian, a geologist, a linguist, a meteorologist, a geographer, a novelist, and a world traveler. You're going to hear incredible stories about world events and adventures that will remain with you as long as you live.
Winchester was an Oxford-educated geologist before he became a journalist and prolific author of books about fascinating topics: the history of the first geological map; an Oxford scholar who wrote a multi-volume history of science in China; the professor who wrote the Oxford English Dictionary; the cataclysmic 1883 Krakatoa volcano eruption; and the 1960 San Francisco earthquake.
No topic is too large or all encompassing for Winchester. Who else would have the courage and energy to write a book about -- the Atlantic Ocean? A history that starts in Cambrian times, 500 million years ago, to the break up of the mega-continental Pangea 200 million years ago when a span of water we know as the Atlantic began expanding between what became the American and European continents.
But Winchester isn't focused only on the famous names of the past; he shares anecdotes about little-known or long-forgotten heroes such as Angus Campbell Macintyre whose memorial he found on the Skeleton Coast off Namibia. Winchester dedicated his book to Scotsman Macintyre who died trying to rescue sailers on the shipwrecked SS Dunedin Star in 1942.
Fittingly, Winchester ends his book by telling us when the Atlantic Ocean will be no more. He says in 170 million years, tectonic forces will push the southern tip of South America and connect to Antarctica then head northward and collide with the tip of the Malay peninsula near Singapore.
People have critiqued the sprawling nature of this book, but such a nature seems fitting for a book on something as large (geographically, historically, geologically) as the Atlantic Ocean. Besides, overall he groups his material into considering the Atlantic from various angles: geological, exploration history, commercial history, military history, and environmental impact. I listened to this book as an audiobook, and it was simply a pleasure to have Winchester in my car for several weeks, telling me what he knows about the Atlantic.
One of the lasting impressions this book made upon me is his discussion of the geological span of the Atlantic, namely that even though it began a long time ago and will last long into the future, the Atlantic is temporal and short-lived in comparison to the planet. And thus humans are just a blip in the history of the Atlantic Ocean, which is itself just one chapter in the history of the Earth. Such a perspective properly situates the human race, as well as casts a dramatic lens on the impact we are having on the ocean (overfishing, global warming & rising sea levels, water-borne pollution, etc.). Still, the Atlantic and the Earth will carry on long after humans; but the return to homeostasis of the planet may eliminate humans in the process. I think Winchester was just trying to be judicious about the evidence for global warming, but at points he comes across as skeptical about what is a well-established scientific fact.
This is a fascinating, intricate book, and highly-recommended!
In short...a great opportunity wasted. Winchester set out to accomplish the bold task of describing the natural and human history of the Atlantic Ocean...probably an impossible task for anyone.
Winchester does an admirable job of describing the geologic past and future of this ocean basin, but in between it seemed like he was unable to develop a meaningful train of thought. And even worse, he couldn't keep himself out of the narrative. It's almost like he didn't think anyone would believe him unless he inserted his own autobiographical experiences on and around the Atlantic into the book.
If you decide to read this book you will see that it takes him about 50pp to get the thing rolling...that's how much preface and prologue it's got. Plus, the writing got in the way of the telling for me. It seemed to me that he wrote this book because he loves his own words, not because he had a compelling tale to tell. The prose is too flowery and made the reading onerous after a short time. I actually had to set the book aside multiple times, and I actually read about 4 other books while continuing to try to plow through this one.
Don't get me wrong...there is some interesting stuff here, but, at the same time there is WAY too much personal conjecture and even out and out errors, especially in his science.
I really wanted to like it, but I just couldn't. 2 stars. I recommend avoidance...