Atlantic : great sea battles, heroic discoveries, titanic storms, and a vast ocean of a million stories

by Simon Winchester

Paper Book, 2010




New York : Harper, c2010.


Until a thousand years ago, no humans ventured into the Atlantic or imagined traversing its vastness. But once the first daring mariners successfully navigated to far shores, whether it was the Vikings, the Irish, the Chinese, Christopher Columbus in the north, or the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south, the Atlantic evolved in the world's growing consciousness of itself as an enclosed body of water bounded by the Americas to the West, and by Europe and Africa to the East. This book is a biography of this immense space, of a sea which has defined and determined so much about the lives of the millions who live beside or near its tens of thousands of miles of coast. The Atlantic has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists and warriors, and it continues to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. The author chronicles that relationship, making the Atlantic come vividly alive.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member drneutron
Oceans have always held a certain mystique for me. I've lived most of my life around the Chesapeake Bay, tidewater Virginia and the Gulf of Mexico, so there's something in me that resonates with the waves. Spending time on the water is something I rarely get to do, but always attracts me, and one of these days I'm going to learn to sail. So when Simon Winchester, author of the excellent Krakatoa among many others, wrote a biography of the Atlantic Ocean, it didn't take long to add it to my reading list.

Winchester calls this book a biography and uses the Shakespearean ages of man to frame the story of human interaction with the Atlantic through early history through modern day and into the near future. It's an interesting approach - treating this geological feature as a living entity that changes and grows and ages - that allows for discussion of how *we've* changed in our thoughts, beliefs and uses of the Atlantic. This approach runs the risk of anthropomorphizing an inanimate collection of chemistry, geology and biology, but Winchester doesn't fall into that trap. The book's more about us than about the ocean.

The other risk of such a work is the potential for descent into polemic. Any discussion of the history of human interaction with the Atlantic naturally has to touch on climate change and the impact of centuries of sometimes thoughtless or uncaring use of the resources there. Winchester doesn't flinch from subjects like the annihilation of cod fishing off Newfoundland from incredibly stupid resource management, but he also tells when the opposite is true - like the protection of the fish marketed as Chilean sea bass off the Falkland Islands. There's also a nice discussion of documentable changes in the Atlantic that are related to warming in the atmosphere and water and how these changes affect human both on the water and on land; this discussion stays factual and makes it clear that there's a lot we don't understand about the connection between greenhouse gas buildup and changes in the Atlantic, but also clearly makes the point that there is indeed a connection.

At the end of the day, Winchester leaves the Atlantic in an unknown place. We don't know what the end result of human-induced changes will be. We don't know how natural cycles will affect the ocean as we know it now. We seem to be changing our priorities in interacting with the ocean and in how we manage resources, but it may be too late to fix some problems. Ultimately, though, the Atlantic will be here long after we are - until the continents shift enough to rearrange the face of the Earth.
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LibraryThing member mckait
This book takes the reader on a journey not only across a body of water,
but across time itself. It is not only a personal journey of the authors to
first cross and then understand this body of water, but a story of the life of the
sea and those whose lives are linked to it.

Some of the most interesting points for me were the historical facts surrounding
the discovery of America itself. The men who crafted the boats that made their
way across what was then a much more treacherous body of water than we have today.
More treacherous only because it was so unknown. Although the Atlantic is still
a force to be reckoned with, we do know and understand her a bit better.

A map found in the fifties first seemed to point to the fact that it was the Norse to find America
first. This map ended up in the hands of Yale university, and this is where the real controversy began.
Soon more maps and copies of a document drawn in 1570 was more important and more easily confirmed to be valid.
Further investigation , years later.. found a Norse settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, of what
were obviously Norse ruins. There was much here that I did not know. Amerigo Vespucci of course takes the prize, as North and South America where given his name after he publishes his account of a new continent being discovered, not just a bit of land or an island.

The author manages to tell the tale of an ocean with style. Often amusing and always able to hold onto the readers interest. He brings forth poetry, art and even music as being influenced by the great Atlantic. Shakespeare himself is given credit for the Atlantic's role in his play The Tempest.

We hear about islands once mapped that never existed. We are reminded of the effect of the Atlantic on business.
Who for instance looks out onto that great expanse and thinks of the cables laid beneath the water?

Finally, we are reminded that the world today is so much smaller than it once was. An unmapped body of water that was once unknown, is now crossed daily both by air and on the sea itself. Where once great and fearless explorers left their home ports to see if it was true that they might fall off the edge of the earth, today teenagers make ill advised crossings on their own. Or, at least make the attempt.

Even though today we have learned so much more than was known when the Norse and the Spanish explorers made their way across its waters, the Atlantic is still a force to be reckoned with. Even though we now have the tools to find most of her secrets, I suspect that there will always be a few left for generations to come to discover. I confess that I never gave much thought to the life of the sea itself. Any musings I have had were centered on the life within the sea or around it. Reading this book by Winchester has opened up a whole new perspective for me.

Finally, we see how climate changes are affecting the Atlantic and thus the planet. I suspect that this is
one of the reasons this book was written. WE need to acknowledge and try to understand that the effects that we have on the planet are fall from small, and will most likely have some serious effects on our way of life before much more time has passed.
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LibraryThing member mkschoen
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 3x5 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, ok, yes, that's interesting tell about the problems that caused. No wait, now we're talking about Benjamin Franklin. The ocean as a lover? Oy.… (more)
LibraryThing member bohemima
Winchester took on a huge, and probably impossible, task in "Atlantic". Telling the history of this ocean clearly isn't something that can be accomplished in one book.

That said, the author once again makes what could have been a dreary, boring tale of statistics into an intimate and interesting story, using the Seven Ages of Man as his controlling metaphor. This reader, at least, was pulled along and found very few dragging spots.

Among other aspects of the Atlantic, Winchester discusses the slave trade and the destruction of the Outer Banks cod fisheries--for both of which mankind should be deeply ashamed--to demonstrate mankind's more disgusting uses of what should be one of our greatest treasures.

All in all, a worthwhile read. I could have done with much more about the flora and fauna, but that's my own prejudice.
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LibraryThing member dham340
slow at the start, gets better. very dense read.
LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
I love Simon Winchester: Best selling author, broadcaster, journalist at The Guardian. I've been lucky enough to hear him speak and found him charming and delightful. A biography of the Atlantic Ocean would seem a huge and daunting task, even to such an accomplished writer. He fairly says as much while explaining his decision to use Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" as an organizing literary device. We see the youth of early geological formation and exploration, the soldiers of the many wars waged on her expanse and are given a hint of her tectonic demise. Throughout is a fact-o-rama of tidbits, tales, personal stories and anecdotes. If one 'age' doesn't catch your fancy, stick around as Winchester quickly moves along to yet another interesting and unknown account. Some narratives worked less well for me than others. I would suggest this as a book to graze through rather than trying to swallow in one large gulp.… (more)
LibraryThing member elimatta
I enjoyed a few of his other books, but what went wrong with this one? He's like the student who has collected masses of material and can't stand the idea of abandoning any of it. It's all tossed together without any real structure (despite the seven ages folly). It's also full of mistakes, such as confusing east with west. It's a first draft then, the one in which everything is tossed in, waiting for the next, most tedious, stage, hard revision.
I hate writing this review, because until now he was my favourite popular historian.
I must admit I only reached page 148. Look at the Amazon reviews; that's a typical place for abandonment.
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LibraryThing member GlennBell
The book is well written. The author used an analogy between stages of life and the stages of life for the Atlantic ocean. At times it is a bit boring but I like the latter emphasis on pollution, global warming, and eventual change of continents (tectonic movement). The history of conflict, slaving, and exploration was also interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
A fluffy, flowery book, English journalist Simon Winchester waxes poetic about the sea he first crossed by ship more than 50 years ago. Passionate about his subject, Winchester at times has found himself embroiled in part of the historical record of things that occurred in or around the ocean: particularly the warfare part when he was detained in Argentina as a spy during the Falklands War.

Atlantic covers the military history, from the Vikings to the Spanish to raiders including the illustrious saga of the Graf Spee in WW2. It covers the natural history from it's creation upon the breakup of Pangaea, and forecasts the ocean's demise when the continents once again collide to form Pangaea II. Environmental history is also discussed, including the overfishing that has killed the Grand Banks and other formerly productive fisheries. Winchester also tells us various odds-and-ends, about the remote island of St. Helena where an exiled Napoleon died, about the terrible seas of Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego. About Charles Darwin's journey -- and the disastrous American equivalent, the "Ex Ex." Winchester also laments how air travel has shrunk this once-formidable barrier to an almost-trivial entity thanks to high speed air travel.

Flowery prose annoys me, and Winchester uses way too much of it. Bits and pieces were of interest, but overall, it is non-fiction brain candy -- I didn't really learn anything new from this book. This is, however, partly because of the realization that I am already highly educated when it comes to this particular body of water -- I"m not so sure I could say the same regarding a similar book written about any other ocean. If you're not sure whether or not you fully understand this great body of water, then give this book a shot.
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LibraryThing member twp77
This is an excellent history of the Atlantic by Winchester. The way he tells the story is not necessarily in date order but rather from using bits and pieces of a poem from Jacques describing the stages of life itself.

What follows is not a linear narrative but one replete with historical triumphs and tragedies, heroism and mundane existence and Winchester's personal anecdotes all residing near or within the waters of this great ocean.

Though it ends on a rather pessimistic note about the environmental fate of the Atlantic in recent years, there is something eternal in the fact that this immense body of water ever existed at all and, as with every living thing, will cease to exist again.
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LibraryThing member Unkletom
A book about the Atlantic Ocean sounds like an undertaking as vast and turbulent as the subject itself. One previous attempt to document what is known about the Atlantic took up 80 volumes. Can an author as renowned as Simon Winchester tell us all the important things we need to know about this mighty ocean and bring it in at fewer than 500 pages?

Winchester's decision to focus on the relationship between man and Atlantic Ocean may seem wise or even necessary considering the immensity of the topic but I found that it limited his ability to write about what he is best at. As a geologist with an abiding love of the English language, it's been said that Winchester's words can breathe life into rocks but can also turn humans to stone. In 'Krakatoa' and 'A Crack in the Edge of the World' his descriptions of the natural forces precipitating the explosion of Krakatoa and the San Francisco earthquake have left indelible visual images in my mind years after reading them. What he said about the people involved and their activities, though, I have largely forgotten.

The Atlantic Ocean has always inspired a sense of excitement. It is the source of so many great stories. The book's subtitle, 'Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories', certainly wants us to believe that all this is in store if we only plop down our money and buy the book. Does the book tell of battles, discoveries and storms? Yes. Do Winchester's descriptions make them sound great, heroic and titanic? Sadly, no. Unfortunately, Winchester is not an author who is likely to gain many fans from impatient readers. I found the first half of the book almost tedious which is amazing considering how many of the Atlantic's stories are really thrilling.

The bottom line is that I found 'Atlantic' informative, but not inspiring. My recommendation to prospective readers is to pick a subject you are interested in and find a book that better addresses it. If you are interested in storms, read Junger's 'Perfect Storm'. If New World settlement interests you, read Philbrick's 'Mayflower'.
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LibraryThing member chiarah
I loved the context Winchester gave to what was, in general, a very interesting set of facts and stories, many of which would be hard to fit into any type of anthology. What bothered me was the intense ethnocentricity of the book: after the first few chapters, the African continent becomes almost forgotten, and the importance and historic significance of the slave trade is ignored. Commerce and cultural development relating to the Caribbean as well, I believed, deserved a great deal more attention. In reference to the Spanish Basque presence in North America, I have read accounts that disagree with Winchester's, but I do not know who is correct.
In general, however, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed what Winchester did choose to include as well as the framework he created for it.
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LibraryThing member RandyStafford
The "big picture" history book most popular these days is the magical mystery tour variety. These narratives combine a bunch of things - biography, science, cultural studies, geography, travelogue, personal essays, military studies, and traditional history - via a common nexus. It's usually, oddly, a food - cod, salt, coffee, spices.

Winchester's nexus is a body of water, but it works the same way. Bored with one topic, 20 pages later you're on to a new one.

I don't have anything against these kind of books, but, as the saying goes, "too many books, too little time". The only reason I read this one was Winchester's formal training as a geologist and his enjoyable The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, a biography of biostratigraphy's inventor.

And I wasn't disappointed. Winchester frames his story between the Atlantic's geological past and its projected future. In between, using the conceit of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, we get the story of that ocean's influence on science, exploration, business, and warfare. That means, among other things, slavery, pirates, oceanography, whaling, Vikings, Basques, Spanish colonization, submarine warfare, Trafalgar, transatlantic flights, shipping containers, and the Skeleton Coast,

My favorite parts were, besides the geology, the business section with the American development of packet ships and the laying of the first transatlantic submarine cables. I was also entertained by Winchester's personal reminisces of being a geology student literally stranded in the wilds of Greenland with the prospect of wintering there and a gloating Argentinean naval officer he met while imprisoned during the Falklands War.

But it was all well written with no section too long to wear out your patience -- or satisfy a deep curiosity on a subject. That's the nature of these books.

Winchester does address a couple of important contemporary issues. He gives an account on how the Newfoundland Bank cod fishery collapsed and the possibility of other fisheries being protected on the model of the British administration of the waters around South Georgia Island. He gives a nuanced look at the possible perils of global warming - while not unskeptically throwing his lot in with the anthropogenic warming crowd or faithfully thinking that carbon trading will work. He also shows, whatever the truth about global warming and its cause, it doesn't seem well linked to increased incidence of hurricanes.
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LibraryThing member HMSJeffBair
This will not defeat me. I will make it to the end. Much like those ocean crossers of yore.
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Some interesting stories in here - quite a few were familiar, but just as many weren't and I put the book down feeling that I'd increased my general knowledge about the Atlantic quite a bit. Some aspects of the book made me a little uncomfortable: the very Euro-centric (Anglo-centric) point of view, for example which is understandable given that the writer is a Brit, but made me feel that the inhabitants of other continents around the ocean had been short-changed. A good example of this is in the case of the book's dedication to a Scot who died in the Dunedin Star rescue alongside a Namibian man, Mathias Khoraseb, who only seems to get mentioned in passing. I also found the personal anecdotes tedious at times, although some of them were interesting. And I don't think the use of Shakespeare's ages of man was

I was reading the ebook version of this and the editing was a bit off in places - wrong words sometimes and a puzzling use of 'her' to refer to George II at one point!

Overall, an interesting read, but with a background level of irritation which stops it being a really good one.
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LibraryThing member libri_amor
In Simon Winchester's latest book he takes on quite a challenge. How to you tell the story of something vast and multifaceted as the Atlantic Ocean? It is a testimony to Winchester's skill as a writer that he develops a novel approach and executes it for a very readable and engaging book, Atlantic.
Winchester first choose to view the ocean as a living thing, not too unusual as mariners regularly take this view. But then Winchester hits on the brilliant idea to frame the Atlantic ocean in the seven ages of man. These ages were described in a monologue by William Shakespeare's character, Jacques, in As You Like It.
These ages are:

Infancy - first stirrings of human development on its shores
Childhood - crossings and full fledge explorations
Lover - the ocean beauty in art and literature
Soldier - centuries as a stage for warfare
Justice - basis of trade and international law
Old Age - crossings are routine and resources no longer inexhaustible
Mental dementia and death - climate change and humanity's change

In each of these stages Winchester mixes the broad perspective with anecdotal stories to enliven the story and provide the reader with interesting facts.
In summary, Simon Winchester has succeeded in taking on the story of the Atlantic.
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LibraryThing member jcbrunner
The concept of this book about the English lake sounds much better than the finished product. Man is a land-based animal, so Winchester ends up writing about the places that border on the Atlantic rather than the ocean itself. He also restricts himself to the English-speaking parts. Africa and Latin America have to take a backseat to the Falkland Islands. Some stories are better told elsewhere, some actually botched by Winchester. The battle of Trafalgar happened after a desperate chase across the Atlantic and back, all of it omitted by Winchester.

Winchester shows the growth of connections (ships, cables, planes) between Europe and America but neglects to mention that the Atlantic acts as a huge barrier. Trade within America and within Europe is massively larger than the trade between those regions. The biology of the Atlantic is also not given sufficient space. What are the highlights and specialties of that ocean? Compared to the more intimate portraits of the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic described by Winchester remains an amorphous and indistinct beast.

Overall, a very weak effort. Winchester is coasting off into the sunset.
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LibraryThing member hadden
Ecellent review of an enormous topic- the Atlantic Ocean. Describes how the Atlantic was seen in different cultures, and how their views of the ocean changed as new discoveries changed their perceptions.
LibraryThing member mamzel
As much as this is a book abount all things Atlantic, it is also a tribute to men who for centuries battled the unknown, the elements, time, and each other on and below this body of water. Like many, I have ties to this ocean. I was born in Virginia (on the coast), grew up in the Caribbean, sailed sailboats and worked as a deck officer on freighters and tankers. This book transported me to all the nooks and crannies and back in time to when some amazing brave souls first attempted to leave the comfortable sight of land and cross the Atlantic.
I really liked this book.
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LibraryThing member lothiriel2003
Simon Winchester can write compelling and entertaining prose and I've enjoyed several of his books. This one, though is flawed by his blatant and dishonest bias against Christianity. One example of this is his treatment of John Newton. Winchester implies that Newton was a clergyman, hymn writer and slaver all at the same time and he never misses an opportunity to sneer at him. While it's true that Newton was a slaver and continued in the trade for a few years after his conversion, he did leave the trade and eventually became a preacher. Later, he supported Wilberforce in his campaign to abolish the slave trade. Quite a difference, but evidently there is no place for reform in Winchester 's world. I enjoy a good story, but prefer that it's honest. This and other examples of bias cause me to doubt the veracity and worth of the rest of the book.… (more)
LibraryThing member themulhern
Enjoyable, meandering, easy to listen to. The kind of book that you can, and probably should, pick up and put down at intervals. I didn't finish it, and I imagine that next time, I'll read it a chapter at a time, with breaks for other books.
LibraryThing member ljhliesl
Simon Winchester is like Smithsonian magazine: whatever his topic, he engages the reader and makes the subject fascinating. Though sometimes, as here, more is less. Seeing him at the bookstore touring for this raised my expectations higher than the book itself reached.
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
I've read most of Simon Winchester's books, and this is my least favorite. It really is a bulletin board of historical snippets, geology, ecology, and personal anecdotes, centered on the Atlantic Ocean. In the Introduction, Winchester discusses how he fretted about how to tell the tale and how he came to a "seven ages of man" organization. It didn't work for me. In most cases he's superficial, and often redundant. His description of the details of the slave trade is moving, and some of his personal experiences are interesting, but often it seemed like I was reading an almanac from cover to cover.… (more)
LibraryThing member justplainoldcj
I can't not love Simon Winchester's writing, but this is my least favorite of his books. I love them all, but this one seemed weakest in the narrative thread that pulls the disparate elements of his other works together so neatly.
LibraryThing member rakerman
Gets quite depressing towards the end, as he recounts one Atlantic ecosystem disaster after another, including the collapse of the Atlantic northwest cod fishery.


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